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Carandang: We’re battling against cynicism


MANILA, Philippines – The dip in President Aquino’s approval ratings has caused some to question the efficacy of the Palace Communications Group. Secretary Ramon Carandang of the Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO) tells Newsbreak what lessons the team learned in its first year, what needs to be fixed, and why he doesn’t mind being a “punching bag” of administration critics.

Secretary Ricky Carandang with President Aquino and Executive Secretary Jojo Ochoa

Secretary Ricky Carandang with President Aquino and Executive Secretary Jojo Ochoa

Q: Kris Aquino is blaming poor communications for the President’s lower approval ratings. Is that a fair assessment?

A: Let me put it in context. Any leader who comes in office with the numbers that President Aquino had, bordering on 80 percent, is really there with a lot of expectations. Once the euphoria of the elections dies down and expectations come down to a more realistic level and the actual day-to-day work of fixing what needs to be fixed begins, reality sets in. It’s not unique to President Aquino.

It’s a phenomenon that’s common with any leader elected in a landslide. The first year you will see a dip in their approval ratings. You look at Obama, you look at Clinton, you look at Reagan. You want local examples–you look at any of the previous presidents. This is sort of the same, recurring phenomenon.

I think to a large extent, it’s natural. I think the fact that the President’s ratings remain very high at 65 percent, even by the most conservative measure which is SWS’ latest survey, says a lot about the faith that people continue to have in the President.

Q: Do you think it’s a fair assessment?

A: It happens with anybody. Any leader, regardless of how they communicate faces that same dip in their first year

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ratings. To the extent that communications can be blamed for that, yes, I think to some extent. But then you’d have to blame every communications team of every leader across the board.

Q: Is the so-called “three-headed hydra” working?

A: I think despite all the criticisms, yes, it’s been working.

Q: And you can say that with a straight face.

A: If people ask what the President stands for, it’s still very clear, the message, “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap.” The personal integrity of the President remains untarnished, undiminished, and I think people are seeing that we’re walking the talk.

This has happened despite the fact that there’s been a lot of sniping in the media, you have many forces arrayed against you, all with their own communications platforms and strategies. So you’re fighting against several fronts. If you put it in that context, I think it’s been

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doing pretty well.

Q: What’s being done to improve it?

A: I think one is more frequent engagements with media, not just the kind that gets you in the next day’s headlines, but the kind that allows you to give editors, reporters, columnists, commentators more context into what we’re doing.

For example, we can have a discussion about how I believe that the budgets that we’ve submitted are really the concrete manifestation of our program. That’s not going to make it in the soundbytes, but the more we explain it to people, the more that context gets ingrained when they do their reporting. These lengthy engagements, I think, will help provide deeper context to the reportage.

There are other things that we’re trying to

do that will become apparent in the coming months–ways that we will try to employ to get the message directly to the people. The President may choose at some point, given important decisions or important events, to go directly to the people and give his message. This is nothing new. We’re not reinventing the wheel here. Leaders do it all the time and I think that’s something we can make more use of.

Q: What was the biggest lesson that the Communications Group learned on its first year?

A: I think we need to be able to communicate complex things more simply and more consistently. That’s the lesson that we’ve learned.

I think that’s what we need to work harder at. Like the budget, how do you explain that in a way that the average Joe would actually give a damn about it? When you talk of numbers, it’s so abstract. And you have to be able to communicate it to the media in a way that is compelling. So that’s the challenge.

Q: Since the President mentioned that messaging is his administration’s weak point, whenever he says that he’s unhappy with a Cabinet official, you’re always among the suspects. How do you feel about that?

A: I have an audience of one. So what I’ve learned is that it doesn’t really matter what people say about me as long as the President feels that I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.

Q: How do you like your job now?

A: Like any job, there are days when you go home and you say, “That was a good day.” And there are days when I say, “Why did I go to work today?” Like any job, it has its ups and downs. I think the difference is ordinarily people will go and they will have bad days and good days and it doesn’t affect the country; it doesn’t have an impact on everybody else. Here, the effect of your good and bad days is magnified on a national scale.

Q: What’s it like working for the President?

A: What I like about him is that his motivations are clear….We elected this guy because he sincerely wants to do the right thing and I think many of us who joined government from very happy places in the private sector did so because we also have that sense of mission. You look at Rene Almendras who left Manila Water, look at Babes Singson, and all the other people from the private sector. And you think what keeps us here? It’s not an easy job for any of us.

I think what keeps us here is we know that the principal is dead set on trying to do the right thing for the country. The public may not always agree with the decision that he makes and they may not always understand the decisions that he makes but ultimately, we all agree that he’s trying to do the right thing for the country. So that’s what it’s like working here. You don’t wonder what’s going on. It’s very clear.

Q: What’s the worst thing anybody has said about you since you joined government?

A: There are so many, I don’t even remember anymore.

Q: Top three?

A: I don’t even keep score. I think something bad is said about me everyday (laughs) so if you enter a frame of mind where you keep score and you try to remember every single thing, I don’t think that’s productive.

I accept the fact that I’m going to be, to some extent, the punching bag of the critics and the public. I think I’d go crazy if I try to list down every bad thing that’s been said about me.

Q: What’s the best thing anybody has said about you as a public official?

A: I don’t think anybody’s said anything nice about me. (Laughs)

Q: What compels you to stay on?

If you take an honest-to-goodness assessment of what we’ve managed to begin, I think you’d have to say that we’ve gotten off to a pretty good start.

Peace talks with the rebels groups have begun again after being stalled for a long time. We promised to commit significant resources to anti-poverty and we’ve done that without raising taxes and getting credit ratings for the first time in years to boot….[Budget Secretary] Butch Abad tells me that we’ve managed to save P12 billion on things previously unplanned because we’re not wasting the money or stealing the money….

When we began to deal with the West Philippine Sea issue, there were so many legacy problems that had been left over. Why is China saying that Recto Bank is theirs? That’s a legacy of the failed foreign policy of the previous administration. They never even bothered to protest the 9-dash-line claim that other countries have

protested…We’ve re-established our credibility–this is our position, it doesn’t change, we will work within that position and a part of the country where we might have lost some of our sovereignty has been defended and we have reasserted our sovereignty.

I don’t know if we’re getting enough credit for that. This is not going to be the government that’s going to lose Recto Bank. And we came very close to doing that before we came in.

We know we’re a small country–we’re not pretending to be a super power–but I think the other countries have realized, okay, they’re a small power pero may pride pala sila.

And look at the ambition that we have. People cannot seem to imagine a day when public utility vehicles will run on alternative fuels….I think we’re still suffering from a hangover of the pessimism and the malaise of the last decade.

What we’re trying to do is to get people to be more optimistic, to have a sense of confidence in ourselves, as a nation, that we can do certain things. And it’s hard to change that mindset because that mindset has persisted for so long. And you’re battling against that too.

Q: Does that make your job harder?

A: We knew, coming in, that you couldn’t change people’s perceptions overnight. It’s not that it makes it harder but it’s what we expected it to be. It’s an uphill slog to be able to get people who have been so disillusioned for so long to begin to be hopeful for the country. Not for themselves; people tend to be optimistic about their own personal circumstances but they tend to be a lot more pessimistic and a lot less confident about the country.

You have to change that attitude for us to achieve something. If you cannot even conceive that things will be better, then how can you make things better? I guess that’s one of the difficulties of the job. Not that it was a surprise; we knew it. But that’s one of the things that we’re really struggling against because how do you overcome the tide of cynicism? It’s difficult….

I think as long as we continue to deliver on this in slow, and steady and consistent ways, I think by the middle of this term, people will begin to be more ambitious for our country.

That’s why this West Philippine Sea is a very important issue for me. Because this is one thing where we’re going to show the world, “Hey guys, we understand that we’re a small country but we are not going to be a subservient country.”—Newsbreak

CATEGORY: Hot Seat, Institutions, Politics, The Presidency
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  1. Rvl Gimenez says:

    You can’t sell soap if you don’t know what kind of soap it is because the manufacturer of the soap cannot even tell you what it is.

    I hope Ricky gets out of there before it destroys hime.

  2. rvl, i think Ricky should stay… :)

    one question that was missing though, that i would like to ask:

    with the kind of problems that beset the nation, what are achievable within four years of PNOY’s term?

    that he has started a peace talk with muslim seccionist, says it all.. start it… and not to reach the finish line.

    there is not even an achievable peace in mindanao because what the MILF/MNLF wants is a piece of that and a piece of those and not the real peace.

  3. Oca Gomez says:

    Next question (never asked by Newsbreak, Ricky’s former haunt):
    Why did you help the Pnoy campaign at the same time you were covering / anchoring the 2010 election for ANC/ABS-CBN?

  4. Oca Gomez says:

    Part of the Carandang bashing is they’re comparing him with Edwin Lacierda. The difference: Lacierda looks like he’s settled in and now enjoying his job. Ricky, on the other hand, cannot mask the pained look. It’s always a tough transition for hard-nosed reporters going to the other side of the fence. Am really biased, he was the best TV journalist in the English medium and I just hated to see him go.

  5. Oca Gomez says:

    Part of the Carandang bashing is they keep comparing him with Edwin Lacierda. The difference: Lacierda looks like he’s settled in quite well and now enjoying his job. Ricky, on the other hand, cannot mask the pained look he often wears. It’s always a tough transition for hard-nosed reporters going to the other side of the fence. Am really biased, he was the best TV journalist in the English medium and I just hated to see him go.

  6. Rvl Gimenez says:

    Hi jcc! :-) Spot on, buddy.

  7. jmgonzales says:

    during late night discussions with our barkada, here’s what we collectively agreed on:

    that any party or person who wants to run this government in this century must have already planned out its strategy form Day1 of its/their campaign.

    it’s too late to be asking for understanding: it only means that they only wanted the post, not the responsibilities.

    now, prepare for 5 more years of slogans and witchhunts


  8. It’s hard to transmit optimism to folks who have just gone through the worst ordeal, conspired upon by leaders they were supposed to trust. It’s hard to break down complex subjects like the economy or national budget into simple terms that the ordinary people will understand and be able to relate to their daily lives. At the very start, Pnoy’s communication group has already this sort of challenge cut out for it. And doing well is not about how good it sends messages to various publics, but how good it listens to folks out there living in specific communities and dealing with concrete realities of existence.

  9. It was Harry S who said “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

  10. Carandang obviously fancies himself as an expert of foreign affairs and diplomacy when clearly he is not. He clearly has no knowledge of the The Baseline Law that was what the previous administration’s foreign policy achieved and asserted our sovereignty. He says he’s battling cynicism—more likely he’s battling the charges of his own incompetence. President Aquino still enjoys a large margin of support and all the attacks on him have been due to the failure of Carandang and his cohorts, who act and think as if they are better than the Chief Executive as well the current DFA Sec. Albert del Rosario (who has his hands full just covering for these charlatans and West Wing-styled Comm group). The fact that we hear so much of a Communications Group is already a testament of their failure.

  11. But if there is something to said about Carandang is that his face says much more than anything of his statements.

  12. Johnny Lin says:

    George Bernard Shaw:
    The power of accurate observation is commonly called CYNICISM by those who have not got it!

  13. ricky is exceptionally open-minded. he welcomes every point of view and he is not upset that others see it different than what he sees it. i was in tussle with him in his blog — and welcome my remarks even if they were the anti-thesis of his position.

    i would like more people in the govt. with his kind temperament.

  14. i like that johnny. :)

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