By Greg Macabenta
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda has blamed the columnists for the drop in the approval rating of Noynoy Aquino. Reacting to this, Mangar Mangahas wrote an opinion piece that lectured Lacierda on the intricacies of research and drew the conclusion that newspaper columns could not possibly be the culprit since people hardly read newspapers and fewer still read the columns.
The columnists, expectedly, weighed in on the issue, some pointing out that Aquino has only himself to blame for his dip in popularity owing to his inability to deliver on his campaign promises. Others have placed the onus on MalacaÃ±ang’s communications group for failing to effectively get the word out about the good work of the new administration.
To start with, any seasoned marketing practitioner will tell you that a new product introduction usually results in high positive perceptions simply for being new, on top of its unique features. But these high marks invariably drop to more realistic levels.
Aquino rode the crest of his mother’s popularity, as well as the unpopularity of his predecessor. With no track record to speak of but only the promise of a government that would be the opposite of that of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in terms of honesty and integrity, Aquino enjoyed rock star popularity.
It was inevitable for his approval rating to dip. Whether or not it has dipped to the level that he deserves, is still unclear. But the public has begun to get over the novelty of a brand new president and is now more closely checking out the merchandise. That is understandable.
On the other hand, perceptions are influenced by media, mainly because media are the main sources of information about national events. But a new element has been added that Noynoy Aquino’s mother and past presidents did not have to deal with.
This is the new, interactive media environment, characterized by the social networks, the email, the blogs and the search engines like Google and Yahoo.
These days, anyone who has something to say, from the sublime to the ridiculous, has a platform from which to deliver his piece. And not just to his immediate family and the next door neighbors but, potentially, to the whole world.
But for someone to make a comment on something, there has to be a stimulus. In marketing, we refer to it as the source of awareness.
Mangahas contends that newspapers and, by extension, the newspaper columns, could not possibly be the main source of the negative stories about Aquino, mainly because only a few people read them nowadays.
What Mangahas should consider is the fact that Google and Yahoo pick up these news items as soon as they appear in print and they become sources of information for anyone doing a search.
Additionally, the few newspapers readers whom Mangahas referred to may be passing on the new information they have picked up to the rest of the non-newspaper-reading population.
Someone I know literally sends out dozens of emails everyday, conceivably to all the people in his address book (I happen to be one of them). He is a sharer. He shares every new insight he gets, every photograph that catches his attention, every joke, every anecdote, every quotation and, yes, every interesting column item. The more controversial or novel or shocking, the better.
I have noted that many of what he passes on were also forwarded to him but similarly inclined individuals. Conceivably, those individuals received many of the tidbits from others who, in turn, got them from other sources.
Word-of-mouth has metamorphosed into word-of-online-media.
But, like Chicken Little who spread the news about the falling sky, these sharers source the information somewhere. The most likely sources are the media. And since the items passed on are top heavy with biases and personal points of view, the sources are more likely to be commentaries, whether in newspapers or TV or radio.
The hapless Willie Revillame knows how this works. The news about the kid doing the strip dance that spread like wildfire and torched his show was picked up by the columnists and, subsequently, picked up from the columns by FaceBook activists who felt concerned enough and agitated enough to pass it on and to urge others to protest the incident.
In effect, Lacierda is partly right when he blames the columnists for being the source of the negative commentaries about Aquino. But if you follow the metamorphosis of a column item as it is picked up by a reader and then passed on from medium to medium, you can be horrified at the way it is interpreted, added to, digested, exaggerated or distorted.
It’s pretty much like the Boy Scouts game where a piece of news is passed from ear to ear, from one end of a line to the other. If the news is about someone being sick, by the time it gets to the end of the line, the news is already about someone dying.
And when passed back down the line again, it could end up as news about a resurrection.
Add to this volatile communications situation, the presence of many commentators with different points of view and different agendas. You can imagine what kind of opinions they feed into the pipeline and how these are understood, misunderstood, interpreted, misinterpreted, and recycled down the line.
The harsh reality is also that there are pundits who have preconceived notions about Aquino. The much-maligned hydra in Malacanang can have all three heads blue in the face, but that won’t change the bias of these folks. Some of them may be sincere in their negative perception of Aquino, but there are others who are dedicated torpedoes.
It only takes one knowledgeable propaganda specialist to poison the pipeline and give the likes of Lacierda nightmares.
Among DDT specialists, there is a practice called ‘bisikleta’. The term is derived from Tagalog movies where a film intended for showing in only one theater is illicitly shown in many other theaters in nearby towns. The film reels are relayed by a team riding bicycles.
In the practice of disinformation, ‘bisikleta’ means feeding a piece of news to an outlet, say a radio commentary, then echoing it in a newspaper column, with attribution to the radio source. That item is further bicycled into other vehicles, including the social networks.
At the same time, it is fed to public personalities eager to make a sound bite, most likely members of Congress and publicity-hungry politicians.
Once they weigh in on the issue, the mainstream media have reason to pick up the news and comment on it. At that point, the little mole will have turned into a mountain.
What recourse does Noynoy Aquino have in the face of such a volatile media environment? Simple: Do the right thing. Put in a lot of productive working hours. And then deliver on his campaign promises.
When he delivers results, the commentaries of pundits and torpedoes will be irrelevant. But, if he fails, a ten-headed communications hydra will not be of any help.
To quote Abraham Lincoln: “If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what’s said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”