POSTSCRIPT / November 13, 2005 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Why create more media foes when you can make friends?

BAD FORM: Whoever advised President Gloria Arroyo to hit media that hard right at a public gathering of the top honchos of the broadcast industry must be, I dare say, somebody who has never had a deep and abiding involvement in mainstream media.

If he has spent years with the working press, this adviser would have had a keener understanding of the psychology of media and, understanding it, would not push unnecessarily his president into a collision with the press.

My hunch is that like a story being twisted and tailor-made to suit the headline screaming in the mind of a tabloid editor, the President’s speech was written to suit her known disdain for the press and her consuming desire to get even with her media tormentors.

But, ma’am, that may not be the best way — PR-wise — to deal with the press. Even if you were the President, or more so because you are the President, you do not grab the press by the collar and wrestle it to the ground.

That is bad form, definitely a bad formula for winning friends and influencing media people.

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TIT FOR TAT: Even if media have been irresponsible, unfair, incompetent, licentious and all those black adjectives, maligning them from the rostrum bearing the presidential seal is not the ideal way to achieve the desired results.

As they teach us in management school, which is just a few doors way from the school of economics, it is better to scold in private and praise in public.

After all, what was the object of all that presidential venom spat out in Baguio ? What was sought to be gained from a public scolding of media by the highest official of the land?

To embarrass them in public and exposed them to ridicule? To scare them into submission? To gain their support? To give them a refreshers in correct journalism?

Or to engage in a tit for tat — to serve notice that if the media can malign the president, the president can just as well malign the media? It is all very childish.

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SPEAK SOFTLY: You think that after the scolding, the irrepressible Philippine press will be more docile, more compliant, more supportive of the President and less critical of her shortcomings?

On the contrary, such a public bashing will only deepen resentment. By this time, a few of them must be sharpening their knives for the day when they could get even.

The President is the president. She does not have to shout or scream to be heard. In dealing with the press, she can talk softly, and gently, and achieve results that tongue-lashing or taray will not accomplish.

In fact, a review of the public relations scoreboard of President Arroyo will show that many of the prominent media personalities who are excessively critical of her were practitioners who had been publicly embarrassed by the President.

I do not have to identify them. The President’s advisers may want to refresh their memory by reviewing the press conferences, the forums and on-air phone conversations where she had cut them down with her branded tart retorts.

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POTENTIAL ALLIES: This is not to say that we in media are blameless or are the world’s repository of virtue and wisdom or that we want all and sundry, even presidents, to pay us obeisance.

The opposite is true. We are admittedly just a bunch of professional workers with our share of shortcomings. We harbor all kinds of characters, the honest and the thieves, the brilliant and the dullards, et cetera, but by and large we are regular guys who act and react like other normal human beings.

It is quite difficult to explain in this small space the psychology of the press in relation to the powers-that-be that they cover for the public.

To put it simply and somewhat indirectly, my line is: If the objective is to gain a supportive press, pushing the President into a needless quarrel with the media is doing it the wrong way.

As I have said on many occasions, it is best for the President to think that even her harshest media critics are potential allies — and for her to talk and move in that direction.

The President gains nothing, except more enemies, by quarreling with media.

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OBJECTIVITY: Following up the President’s assault on the media, her spokesman said that Ms Arroyo was just asking for “objectivity and fairness, not praise or plaudits” when she made her scathing comments.

Pardon me, but after four decades of professional newspapering, I have arrived at the sad conclusion that there is no such thing as an objective news report.

Stories (all editorial forms in newspapers are called “stories” whether news, editorials, columns, features, etc.) pass the human hands, and minds, of the writers and editors.

It is inescapable that in handling the materials, the writers and the editors exercise value judgments that color the story to some extent.

Result is a story that always carries in varying degrees their biases (the most convenient term I can think of right now).

In coaching reporters, I usually ask not for that unachievable “objectivity,” but for honesty and balance, for fairness and fullness.

And if in the process we are able to give an approximation of the whole truth as is humanly possible to present at that point, that is a bonus.

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CHEAPER FUEL: I was among the night owls who lined up the other night for the expected cheaper (by 50 centavos per liter) gasoline of Petron. I was on the road anyway that evening, so I gassed up.

After filling up, I drove to the service stations of other oil companies to see if they also slashed their prices. No they did not. They were to follow suit only some hours later, some of them I was told only at 6 a.m.

This is a good sign, although we advise everybody not to rejoice yet. As we are not mind-readers, we do not know exactly what lurks in the minds, and hearts, of these hardnosed businessmen amassing fortunes selling oil products.

(The fly in the ointment, of course, was the raising by one peso of the price of LPG or cooking gas while those of the rest of the fuels went down.)

Actually, the oil companies have no choice — if they do not want to earn the ire of the public — but to lower prices because the price of crude oil has gone down while the peso has continued to strengthen in relation to the US dollar.

It would be cruel, and avaricious, for them if they did not cut prices.

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ROMANTIC NOTION: But there is one romantic oil scenario I keep clinging to, hoping that it would come true.

This is the possibility that Petron, which is after all still 40-percent owned by the government and therefore by us taxpayers, would go back to its desired role as a market force to counter the profiteering tendencies of the giant foreign oil firms in our midst.

Since the government is in Petron, is it not possible for the President as the mother of this nation to instruct the government directors on the Petron board to see to it that the oil firm is used to dampen any tendency to jack prices at every conceivable excuse?

That was an easy balancing job for Petron before then President Fidel V. Ramos ordered the sale of a large chunk of government shares to Saudi Aramco and thus diluted the government’s hold on the strategic firm.

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REFORMED PETRON: When we heard several hours in advance about Petron’s decision to reduce fuel prices by 50 centavos per liter, we thought we were seeing a “reformed” Petron going along the lines that we said we imagined.

In our musings, we said to ourselves that Petron must have been instructed by Malacanang to reduce its prices so the other players, especially Shell and Caltex, would have no choice but to also reduce prices if they want to stay in contention.

Later on, we learned that Petron’s price-reduction was motivated not by presidential instructions, but by the pressure of cheaper crude oil and a rebounding peso — and the added pressure of  “hiya.”

It would be the height if, seeing the improvement in the market and their potentially raking in bigger profits, Petron and the other oil firms did not lower pump prices.

They did. What ever were the reasons, we are happy with it.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 13, 2005)

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