DAVAO CITY – President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has named Ernesto Abella as "one of his designated spokespersons," and not as a deputy of incoming presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo.
Abella was initially identified as Panelo's assistant after Duterte's camp released a video that labeled the former pastor as the incoming "presidential deputy spokesperson" Monday night.
“I don’t know if Sal Panelo and I are co-equals. I don’t know if my position is Cabinet-rank. All I know is that he (Duterte) needs a conduit from himself to the people and the press, and this is one of his practical ways of dealing with it,” Abella told reporters in Davao City on Tuesday night.
Details about the dynamics of Duterte’s communications group have yet to be ironed out, as Abella and Panelo have not yet met.
Neither does Abella know who will head Duterte’s communications group nor how he and Panelo would divide the task of relaying the President-elect’s official statements.
The incoming Davaoeño spokesperson said his goal as Duterte’s spokesperson is simple -- "to be as clear and as precise as possible about the issues at hand."
“What we desire is a national conversation where people will listen to one another and people will be able to speak clearly as possible,” Abella said.
When asked if he would bring the media closer to the 71-year-old firebrand who has shunned interviews after being criticized by some media groups, including international media organization Reporters Without Borders, for his remarks on unlawful killings, Abella said everything will fall into place “at the right time.”
“I cannot speak for his (Duterte’s) feelings about the media. But at this particular stage, he is cautiously stating his case through a spokesperson,” Abella told reporters.
“We will try to keep our relationship warm,” he added.
FROM KIDNAP VICTIM TO SOCIAL MEDIA CRUSADER
Prior to becoming a presidential alter ego, Abella was kidnapped by bandits for 24 hours in 1996.
“They did not tie me up. I was not blindfolded. Apparently, they were confident that I would not in any way be able to reveal their real identity. They treated me well, but at a certain stage, it looked like they were going to eliminate me,” Abella narrated.
He said Duterte was instrumental in his rescue after the Davao mayor called several Moro National Liberation Front commanders to “ensure that he will be preserved."
Fast forward to the campaign period for the 2016 presidential polls, Abello took part in Duterte’s presidential bid by campaigning for the Davao mayor through social media.
Abella, who identifies himself as a social entrepreneur by profession, said some of his Facebook posts about the PDP-Laban standard bearer went viral, but downplayed possibilities that his social media posts were his ticket to becoming part of the President-elect’s inner circle.
Abella said the offer to become a presidential spokesperson came “sometime ago, but was only confirmed recently,” prior to his appearance on state-run channel PTV4 where he announced three new incoming Cabinet members.
He said it was not hard to cross paths with Duterte as Davao is a “small society” where he had a lot of “good acquaintances."
“I know Jess Dureza from Ateneo. I know Jun Yasay from church. Sonny Dominguez was a few years ahead of us in Ateneo,” Abella said.
Unlike his peers in the Duterte Cabinet, Abella admitted that he does not have prior experience in working for the government.
He worked mostly in the private sector where he sat as a former board member of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches, Philippine Missions Association, and Koinonia Thelogical Seminary.
Abella used to be a creative director for an ad agency, a columnist for a local daily, and an instructor at the Ateneo de Davao College.
He also served as the former chief executive officer of F&P Agri-Inputs and AZ Agri-products.
Before taking on the role as Duterte’s spokesman, he took a sabbatical leave from his role as the founder of the One Accord Credit Cooperative and Southpoint School in Davao.
His family also has to adjust to his current role in the incoming administration as they had to leave their home in Tagaytay to transfer to a residence that is closer to Malacanang.
Abella said the changes are all part of the job title. He just hopes that he will do well in being the President-elect’s “talking head.”