THE PEN| A PR debacle 

SENATOR Antonio Trillanes may not get brownie points with the Aquino Administration but he may have made an astute observation when he pointed out that the President’s plunging popularity ratings should not be blamed on media but instead on the Chief Executive’s communication team.

Describing Malacañang’s media strategy as “deficient,” Sen. Trillanes noted that the President’s communications group could have done a better job in its handling of the Palace’ public response to the Mamasapano issue which has over the past three months deeply divided the nation and put into peril the passage of the much anticipated Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).

Based on a nationwide survey conducted by the Social Weather Station (SWS), from March 20 to 23, the President’s approval rating has dropped to its lowest since he assumed the presidency in 2010.

Trillanes, a known ally of the Aquino Administration, did not specifically single out who exactly in the President’s communication team should take the flak for the President’s declining approval ratings, but nevertheless put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the group for its failure to “reign in” the Chief Executive.

But some believe the senator could be taking aim at Secretary Sonny Coloma, head of the Presidential Communication’s Group, who recently remarked that the drop in the president’s approval ratings is largely “media-related.”

It’s quite surprising that it took Senator Trillanes, a former military officer who shot to prominence for his involvement in the infamous Oakwood  mutiny, to call out the Palace on its faulty media relations efforts and not his other Senate colleagues who are known to be more media-savvy.

We do not see any ulterior motive for the senator in his critique of President Aqunio’s communications group, except that he may have been among the few of the Chief Executive’s allies who are genuinely concerned about the perceived shortcomings in Malacañang’s media relations strategy and how this will impact on the ongoing peace process between the national government and the MILF.

The senator noted that the President is a highly emotional individual, a trait that should have been known by his communication’s group and used as a basis in crafting Malacañang’s “messaging” on the Mamasapano encounter which has from all indications created a public relations nightmare for the administration.

So far, President Aquino has given several public statements on the Mamasapano issue, the most recent  one during the graduation ceremonies at the Philippine Military Academy where he finally took responsibility for the encounter but still refused to apologize for the decisions he made as the nation’s Commander-in-Chief.

Many observers however believe that the earlier pronouncements made by the President, particularly the one he gave  on the day news broke out on the encounter, had significantly eroded his credibility, as it seemed to expunge him from any command responsibility due to the Chief Executive’s apparent lack of information on the cloak and dagger operation which led to the death of 44 Special Action Force (SAF) commandos, 14 Moro Islamic Front (MILF) fighters and three civilians.

Adding insult to injury was the President’s decision to skip the arrival honors for the fallen SAF commandos at Villamor Air Base and instead attend the inauguration of a car production facility, picturing him as a Chief Executive who not only had a misguided sense of priorities, but was one who was far removed from reality and devoid of empathy.

The President would eventually make up for this error in judgment by meeting with the wives and kin of the SAF commandos, which was extensively covered by media. But the damage had already been done, with the image of the President hobnobbing with company executives, as the coffins of the slain police officers rolled out from the belly of the C-130 had already been seared in the national consciousness.

The President’s meeting with religious leaders in Malacañang last March also drew wide public criticism when he pinned the blame on sacked PNP-SAF Commander Getulio Napeñas for “deceiving” him and not following directions from the latter to coordinate the highly-classified SAF operation with the Philippine Army. In a previous statement, the President would also admit that he was lied to by suspended PNP Chief Alan Purisima, whom the Chief Executive had staunchly defended  from criticism.

In between the President’s public statements, members of his communication group which include Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda, Sec. Coloma, and Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte would alternately give out statements which either tried to clarify the Chief Executive’s earlier pronouncements,  or simply gave more justifications for his actions on the Mamasapano issue.

But instead of shedding light on the issue, the mixed messages coming from Malacañang at the aftermath of the Mamasapano incident has further added to the public’s confusion and consequently,  created more questions which are crying for answers.

Clearly, Malacañang has been on crisis management mode, as the President’s team has been grappling with the massive political backlash that was unleashed upon it by the Mamasapano encounter. First and foremost,  the Filipino people are searching for answers which only the Aquino Administration could provide them. And second, the nation wants an assurance that the government is on top of the situation.

As to the former, it is still difficult to say if the government, most especially, President Aquino, has already “come clean” about what knows about the real score in Mamasapano.  Those who have closely followed his public statements have noted a lot of inconsistencies, most especially on the true extent of his knowledge during the actual police operations to take down Marwan and Usman.

Whether Malacañang was just trying to protect the President and insulate him from further criticism, we can agree with Senator Trillanes that the Chief Executive’s men didn’t do a splendid job. This is because Filipinos felt that there was a cover-up involved at the highest levels and worse, the government was trying to withhold vital information from the public. This, in turn, created more conspiracy theories, which added to the general sense that the Palace was not really intent on clarifying matters once and for all despite how many “official” versions of the truth the Palace has churned out.

Moreover, it seemed that there was no sense of cohesiveness in the President’s statements,  except the general line that the Chief Executive was being fed with wrong information by his trusted lieutenants, and that his orders were disobeyed , which inadvertently led to the bloody encounter.

But as many believe, the buck stops with President. As the nation’s Commander-In-Chief, he is primarily  responsible for the actions of the country’s highest military and police officials. Pinning the blame on Napeñas or Purisima simply won’t hold water because clearly, President Aquino was apprised of what was transpiring in Mamasapano and therefore could have made a judgment call during that fateful day that could have saved the lives of all, if not most, of those who perished in the encounter.

But the President must also remember that the responsibility held by his office goes beyond making strategic military, economic and political decisions. Most of all, he is the nation’s father and being so, should be its top administrator, agenda-setter, and most importantly,  crisis manager.

Certainly, a tough order the nation’s highest official. All of which the President Aquino must fulfil to the best of his abilities if he is to recover from the Mamasapano debacle and secure his legacy with the Filipino people.

Posted in Opinion