AT A GLANCE
In no other point in recent history has crisis messaging become a benchmark for effective leadership than the novel coronavirus pandemic.
From New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Facebook press conferences to Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s clear and concise addresses, to US President Donald Trump’s ramblings, world leaders are being compared in terms of their communication styles.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has his own way of addressing Filipinos during the pandemic – a style that unfortunately is no different from his usual rhetoric. (READ: How Duterte handles crisis, controversy during his presidency)
Even amid a crisis that requires clarity, rigor in analysis, and consistency, Duterte continues to serve up long, winding speeches where digressions, rants against critics, and personal musings drown out clear directives and critical messaging.
Rappler analyzed the over 56,000 words of all 19 Duterte speeches, press conferences, and video messages about the COVID-19 pandemic from February 3 to May 4. We used official Malacañang transcripts and videos streamed by the Presidential Communications Operations Office. Altogether, these remarks stretch some 12 hours long or half a day.
Language of force
Even in a health crisis, Duterte’s messaging continues to play up the police or military response and the use of violence and threats to fix problems.
A simple word count shows Duterte's speaking style is dominated by a language of force.
Among his most frequently used words is "huwag" (don't), mentioned 156 times. It was the 4th most mentioned word, after “hindi” (not), “lahat” (all) and “ngayon” (now), excluding articles and pronouns.
His top 100 most-used words included “patay” (dead), “military,” “law,” “force,” “pulis” (police), and “sundalo” (soldiers). This is aside from expected words like “COVID,” “quarantine,” “crisis,” and “government.”
The ultimate show of force in this pandemic situation was the shutdown of broadcasting giant ABS-CBN on Tuesday, May 5. Though Duterte is yet to speak on it, the National Telecommunications Commission's order sent a strong message that not even the COVID-19 crisis would get in the way of presidential wrath.
Duterte, peeved with ABS-CBN's non-airing of his political ads in 2016, had frequently threatened to block its franchise renewal. The franchise expired on May 4, with lawmakers dragging their feet on it due to Duterte's ire.
No expert voice
Throughout this coronavirus crisis, forceful messaging has overshadowed science-based messaging. Duterte cursed more times than he mentioned the words "testing," "test kits," or "tracing."
In his 12 hours of coronavirus speeches, Duterte mentioned the word “testing” only 8 times. In comparison, he cursed 5 times more often, saying either "putang ina" or "gago" ("son of a bitch" and "fool") a total of 40 times.
He mentioned “test kits” only 7 times. The word “tracing” passed his lips only once before May 4, the press conference where testing was finally discussed at length with newly-designated “testing czar” Vince Dizon. During that May 4 public address, Duterte said “tracing” 4 times.
The word count shows that the science in the government's coronavirus response is largely missing from Duterte's messaging. The President often leaves the talk on testing and contact-tracing to Dizon or Health Secretary Francisco Duque III.
That Duterte himself rarely talks about these science-based aspects of government response – which experts have said are key to curbing the virus’ spread – indicates his weak grasp of the subject, worrisome at a time when science-driven leadership is needed more than ever.
"The pandemic is a different type of war and a military-style, top-down style may not work. First, health expertise must be highlighted. However, it seemed that it has been sidelined by government messaging emphasizing order and discipline as well as the role of the military and the police," said political science expert Ela Atienza, a professor at the University of the Philippines' political science department.
In Duterte's public addresses, Cabinet officials are asked to update the public on specifics the way the President himself can't.
It’s the coronavirus edition of the “pre-SONA briefings,” where Cabinet members report their departments’ achievements ahead of Duterte’s State of the Nation Address because the President himself can’t or can't be bothered.
Duterte is visibly bored by reading out figures and progress reports in other speeches. He prefers to speak “straight from the heart,” as Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque once put it.
But when Duterte does speak, he's more likely to float unproven claims about the virus, such as when he attributed the supposed “low” number of Philippine cases to hot temperatures supposedly weakening the virus.
“They said that itong coronang putris na ‘to has a hard time surviving in a hot – high temperature. So pagka ganoon, maybe that explains the reason why na hindi naman masyado marami,” he said on Monday, May 4. (They said this damn coronavirus has a hard time surviving in high temperature. Maybe that explains why we don’t have too many cases.)
In contrast, Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong has clearly explained contact-tracing, “clusters” of cases, and plans to free up hospital capacity to address case surges – apart from urging citizens to obey rules.
While Duterte has said all his decisions are based on the expertise of Duque, a doctor, and the Department of Health, his 4 main pandemic responders are former military generals (Eduardo Año, Delfin Lorenzana, Carlito Galvez Jr) and a political strategist and economist, Vince Dizon.
It took Duterte more than a month after declaring the Luzon lockdown to consult former health secretaries and other health policy experts. It took him 3 months after the country's first confirmed case to designate a testing czar.
Out of his depth
From the start, it’s been clear that Duterte has largely been out of his depth in understanding the unfolding health crisis. Apart from initially downplaying the virus several times, he acted in ways that showed he was not taking things seriously.
For instance, Duterte attended two mass gatherings (assembly of local officials and oath-taking of military officers) in early March – a whole month after the Department of Health issued its advisory against mass gatherings. By this time, he had presided over two Cabinet meetings where coronavirus topped the agenda.
The President kept his cavalier attitude even on March 16, the day he declared the Luzon lockdown, saying he would step out even if he risked catching the virus.
“Ako, lalabas ako. You will see me. Ay, lalabas ako. Hindi ako maniwala niyang – kasi ako may ibang doctrine ako sa buhay eh.. Kung hindi ako mag-survive ng [COVID-19], eh hindi ako karapat-dapat maging mayor dito sa Pilipinas,” he said on live television.
(Me, I will go out. You will see me. I will step out. I don’t believe – because I have a different doctrine in life… If I don’t survive COVID-19, I am not worthy to be mayor of the Philippines.)
Never mind that in the same speech, he reminded Filipinos that the government’s stay-at-home measures were meant to protect others.
Before then, he had expressed confidence that Filipinos are the “most resilient” against such a virus and that the disease would supposedly “lose steam” as people acquired immunity.
“Palagay ko hindi aabot dito ‘yan. Kagaya ng SARS. SARS midway just disappeared. It came suddenly and disappeared suddenly. Ganoon ‘yang mga contagion na ‘yan eh,” he said on February 3. (I think it won’t reach us. It’s like SARS. SARS midway just disappeared. It came suddenly and disappeared. Those contagions are like that.)
He also said one or two coronavirus cases is “not really that fearsome,” even if, at the time, the DOH was already looking at 80 possible infections arising from the country’s two confirmed cases.
It was only when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic that Duterte would doubledown, with strict region-wide quarantine measures and almost daily “messages to the people.” At this point, it had dawned upon the President that the pandemic was a crisis unlike any he had ever faced.
Drowning in words
Rappler also found that though Duterte's speeches contained critical directives and policy statements, they were drowned out by musings and repetitive insights about the pandemic.
Using word count tools, Rappler found that 57.7%, or over half, of Duterte’s speeches and remarks were warnings and musings about the virus and government response.
These included repeated warnings to the public about the need for physical distancing and obedience to the government’s rules. But most were repetitive remarks about the disease itself – like the need for a vaccine, how the virus is spread, or how it’s affected governance and people’s lives.
Only 17.6% were clear policy directives spelling out newly-decided measures about the crisis or his position on various related controversies.
These included recitations of the task force recommendation on the Metro Manila lockdown; appeals to the business sector to help their employees; orders to police to transport frontliners; and orders to expedite the approval of test kits, procurement of protective gear, and aid to the poor.
Some 8.6% of his remarks were personal insights and ruminations – when he recounted how many times he urinated one night, when he likened the waves of disease outbreaks to buying ripe and unripe mangoes, and when he described a strange process where blood with antibodies is injected into a horse.
Meanwhile, 7.8% of his speeches were threats against quarantine violators and attacks against critics. Longest of all diatribes was the one about human rights lawyer and former opposition senatorial candidate Chel Diokno.
(Translation: I'll tell Diokno to join me below. I'm above. Let's hang ourselves at the same time. Son of a bitch, I'm angry at you, you fool.)
Just a little less, or 2.8%, of his speeches were words of gratitude for health workers, frontliners, aid donors, and helpful business personalities. But his remark that frontliners were “lucky to die for their country” drew considerable flak. This bit was an extemporaneous deviation from a speech prepared by Malacañang communications staff.
An effort to make Duterte more statesmanlike was once again spoiled by the loose-tongued President himself.
The composition of his speeches shows that Duterte never adjusted his conversational, long-winded speaking style to fit the demands of a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. ([PODCAST] Coronavirus: Epektibo ba ang crisis messaging ni Pangulong Duterte?)
He is similar, in this way, to Trump who has been criticized for public addresses full of self-praise and bluster. In contrast, leaders from France, Singapore, Germany, and others have kept their messages relatively short and clear.
The style frustrated many Filipinos, some of whom were watching a Duterte speech for the first time.
While his personal musings and reflections on the virus might be interesting to his supporters, most Filipinos were tuning in to hear a comprehensive plan or swift response to gut issues like loss of livelihood and lack of food.
Rappler analysis of social media sentiment found a groundswell of dissatisfaction over Duterte's coronavirus speeches during this time.
Even if the government task force had discussed these issues in off-camera meetings, Duterte’s insistence on long speeches meant these crucial decisions were lost in a sea of words that, to most viewers, were irrelevant.
For instance, he spent a good 20 minutes on musings about the virus and government response before he finally read the order placing the entire Luzon on lockdown on March 16. Even while reading the document laid in front of him, Duterte often digressed, making the announcement more confusing. At one point, his former aide, Senator Bong Go, had to butt in to remind him to continue reading.
A favorite topic of Duterte’s that inspired long monologues was the issue of funding. He was determined to school critics who were demanding to know where some P300 billion in funds for the crisis would go.
Not surprisingly, the name he mentioned the most (15 times) was “Sonny,” referring to Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III.
Duterte’s advisers adjust
Duterte’s most trusted men were not deaf to the messaging problem. It became clear to several Cabinet members that adjustments had to be made in the way Duterte announced critical government response.
They tried to pivot such that on February 13, amid mounting criticism about the slow response and following Duterte’s first long press conference dedicated to the coronavirus, the presidential communications office released a short Duterte message.
Just over 3 minutes long and featuring a President obviously reading out prepared remarks, the video drew comparisons to Singaporean Lee Hsien Loong’s taped message released 5 days earlier.
“I call on our people to remain calm, vigilant, responsible and I also ask [for] your trust and cooperation,” read Duterte, as he called for unity. It was an attempt to show a more presidential Duterte.
But he could not be managed for long. Duterte was back to his long, off-the-cuff speeches, causing perhaps the most frustration for the public when he announced the Metro Manila lockdown on March 12.
That address lasted close to 50 minutes and left many questions unanswered, as admitted by no less than Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea in his message to the task force that was leaked to media.
“No single pronouncement of the President has given rise to so many questions as the one last night,” Medialdea said. Questions people had about the Metro Manila lockdown should have been anticipated, he added.
The Cabinet official conceded there was a need to “fill in the gaps” in Duterte's messaging. His solution was a “written directive” formalizing the President’s announcement and “clarifying” details in its implementation. This move is classic Medialdea, who is, by now, an expert at working around the stubborn, immovable President.
Nograles in, followed by Roque
Two other officials would step in to plug in holes in Duterte's haphazard communication method: Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles and newly-returned Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque.
Nograles held daily morning press briefings about the government task force's decisions, starting the day after Duterte's confusing Metro Manila lockdown announcement. The first half of Nograles' virtual briefings began with him patiently reading the task force resolutions approved the night before. During the second half, he answered questions from the media.
Because of these regular briefings, Nograles was well on his way to becoming the main talking head of the government’s coronavirus efforts. His clear and careful manner of speaking, with its logical flow and structure, was a balm to Duterte’s more erratic late-night addresses.
When Roque returned, Nograles gave way, putting an end to his briefings. Some media outlets claim a “turf war” between Roque and Nograles which led to Nograles standing down. But a task force official said Nograles voluntarily stepped down as IATF spokesman the moment Roque was appointed.
Roque, through a Medialdea memorandum, was designated IATF spokesman and the only other government official who can speak on coronavirus response, apart from Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire.
Now, Roque gives almost daily noontime briefings on task force decisions. When Duterte addresses the public, Roque is in charge of reading out the most critical decisions so that the President is free to give his personal message.
This system kicked into gear on April 23 when it was Roque, not Duterte, who read the lockdown extension for Metro Manila and the new "general community quarantine" rules. When it was Duterte's time to speak, he was back to threatening martial law and blasting communist rebels.
What can the public then expect in government’s crisis communications? While other officials have made some crucial tweaks, it seems Duterte won’t change his own messaging style. His most recent, the May 4 address, aired late night again, at around 11:30 pm, and lasted 50 minutes.
More than 3 months into the coronavirus crisis, Duterte’s messaging is just more of the same. He may be going for authenticity or is just determined to stubbornly stick to his style of speaking.
But a crisis often demands the opposite – flexibility and the willingness to communicate what people need to hear, and not just what one wants to say. – with reports from Sofia Tomacruz and Lj Flores/Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at email@example.com.