Message over medium

Published September 3, 2020, 7:10 AM

by Diwa C. Guinigundo


Diwa C. Guinigundo

In dealing with the pandemic and attempting economic recovery, the government has displayed very weak public communication. Information itself has been locked down. Of course, in social media, photos, even those that serve as “proof of life” or health can be photoshopped. News on key developments often need vetting. The risk of circulating fake, baseless or erroneous news or data is high. 

For instance, the other day, the report was that confirmed cases stood at 220,819 with the death toll at 3,558. For the day, there were 3,446 new cases. This report was incomplete because not all testing stations had submitted their reports. The numbers “are subject to change.” While we understand the difficulty of keeping tabs on viral infections, these regular changes and refinements are confusing and at times, suspicious. 

It is infuriating when we hear authorized representatives claiming “we have flattened the curve,” or that we have “beaten the forecast of a certain independent research institute.”  

Perhaps the earlier claims of high authorities incapacitated us from the start. The virus was initially dismissed as self-liquidating only for infections to later shoot up without control, pushing us to overtake the bigger Indonesia and the frontrunning Singapore. We chose diplomatese to justify inaction against incoming passengers from the virus’ country of origin. Our delayed reaction proved costly.  Our health facilities became overwhelmed and suffered the consequential backlash. From the beginning, government credibility has been shot.

At the onset of the pandemic, the messaging has been totally off and to this day, is unable to inspire confidence and trust in public policies as well as in public authorities.

Marshall McLuHan popularized the expression “the medium is the message.” The approach focuses on technology, with no moral bent. Medium shapes an individual’s and by extension, a society’s consciousness and idea of itself. In his most popular work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, he proposed that media, rather than message, should be the focus.

In conveying his theory, McLuHan used the light bulb as imagery. The lit light bulb is bereft of any message but nonetheless, enables men to create spaces at night. McLuHan argued that without the lit lightbulb, darkness would engulf spaces. The lit lightbulb thus, creates an environment by its mere presence.

In modern public governance and even in the conduct of monetary policy, while the messenger counts, the message remains the most important element. The message ensures effectiveness and ownership of public policy by the citizenry. Without public ownership and support, government policy is nothing but a vacuous proposition.

Public communications experts and academicians agree that there are three primary functions of public communication. These are: (1) to inform, (2) to advocate to, and (3) to engage citizens. Success in these three related goals enhances public governance. The goals of substantive (the message) and substantial (the spokesperson) communication should therefore be more effective, more responsive and more accountable government.  

Unfortunately, this desirable mode of conveying public policy has not been experienced by us. What is frustrating is that six months into a pandemic and longest lockdown in the world — the Filipino citizenry remains thirsty for information, for substance, for a message.

The Prime Ministers of Singapore and New Zealand have shown how communication is properly delivered to constituencies. From the start, they delivered messages mindful of their people’s needs and aspirations at this time of the pandemic. 

It is crucial for everyone to know that their leaders have crafted and are implementing policies with their interests in mind. It is then that they actually listen. It is then that people can identify with their authorities. It is then that people believe that those in charge feel the pulse of the land, and are pursuing policies relevant to their revealed preferences.

While the IATF appears to be following a playbook with assigned tasks on testing and tracing, quarantining, etc. very few people are in the know. Even if this playbook exists, it is difficult to imagine how it is executed. There should be full explanation of milestones achieved and whether these are reached within indicative timelines. We will feel more secure knowing that there is a roadmap for navigating this pandemic.

There has been no communication on how we have managed to migrate from one type of community quarantine to another. How did we move from GCQ to MECQ and back to GCQ in two weeks?  

In some American states,  protocols are very specific, properly communicated and explained leaving very little room for confusion. “Walang pasaway” as all cards are on the table. 

Given the very limited information we get, and the very little explanation we receive, it is unfair to label Filipinos as “pasaway.” A quick survey of neighboring malls in Quezon City would reveal everyone wearing masks and face shields. Some have personal air purifiers complete with small bottles of alcohol.

As we move to BNKSBNESQ, will Mr Bean lead the information campaign? Will Mr Bean inform, persuade and engage Filipinos to keep alive and follow his health checklist?

BNKSBNECQ means “Bahala Na Kayo Sa Buhay Ninyo Enhanced Community Quarantine.” It is a situation where people are not aware that we have become lax in our health rules and protocols. It is a situation where every man is for himself.

Because of our utter failure to manage public health earlier in March, we have been on lockdown until now. As a result, businesses have closed and workers have been laid off. We are now in the middle of the deepest recession in 30 years.

Communication and good messaging are critical.

Last month’s Jackson Hole Conference was very informative. Some economists presented findings that COVID-19 will cause greater economic damage in the future than the costs sustained this year.  They also discussed the possibility that moving forward, businesses and investors are likely to consider that pandemics can and do happen, changing their behavior for decades to come.

How many among our people in charge communicate a similar message of caution so that our people would be more vigilant and prepared like Boy Scouts?

All said, there are economic scars that will not easily go away. Thus, it would be premature to talk about “leaving the worst behind us.”

These findings should be communicated to the research community for further validation to manage expectations. It would be foolhardy to think we could go out for coffee with friends soon or that we will “have a merry Christmas.”

In the same conference, two major central bank governors cautioned the central bank community. 

Bank of England’s Andrew Bailey announced that “central banks may need to unwind balance sheets ahead of raising interest rates when they tighten up.” He expects more challenges ahead. He advised it would not be wise for central banks to use up all their ammunition to liquify the market. This is crucial communication for central banks and treasuries which are similarly situated in both the business and financial cycles, that they should not be carried away by political calls for monetary support all the way.

For his part, Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklen argued the need to be transparent with the market and to engage the public. “In a nutshell, we need to spend more efforts speaking and listening to the citizens we serve.” The people are our political masters, we don’t lecture them. We must explain public policy with patience and clarity. It is they whom we must serve.

No, we are not just talking about the light from a lightbulb. Rather, there should be a clear and accountable message to the public. Communication should make us more confident as we face an uncertain future. The message is more important than the medium.