Strategic communications

Strategic communications is an art that requires knowledge of the terrain and the circumstances that may change it.

Strategic communications is an art that requires knowledge of the terrain and the circumstances that may change it.

Baguio City – The city of pines reeked of diesel fumes as I stepped down from the de luxe Victory Liner bus that took me from Quezon City to Baguio City in roughly four hours. For a one-way fare of P715 per head, the midnight journey was a steal. The bus we rode in offered free snacks, wi-fi service, had its own toilet, and 27 reclining, comfortable seats.

The Cordillera Regional Development Council led by NEDA Regional Director Milagros Rimando invited this writer to give a two-hour media relations workshop in Baguio City. The roster of participants was impressive: regional and assistant regional directors of different government agencies, a representative from the Benguet State University, local governments, and the private sector.

Building relationships with the media is part of governance. Government and media need each other – as news sources and news reporters, one would be less credible and effective without the other. For media-shy officials, dealing with the media can be scary. Unlike civil society groups, government has a chain of command, a hierarchy built to instill discipline among its ranks.

Speaking out one’s mind is a privilege left to an elite few in government. Even a designated spokesperson of a department has a message to deliver, and any deviation from that official message can lead to a scathing memo or a gentle reprimand. The best reporters are adept at human psychology. They know how to pry secrets from a timid source and are able to speed read secret memos and confidential files, even when upside down.

Media relations, however, is but a component of strategic communications. During the workshop, I told the regional directors to have a clear idea of what the institutional message is, before inviting the media. Don’t call for a press conference without a story worth the media’s time, I said. Because the next time you call them, they may not come around at all.

Journalists have a job to do, and if they don’t do their jobs, their bosses will know and start asking why. You see, the media has a hierarchy of its own, too. Pesky reporters with huge identification cards strung around their necks, asking for cab fare home, are not journalists. The real reporters treasure their by-lines, and are thrilled every time they see their stories come out. They take their jobs seriously, and are able to pay for their own cab fares home.

How does one build relations with the media? It’s important to understand how media works, because they have their own set of goals to achieve. Calculated, opportunistic moves from media-hungry officials tend to backfire. As in all friendships, the ones that last are founded on mutual respect. Transactional media relations yield short-term results with reputations tarnished along the way. I say, go for the long-term. Media personalities are people, too. Follow them on Twitter, say hello to them on Facebook, or invite them out for coffee.

What stands in the way of effective communications is the curse of knowledge. Public officials hold meetings after meetings, dissect and discuss a particular project or problem to death and then convene more meetings afterwards to resurrect the same agenda. Having all that information in their heads lead these officials to think that we, the people, are just as immersed in the same agenda as they are. Not true. We, the people, care more about surviving Christmas without getting into debt than the numbers-oriented reportorial needs of government.

Public officials can never be more important than the civilians they serve. Instead of holding meetings in boardrooms, they should let ordinary citizens in, serve steaming coffee with pandesal, and ask them what more can be done to help the country. Government should stop talking to itself. President Aquino is an excellent communicator. He is erudite, frank, and very clear in his pronouncements. How weird that the bureaucracy has yet to catch on, preferring to use his pedestal rather than creating their own platforms for public engagement.

Is it out of fear? One regional director incurred the ire of his boss for a statement that he made to the local press. A ranking police officer was relieved from duty for giving a rough estimate of the number of casualties in Tacloban City. Strategic communications is an art that requires knowledge of the terrain and the circumstances that may change it. For it to work, the top honchos must define the institutional message frameworks to be shared publicly through a variety of mediums.

Strategic communications are products of design, and not by virtue of happy accidents. For agencies without information dissemination budgets, use social media and make sure to hire a good writer. Verbosity reveals a cluttered mind and blurry intentions. It takes a great deal of skill to simplify and storify one’s message.

Speak simply, write well, and choose clarity over pomposity at all times. Know your message. Be authentic at all times. These are some of the tips I left behind in Baguio City’s chilly December air.

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Author: Susan Ople

Susan "Toots" Ople is the President of the Blas F. Ople Policy and Training Institute. She's an OFW and labor advocate based in the Philippines.

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