Speaking for the nation

Foreign ministry spokesperson shares his thoughts on a job where every word has to be weighed carefully before it is uttered.

Foreign ministry spokesperson Bui Le Dung on his way to a press briefing. Dung says the job is about the art of balancing both calmness and frankness.

Foreign ministry spokesperson Bui Le Dung on his way to a press briefing. Dung says the job is about the art of balancing both calmness and frankness.

Twenty years ago, a 28-year-old graduate of the then Institute of International Relations was excited about heading to New York City as part of the country’s entourage to the United Nations.

At the time, Bui Le Dung was the youngest member of the delegation.

“That was a very difficult period for us,” Dung recalled in a recent conversation with Thanh Nien. “We were still under the embargo of the United States, and at that time, the American public and its media weren’t leaning towards us.”

Now, as the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the 48- year-old is virtually the spokesperson for the country, a very familiar face for both international and domestic reporters, doing a job where, he joked, he “would get fired if one word went wrong.”

Dung says his official brief is to explain and clarify issues relating to Vietnam that the public and other countries are interested in.

In a country where there is no tradition of having spokespersons at every government office at all levels, the job is even tougher and doesn’t begin or end with appearing twice every month in front of the media.

“For that five to ten minutes, we have to prepare for weeks and must be able to update information until the last minute,” Dung says. “And by the last minute, I mean from the moment I leave the office to the moment I enter the briefing room.”

Dung says he never stops learning something new, and sticks to a longstanding habit of noting down everything he feels necessary.

When the former Foreign Affairs Minister Nguyen Co Thach once requested the staff to find a sentence in a speech by the Cambodian King Sihanouk, no one was able to find it except Dung, who happened to have written the sentence down in one of his notebooks.

“For me, this job isn’t much different from a soldier entering a battle,” he says. “There have been many times when I’ve had to face provoking questions and the only way you can do it is by staying calm.”

And that holds true even when he is frustrated that the facts have been twisted.

Speaking for the nation, according to Dung, is really the art of balancing both calmness and frankness, meaning one has to phrase things in a way that addresses the reporters’ questions but also “directs” the news issues.

“You have to be flexible in all situations. That’s the trick. Your gestures must reflect what you want to say and that takes a lot of practice.”

Dung says he tries to pack his answers with diverse information, though for some issues considered “sensitive,” he must stay very focused and accurate with every single word. Sometimes, this is criticized by reporters as providing “same-same” answers.

“I know the White House spokesperson often make jokes during briefings to make things less stressful. I do it as well, but not often. Our culture is different and that doesn’t allow me to go beyond the limit.”

Dung says he tries his best not to avoid a single question. “The worst thing you can do in a press briefing is not answer questions.”

At home? “The spokesperson is my wife.

“She understands my job. Sometimes, I have to wake up at midnight to answer phone calls from reporters but I don’t mind. For reporters, information is like their food. I want to help them provide accurate and fair stories.”

Reported by Xuan Danh

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