"When a statement has the potential to obscure, to add heat instead of light, the best thing to do is to stay silent."
By Joey Salgado
There was time when being a government spokesperson was a serious calling, lofty even. It provides the rare opportunity to help shape policy, especially at the national level, and build consensus around the policy. The job demands not only exhaustive knowledge of the public official or office you represent, but also the workings of media and the dynamics of government-media relations. Just as important, some would say indispensable, is the ability to communicate clearly.
Government spokespersons build trust between the office and the public. They carry with them the dignity and reputation of the office. Their words and actions are given the same scrutiny as their principal. Every statement is dissected, parsed, interpreted, misinterpreted, tumbled over for hidden clues or signals. When no secret messages are found, the scrutiny shifts to the physical aspects, such as teeth stains or a missing shirt button.
It is a thankless job, especially in this age where just about anyone with a keyboard and a wi-fi connection becomes an instant expert or troll. The spokesperson never gets credit for the good news, but is pilloried for announcing the bad news. The job is not for the faint of heart or the onion-skinned. People will either like you or hate you, since governance and politics are areas of discourse where harmony is not a given. The spokesperson must learn to roll with the punches, get up in the morning, and do it all over again. Being a government spokesperson is the least friendly place to launch a political career, although my good friend Harry Roque might disagree. Peace, Mr. Secretary.
Spokespersons being human, there will be the occasional fumble. Nothing that an old fashioned mea culpa can heal. There will be times when a spokesperson could get combative especially when under heavy fire. Still, the best spokespersons never lose sight of their role, and that is to inform, clarify, and push the principal’s agenda.
The recent uproar over the controversial statements of a spokesperson for a national government agency invites a closer appraisal of the conduct of some government spokespersons. Sadly, we are not in Kansas anymore.
The Civil Service Commission (CSC) chair correctly reminded the spokesperson, by way of a general statement, that government officials cannot separate their public and personal lives, nor use their position in government to weigh in on issues not related to their work.
As quoted by media, the CSC chair said: ”We remain public officials, not only from 8 or 9 to 5. It is a 24-hour duty on our end. So whatever we say, whatever we do, reflects of who we are and our agency as well.”
This sorry episode all began when the spokesperson commented on an issue that does not involve the office she represents. No one asked for her opinion. She volunteered it, using her designation as the agency’s spokesperson.
Both the Palace and her agency distanced themselves from the controversy by invoking the usual defense: that the spokesperson was expressing her personal opinion. I’m sorry, but there’s no such thing. The CSC chair said so.
The nature and circumstance of the job means that the spokesperson surrenders his or her right to speak on issues outside the official mandate. If you have an opinion, you keep it to yourself. By signing on to be the face of a public office, the spokesperson has surrendered his or her right to express personal opinions in public.
This type of behavior tends to erode the credibility of the spokesperson. By extension, it affects the credibility of the office. It undermines the public’s trust in the office, and government in general.
If a spokesperson wants to comment on the issues of the day, the best thing to do is to become a private citizen. But while in government, he or she must know where the boundaries are.
Part of a spokesperson’s job is to illuminate. When a statement has the potential to obscure, to add heat instead of light, the best thing to do is to stay silent. Remember that what you say shines a lantern on your character.
Mr. Salgado is a veteran PIO and spokesperson.