My early forays into the real world involved being an executive assistant (EA) and speechwriter of Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) Secretary Corazon “Dinky” Juliano-Soliman.
I was lucky.
In October 2003, a strange job ad on an erstwhile Yahoo Group landed in my inbox. The subject line - Looking for a speechwriter - stood out. What a fascinating gig that must be, I thought. I knew such a job existed but never knew anyone who was actually a speechwriter.
At the time, while going through the motions of a corporate day job, I was taking on freelance writing work. I had written several articles for a defunct rock magazine called Press (published by Tower Records). I had drafted marketing copy for a resort development project. I just loved to write, and in those days, I was trying to have some skin in the game, build a tangible portfolio of published work ready for flaunting to hiring managers.
But I had never written a speech before, and instantly deemed that a skill gap. I knew that if I seriously wanted to become a writer, then I should be able to write anything.
I submitted an application stat.
But to become a Cabinet secretary’s speechwriter, or anyone’s speechwriter for that matter, is no ordinary feat. You have to vicariously inhabit the person’s mind and adopt his or her way of thinking. That person, in this case, was Sec Dinky, who had such an important role and a massive portfolio to manage as head of the DSWD during the Arroyo administration.
She had neither the time nor the energy to train anyone to write for her.
I did not know it yet at the time but the easiest and most expeditious way to think like Sec Dinky was to become her EA, to learn the ropes within and outside the DSWD bureaucracy by helping her do her job and then write about that. That hiring decision rested on the Head Executive Assistant (HEA) - the Secretary’s right hand woman, the chief of staff.
Before that fateful encounter, one of the EAs who posted the job ad that prodded me to apply briefed me for my impending interview:
“Do you know who the boss is?”
“Do you know who the other Cabinet Secretaries are?”
“Do you read newspapers?”
The last negative answer to the last fundamental question was the final straw. The staff who conducted the pre-game became visibly worried. She urged me to start browsing the periodicals to gain a bare-bones understanding of the work they were doing. I was a top candidate apparently, though disappointingly unprepared. I needed that warning.
While waiting for the actual interview, I quickly scanned the room. The Office of the Secretary of Social Welfare and Development (OSEC) is mandated to help address issues of the impoverished and downtrodden, which are many in the Philippines (around 90 million at the time). The place was massive and decently appointed for a government office. The receiving area where I had my first meeting faced a row of cubicles where close-in staff did their work. Next to it was a lounge area nicely decorated with gifts from dignitaries encased in glass armoires. I would later learn that confidential meetings were held here. There were two gatekeepers guarding the Secretary’s private office, manning the door behind which phones kept ringing. An aide popped out of nowhere, her shoulder cradling a phone while frantically jotting down instructions. It was a nucleus of hyperactivity that felt so new to me.
I finally had my interview with the HEA, and soon I was offered the speechwriter job, on the condition that I would tag along with the Secretary for a while until I got to know her enough to write for her. The office was a mere five minutes away from my home and the pay was higher than what I got from my previous job. Hours were flexible and the work was output-based. Music to my ears, so I said yes.
In no time, I realized I just said yes to the mess.
The Secretary of any department in the executive branch of the Philippine government is the alter ego of the President. Sec Dinky’s job, therefore, was to represent and brief the head of state in all matters related to poverty alleviation and vulnerable groups such as abused women and children, persons with disabilities, the elderly and indigenous peoples in the country.
It is a tall order.
She also wore other hats: member of the Cabinet Social Protection cluster, member of the National Anti-Poverty Commission, member of the Disaster Risk Reduction office, and so on. (It was this confusing array that caused me to commit my first blunder - wrote a speech with her as the DSWD Secretary, not as the head of the Cabinet Social Protection cluster. There was a difference, apparently).
To help her perform well, Sec Dinky had bespoke preferences:
When traveling, she must be seated on the aisle in any of the first three rows of an aircraft. This ensured she could get up and go as soon as the captain was finished announcing it was safe to disembark. To make this happen, I would be at the airport at least an hour before her arrival so I could cajole the airline staff to give me the seat that was needed, in case it was no longer available.
If we had to stay somewhere overnight, the administrative staff would typically book one room with two beds. Not only was this meant to save a lot of taxpayer’s money since she traveled often, but a single room was ideal for working on last-minute edits at midnight. As the obvious “slave” in this arrangement, I had to be up by 4AM to use the bathroom, make sure it is clean and ready for her to use, because by 530AM she would be up and ready, already taking calls and doing phone-patch interviews for the AM radio shows. The phones, therefore, must be fully charged. The briefing papers for the day’s engagements would be spread out neatly and in chronological order while I waited for the breakfast I had ordered to be ready.
On average, Sec Dinky would accommodate five engagements in a day, especially when hopping from one island to another in the least touristy way. This would be a combination of meetings, speaking engagements, and media interviews. She preferred to fit everything in and make her rare visits worth her while. The feasibility of such a packed schedule depended on the proximity of one meeting venue to another. It was my job to schedule meetings with very few venue changes as much as possible.
For example, when I staffed for her at an event at the port in Allen, Samar, which was six hours away by car from Tacloban, she was already meeting with the Regional Director in the vehicle. She had to because the travel time is 12 hours total. Balikan was the norm.
As the assigned EA, I was there to listen and take notes, and sleep only when the boss was dozing off. When there was a lull, I would scan the horizon, and discover for myself why traveling in this part of the country was so tragically slow and painful. The roads were not paved, and in some areas, there were hardly any roads at all. I would include such observations in my notes because Sec Dinky would also notice where the journey was unusually bumpy, and whose congressional jurisdiction that was.
When we were in Manila, her average load did not include unscheduled but important side meetings while Sec Dinky was walking.
No time was ever wasted with Sec Dinky. That was her policy and that was part of our training. When in transit, I would brief her on messages missed while she was delivering a speech or was in a closed-door meeting. She would give her instructions, then I would write them all down and start calling people back. Meanwhile, some of our colleagues on the ground would hitch a ride with us and use that time to raise their grievances privately. I would record everything by hand and prepare the notes later, or relay to the HEA by text those that needed urgent attention. I would also start calling the point person at our next appointment, so that when we reached our destination, the person we were supposed to meet would be right there waiting for us.
I would also make sure there were no banners screaming “Welcome Honorable Secretary Dinky Soliman” because boy, did she hate that. She found the practice costly and unnecessary.
On our arrival, I would hand her the briefing folder, the contents of which I will describe in detail below.
The briefing folder should have a plastic cover so the Secretary can view right away the table of contents. It contained:
a) A cover page, with a header stating the 4Ws in big bold letters, and the table of contents below it
b) The letter of invitation, with the purpose of the meeting highlighted (in any color except purple - that is the ink color that Sec Dinky uses to sign documents)
c) The event profile sheet that completely answers the following questions:
i) What’s the theme of the event?
ii) What is the agenda?
iii) What is the Secretary’s role?
iv) Who are the VIPs?
v) What is the attire?
vi) Is there media coverage?
d) The speech / talk points / interview questions
e) Profiles of the VIPs with pictures
f) Other background materials on the event that would help the Secretary do her job well
Each item is organized in that order of importance and should be tabbed with big letters from A to F or G or H. We refrained from using plastic tabs as those were expensive and wasteful. We had staff at the office who did the archiving and prepared the little tabs with letters printed on scratch paper.
As an executive assistant, I would prepare every single item in this folder, the speech being the hardest one to finalize, especially since I was just starting out.
Imagine the chaos in preparing five briefing folders for five meetings happening in one day. I had help, of course, but the assigned EA still oversees the content and everything else that goes into those folders. I would read them all before I had them dropped off at Sec Dinky’s house because she would browse through them the night before.
On D-Day (which was every day for a while), who could walk with the Secretary or confer with her in a closed vehicle was managed by the assistant. Everyone wanted a piece of her, but not everyone deserved her time. The assistant had to be quick to detect who could make contact and be just as quick to use a big workbag to block those who could not.
This workbag had seen better days but it saved my life countless times. It contained:
- A notebook
- Black pen (my preference)
- Purple pen (my boss’ preference) - a standout color helped us find signed documents swiftly
- A pack of A4 size bond paper
- Calling cards (mine and the boss’s)
- Cellphones (mine and a work phone)
- Portable chargers
- An office supplies kit (mini stapler, staple wires, USB, adaptors, etc)
- A collapsible umbrella
- Baby wipes
- Vanity kit (because I still needed to look presentable, especially whenever my boss was interviewed on TV and I was there right behind her)
The laptop is in a separate bag.
I carried everything but the kitchen sink.
I was 22 when I got this gig, a great age to be a government slave. I was single. I was living with my parents. I had nothing to worry about but myself.
My life then was my work, but I had no inkling that I was missing out on socials or family events.
If anything, it felt like I was really living because I was doing something important.
That went on for eight months, until I tried my hand in the private sector for a while, missed working for the government, and resumed the insanity three years later for a Senator who would become our country’s 15th President - Benigno “Noynoy” S. Aquino III.
You must be wondering what the trade-offs were in this high-octane work situation.
The good news is, there were many.
I was working for a boss who was ready to outwork me - Sec Dinky. Her energy was palpable and unfailing. You cannot help but feel embarrassed whenever your eyes would struggle to stay open and she would still be wide awake, hard at work.
She insisted that we respond to every letter and every email. “The least we can do for the poor is to give them the dignity of a response,” she once said.
I was tasked to handle her email. One day, someone came to our office looking for me, which was odd and unexpected. When I asked her who she was, she told me that she had received a response from me, that she had never heard from her government until she read my reply and that she came by to personally thank me. The woman had lost three of her four children to the same incurable ailment. She just needed someone who would listen. I was speechless, but grateful that I was able to respond, no matter how seemingly trivial that was, because that was what Sec Dinky had instructed me to do. I was just doing my job. I remember drafting an endorsement of her request to the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO), copying all the relevant agencies, and using the full force of the government’s power at my disposal, to help her and many others like her.
A short work reply that changed me for life - that was the Dinky effect.
A weekend I did not spend listening to an uncle’s horrible karaoke singing at a birthday lunch would be spent on the field instead, inspecting an irrigation system that was constructed using our community development model. It could also mean traveling to geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas (GIDAs) and interacting with indigenous peoples.
Working with Sec Dinky was never boring. In fact, it was almost always the adventure of a lifetime.
There were many hours typically spent by normal people watching a movie or listening to music that I devoted to absorbing the wisdom of my boss every time she speaks. That was my education that I never got from school.
In all these scenarios, I was learning, growing and getting better every day.
Thank you Sec Dinky for going above and beyond the call of duty and for inspiring me, through your example, to become a better person.
Thank you for exposing me to the plight of our people from all walks of life. Thank you for thinking of me even after the heady days in Malacañang, tapping my services as your researcher and writer to help secure the gains of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) - the flagship poverty alleviation program of the Aquino administration. It was another opportunity for me to know my country up close, to visit the farthest corners and hear directly from the people we had vowed to serve, how the government was working, or not working, for them.
Thank you for your long, selfless service to the Filipino people, whose gratitude for your work I heard many times in my work travels across the archipelago.
And thank you Sir Hec, Dino and Kit for sharing Sec Dinky with us. I know I am a better person because of her.
In our grief, I could hear her mustering the willpower in us through her clarion call: