Numbers Don’t Lie

How can I describe government’s style of messaging?
Certain adjectives come to mind — pompous, high-handed, defensive, antagonistic, divisive, confusing. This is true not only of the messages that come from Malacañang’s pulpit but also those that come from its various agencies. I say this with all due respect to those involved in messaging, including my friend, Secretary Martin Andanar.
Good messaging should strike the public on both the intellectual and emotional levels. Intellectually, the message must inform, educate, and persuade. Emotionally, it must sway the public into adapting government’s point of view (promote empathy), it must impart a sense of security in government’s position (propagate trust) and provide assurances that government has the greater good of the majority in mind, regardless of political color (ensure inclusiveness). The present system of messaging succeeds in the intellectual aspect but fails on the emotional.
Unfortunately, the manner by which government handles its messaging is fraught with follies. Among them is speaking from a position of moral ascendancy like a priest talking to a flock of sinners. Speaking in this manner breeds resentment against government and the person delivering the message. Another bad habit is criticizing political foes and those who oppose government. Doing so only minimizes the message. It cultivates divisiveness. Yet another folly is being combative in the delivery of a message.
Being argumentative, belligerent, and antagonistic makes government appear defensive and unsure. It debases the real message beneath. Of course, the most common mistake of all is paying homage to the President at every opportunity, as if he is a demigod. This makes the message sound like propaganda and makes the messenger appear like a patronizing politico. It foster doubt on government’s position.
Public messaging, as it is being done today, is doing this government a great disservice. Given the many good things happening in the realm of infrastructure development and the economy in general, this administration can very well be the most popular and most beloved administration in Philippine history. It is missing that opportunity.
These are my thoughts on how to improve government messaging.
There will always be a place for print, television, and radio in as far as disseminating information is concerned. Their greatest value is that they give newsfeeds instant credibility.
That said, we cannot deny the importance of social media in today’s world. Studies show that among the 67 million Internet users in the Philippines, 66 million are Facebook users. In other words, practically every Filipino has a Facebook account. Analytics further show that the Filipino Facebook user spends a whopping 17% of his day scrolling through feeds, more time than he does watching television.
There are 10 million Filipinos on Instagram, half of whom are youth voters aged 19 to 29 and highly educated. On Twitter, 9.5 Filipinos have active accounts.
The Filipino dedicates 21% of his day flicking through his mobile phone, whether to send text messages, check e-mails or surf social media sites. Mobile phones have overtaken laptops, desktops, and pads as the means to connect to the World Wide Web.
With such compelling statistics, it baffles me why government agencies only maintain token accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I say “token” because while they are present on these social media sites, they are not managed professionally nor are their feeds designed to engage. Engagement is measured by views, likes, comments and shares.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of social media engagement. Consider these facts: CNN, the world’s primary source of newsfeeds, generates most of its traffic not from its own website but from Facebook. Youtube, the 4th most visited website in the world, generates more traffic from Facebook and Twitter than any other site. Government agencies and politicians who are active on Instagram have been proven to achieve two times higher approval ratings than those absent from it.
The social media revolution is upon us and it has changed the way we consume news and how we form opinions. Interestingly, however, with the advent of fake news and rise of political propaganda, people are increasingly looking at their trusted friends to discern what is credible news and what is fluff. Thus, newsfeeds that travel in social media through “shares” are deemed more believable than those obtained through traditional sources. A shared newsfeed is akin to an endorsement. Thus, it is the new holy grail of public messaging.
As a humble media practitioner, I offer the following suggestions to government to improve their public messaging.
Government must realize that video is the language of the digital space. Video feeds have proven to have a higher penetration rates than the written word simply because they are easier and more entertaining to process through mobile phones. Hence, it is recommended that important and/or contentious messages be communicated through a video platform.
The millennial audience are the most active sharers of newsfeeds. Hence, the challenge is to make the newsfeed interesting to them. This can be done through witty captions, interesting illustrations, or infographics. Failure to engage the youth can cause a newsfeed to fade in social media oblivion.
Authenticity is king. Spokespersons who re-interpret messages in their own words and who provide personal insights on it makes for effective and more interesting communication. It promotes empathy and makes the message both relatable and agreeable. If a video message can include the back story or behind the scene view of an issue, then its chances of it going viral increases exponentially.
The opposite of authenticity is political posturing. Nothing debases credibility more than messages tainted with political grandstanding.
A message become more sympathetic when it uses the language/lingo of those affected by the newsfeed. For example, if a message relates to farmers, then it must be relayed in the vernacular and framed in their perspective.
Messages that evoke strong emotions are likely to travel further, virally. Strong emotions can include disdain, anger, pride, or even compassion. Whatever the underlying emotion is, it must be framed under an overarching context of national interest.
Influencers matter. Like I said earlier, netizens are more likely to believe a friend or a personality they trust rather than a government spokesperson. If a message can be relayed by a trusted member of the community, it will instantly gain credibility. For example, on the Boracay closure issue, if endorsement of closure is relayed by a hotel owner himself citing long-term gains for short-term sacrifice, then the message will be wholeheartedly received without question.
One note, however, the influencer must relay the message in his own words and style. A puppet is easily detectable and using one can backfire.
Include a call to action on the message. A call to action can be as direct as soliciting mass action or as innocuous as simply asking the public’s support. Either way, a call to action gives the audience a sense of ownership towards the message.
Boost your message. There is no shame in paying a fee to reach a wider audience.
Finally, listen to the analytics. Government must regularly analyze the historical demographics of those who were engaged by a past newsfeed. Analyzing what works and what doesn’t is key towards making future messages achieve higher engagement.
We now live in a digital world and government agencies who fail to adapt to the social media paradigm will either fail in their messaging or become irrelevant.
Andrew J. Masigan is an economist.