As a reporter assigned to cover the President, I rely heavily on the official messages coming from the Malacañang Communications team, headed by Presidential Communications and Operations Office Secretary Sonny Coloma. Releases from the Palace are considered the official stance of the administration – our connection, our link to President Benigno Aquino III and his team.
But what happens when we get mixed messages from the Palace itself?
Since Coloma started conducting media briefings almost a year ago in October 2013, it became natural for the Malacañang Press Corps to receive two separate messages or statements from the Palace – one from the office of Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda, and another from the office of Coloma.
A day before the 31st death anniversary of the President’s father, the late Senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino for example, Lacierda released his statement at 1 pm. Coloma released another one at 4:52 pm the same day. Both espoused the similar message of remembering the fallen democracy icon.
Lacierda and Coloma are associated with two power blocs in government: the so-called Balay group linked to the Liberal Party (LP), and the so-called Samar group that's associated with Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. While both groups supported Aquino’s run for president in 2010, the Balay group supported Interior Secretary Mar Roxas for vice president, while the Samar group supported now Vice President Jejomar Binay.
Binay plans to run for the country's top post in 2016, while Roxas is the presumed standard-bearer of the LP. Binay's ratings remain sky-high, while Roxas continues to struggle in surveys.
When Coloma first started doing briefings, he emphasized, “The Communications team of our President is one group.” Coloma denied the President was displeased with the performance of his spokespersons and said his participation in media briefings does not indicate a significant change on the part of the President's communications team.
Shortly after Coloma’s frequent appearances, Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO) chief Ricky Carandang tendered his resignation effective December 31, 2013. Carandang – who worked alongside Lacierda – was also associated with the Balay group. (But his reasons for leaving reportedly has nothing to do with Coloma's increased visibility.)
Malacañang has continuously insisted factionalism does not exist among the President’s men. But division appeared most evident a few weeks ago, after both groups gave mixed signals regarding Aquino’s openness to a second term.
The idea was first floated by Interior Secretary Mar Roxas during a television interview, which he said was his personal view. Currently, the Constitution prohibits a president’s re-election after one 6-year term.
In the days that followed, reporters asked Malacañang officials if Aquino would be open to an extended term. The responses were starkly different.
Coloma insisted “never did it cross his (Aquino's) mind to aspire or ask for another term because our Constitution is clear in that regard.” Lacierda responded differently, saying that while the matter has not been discussed in the Cabinet and the President has consistently opposed constitutional amendments, Aquino is also “sensitive to the voice of his bosses,” the people.
When Aquino himself responded to the issue, Lacierda’s statement most closely resembled Aquino’s stance.
The day after Aquino’s pronouncements, Coloma told reporters: “What I stated last week was simply an affirmation of the President’s position whenever he was asked previously about the possibility of charter change. When I was asked by one of your colleagues over the weekend on my position regarding term extension, or our position regarding term extension, my response was: ‘On matters of national interest, the President seeks to know and understand the sentiments of his bosses, the Filipino people, to guide him in decision-making.’”
He insisted he was “not surprised” by the President’s sudden change of heart however, adding, “Since Day One, this has been the governance philosophy of the President – to listen to the voice of the Filipino people, his bosses.”
This was not the first time the communications team contradicted itself. Back in 2010, Coloma and Carandang also released differing statements on the phone call made by Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang to Aquino following the bus hostage crisis, where 8 Hong Kong tourists were killed.
Interviewed on ABS-CBN’s “Umagang Kay Ganda,” Coloma said Tsang would have gotten through to the President had he really called, which infuriated Hong Kong as it seemed to insinuate that Tsang had lied. Carandang, who was with the President the day the call was made, contradicted Coloma to say Tsang called but phoned the Palace trunkline. The incident earned them the label “Miscommunications Group.”
Additionally, in at least one instance, Lacierda told reporters there would be a noon briefing, while Coloma said he wanted no briefing and just questions via text message on the same day – signifying lapses in communication even on the simplest of matters.
Need for unity
With the 2016 presidential elections inching closer, factions within the Palace may be more and more difficult to hide. Understandably so. If 2010 and the group's latest contradictory statements are any indication, then old alliances appear intact. Perhaps within the Communications team alone, there are differences in the candidate that officials are backing in 2016.
One thing is for certain – the President has less than two more years in office, at least if a second term remains an impossibility. His Communications team has a responsibility and duty to find a way to unite, or at least to appear united, for the sake of his administration. After all, isn't that the group's primary role? To clarify issues for the people and where the government stands, rather than muddle it?
As Aquino enters his final years, the image of a strong, cohesive and focused administration is more valuable than ever. Notions that Malacañang is even a tad divided won't be good for anybody, especially not the President. If the Communications team alone appears to be miscommunicating, then one can't help but wonder what the dynamics are within Aquino's inner circle. – Rappler.com