February 17, 2017

#NasaanAngPangulo: Mamasapano, Mar Roxas's ambition, and a PR operator

A close friend and I hung out for dinner with former National Youth Commissioner and former MTRCB Board Member Michael “Mike” Acebedo Lopez last week. Unsurprisingly, what started out as a small talk quickly shifted to conversation on politics, a conversation that is as juicy as it gets.

He said then Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, in a desperate attempt to salvage his presidential ambitions, engaged in a multi-million-peso PR campaign against then President Aquino, a campaign aimed at pinning all the blame over Mamasapano on Aquino.

These kinds of stories, my friends, is what I live for.

 But first, I think it’s important to give you a short background on the Mamasapano Clash.

Mamasapano 101

The 25 January 2015 Mamasapano Clash was a bloody confrontation between the PNP Special Action Forces (SAF) and the BIFF-MILF. Intended to kill or capture Malaysian terrorist Marwan, the clash led to the deaths of 44 SAF policemen, arguably a steep price to pay for the death of just one terrorist.

A bungled operation, the Mamasapano Clash was made more controversial by the fact that it was headed by Aquino and then PNP Chief Alan Purisima, who was suspended from service at the time. Interior Secretary Roxas, who had authority over the PNP, was reportedly not notified of the operation.

For oppositionists, the Mamasapano Clash became the symbol of incompetence of the Aquino Administration, with a sitting president opting to delegate authority to a suspended general and totally disregarding the Interior Secretary, despite the latter’s authority over the police.

Yes, Aquino left Roxas was out in the cold, making the latter appear inutile in the eyes of the general public.

And with a little over a year before the May 2016 Elections, Roxas’ much-delayed presidential ambitions have suddenly become under threat.

The dejected Roxas, who stepped aside in 2010 to allow Aquino to be the Liberal Party presidential bet, suddenly faced the prospect of having to delay his presidential hopes for another six years, given the massively negative PR fallout of the Mamasapano clash.

Now, let’s go back to Mike’s story.

Aquino vs Roxas vs Aquino 

The lifeless bodies of the slain SAF44 were transported back to Manila in the morning of 29 January 2016. Present to honor the slain policemen were former President Ramos, then Vice President Binay, and top officials of the military and the police. Aquino, who was widely being blamed for the incident, was conspicuously absent in the arrival ceremony, having opted to attend the inauguration of a Mitsubishi Plant in Laguna.

And here’s where Lopez’s story begins.

Lopez said a publicist-friend, a well-known figure in the political PR industry, contacted him later that afternoon.

The publicist-friend, who’s fully aware of Lopez’s chronic disdain for the Aquinos, asked Lopez for help in coming up with a list of anti-Aquino Twitter hashtags relating to the Mamasapano Clash, for use in a PR campaign to be launched at 6:00 PM of the same day.

“That lady knows how I feel about PNoy,” Lopez said.

Lopez said he vividly remembers all the events of that day because it was also when his mother was rushed to the hospital because of a medical emergency.
Lopez said he asked her about the purpose behind the request.

According to Lopez, she said Roxas’ DILG Chief of Staff Tomasito Villarin commissioned her to launch a PR campaign aimed at pinning the blame over Mamasapano onto Aquino, with the hope of minimizing the bad publicity that Villarin’s principal, DILG Sec. Roxas, would receive.

Lopez obliged and shortly thereafter, he sent the publicist-friend a list of 10 to 15 anti-Aquino hashtags.

The publicist-friend used one of the Twitter hashtags Lopez made.

The Twitter hashtag? #NasaanAngPangulo. (#WhereisthePresident).

#NasaanAngPangulo

Lopez said the anti-Aquino black propaganda campaign, instigated and funded by the Roxas camp, was launched later at 6:00 PM.

Lopez said his publicist-friend maintains a fleet of major social media influencers with hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of followers, enabling the latter to manipulate Twitter trending topics to her clients’ favor.

The hashtag quickly trended worldwide, creating over 500 million impressions, and with major evening newscasts TV Patrol, 24 Oras, and Bandila reporting about it later that night.
Lopez said since then, his publicist-friend’s PR firm reused this amazingly successful hashtag every time Aquino went missing in the middle of a crisis.

Lopez declined to name this publicist-friend, although he said she’s very well known in political circles, and that she’s popular for being one of the glitziest PR operators in the country.

Truth be told, Lopez didn’t have to name her, as Lopez has provided me with enough information to find out who she is.

And that’s what I did. But first, I had to make sure that Lopez isn’t just making this all up.

Senyora SantibaƱez

Lopez said his publicist-friend pool of influencers include social media superstar Senyora, formerly known as Senyora SantibaƱez, the same Senyora whose Facebook Page was recently unpublished.

Incidentally, I know who Senyora is in real life, so I asked her about it.
Yes, THIS Senyora.
Senyora said she used to work with the PR firm that handled #NasaanAngPangulo, although she has cut ties with the company not long after that, citing the publicist’s habit of shortchanging her social media influencers.

Senyora admitted that she was asked to help trend #NasaanAngPangulo, although she wasn’t able to focus on it because she was busy with school work at the time, so she wasn’t compensated for the project.

Senyora is 21 years old as of this article’s writing, and she was still in college when she was contacted regarding #NasaanAngPangulo.
Many major social media influencers make money through native ad placements, or advertisements that follow the influencer’s general theme so that followers will find it harder to distinguish it from regular postings.

For example, Senyora can crack a joke about corned beef, mentioning a particular brand of corned beef in the process. That brand’s manufacturer, through the PR firm, will then pay Senyora thousands of pesos for mentioning the brand. The problem, however, is that the PR firm handling #NasaanAngPangulo has a history of giving compensation in kind, and whose value is a lot lower that the going rate.

To cut the long story short, Senyora basically corroborated Lopez’s claim that the latter’s publicist-friend handled #NasaanAngPangulo.

At this point, I am inclined to believe Lopez’s story, but I am not done yet.

Let me ask the question: Who is Lopez’s publicist-friend?

ThinkingPinoy investigates.

Scouring ThinkingPinoy’s Network

One of the things Lopez said was that his publicist-friend was a tattle-tale, i.e. she finds it difficult to keep her mouth shut. That is, she took ownership of the #NasaanAngPangulo hashtag project and in defiance of common sense, used it sales presentations to other political camps.I have gained an invaluable network of political contacts over the past year and half, so I contacted each of them. I specifically asked:

“Has any PR firm ever shown you a sales presentation using #NasaanAngPangulo?”.

Two camps said yes, and one of them even provided me a copy of the excel file that the PR firm gave them as part of the sales presentation.

The filename was “CaseStudy2015.xls”, and you can download it here.

Examining the Excel file

Of course, there’s always the possibility that an excel file has been tampered with, if not totally fabricated. However, after right-clicking on the file’s icon and selecting “Properties”, and navigating to the “Details” tab, the following information was diplayed:


Let me re-type some of the information shown in the screenshot.
ORIGIN
Last saved by Joyce Ramirez
Program name Microsoft Macintosh Excel
Content Created 7/10/2011 6:49 PM
Date Last Saved 08/02/2015 2:41 PM
“Content Created” refers to when the file first existed. The original file could’ve been an old excel spreadsheet template used for a new data set, so it won’t matter. What’s more important, however, is the “Date Last Saved” field, which indicates that it was last saved on 02 August 2015, or about seven months after #NasaanAngPangulo trended worldwide.

Sounds just about right.

I created a copy of the same file and attempted to modify its document properties using MSExcel, but Excel does not allow changing “Joyce Ramirez” and the dates.

In short, I have good reason to believe that the file is authentic, and that it was originally created using the computer of a certain "Joyce Ramirez".

I asked Senyora if that PR firm lady is Joyce Ramirez.

Senyora said yes.

Who exactly is Joyce Ramirez

Based on her LinkedIn Profile:
Joyce A. Ramirez is the Lead Publicist of PR ASIA Worldwide - a leading entertainment PR and creative communications agency that works with a diverse roster of clients ranging from A-list global stars to content creators to consumer technology companies...
Meanwhile, based on PR Asia Worldwide’s LinkedIn Company Profile:
PR ASIA WORLDWIDE is the Philippines' leading ENTERTAINMENT and CELEBRITY PR agency. Founded by International Publicist Joyce A. Ramirez in 2004, the agency now represents some of the biggest brands in the world…
According to the company website’s about page:
PR Asia Worldwide (PR ASIA) is a leading publicity network with main headquarters located in Manila, Philippines with an international booking office in Los Angeles, California. The agency, recognized across Southeast Asia as the leading digital PR agency in the Philippines and one of the most popular PR firms in the region, is consistently recognized for its worldwide trending campaigns and unique, original executions.
Senyora confirmed that this is the same high profile publicist Joyce Ramirez that double-crossed her. The two political camps I contacted earlier also confirmed it’s her who delivered the presentation.

Meanwhile, Lopez refused to confirm that this is the same publicist friend, although his rather shocked facial expression gave it away.

What the Excel Sheet says

A look inside the excel file shows the title “CASE STUDY: #NasaanAngPangulo (2015)”.

The spreadsheet is divided into seven columns, namely:
1. MEDIA OUTLET, or where the PR material was published
2. SECTION, or the section of the media outlet where the material was published
3. CATEGORY, which is either “Public Affairs” or “Opinion”
4. COVERAGE, which can be TV, Online, Radio, or Print
5. PR VALUE, or the return on investment
6. TIME, or the airtime allotted for the PR material in cases of TV or Radio broadcasts
7. ONLINE LINKS, or references to help the prospective client verify the claim
According to the spreadsheet, the #NasaanAngPangulo project's Ron is US$2.45 million which, at the time, was equivalent to Php 107.8 million. A snapshot of a section of the spreadsheet is shown below:

First on the list is “INTERXN 1800H ACTIVATION”. INTERXN is Ramirez’s network of social media influencers, while 1800H refers to the time of the campaign’s activation, i.e. 6:00 PM.

Afterwards,  it was then picked up by mainstream media.

On the list were major newscasts of from the Big 3 TV networks.  Also the list were DZMM, Yahoo Philippines, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Abante Tonite, Pep Ph, Spot.Ph, Canadian Inquirer, FHM Online, Manila Standard Today, Philippine Star, Abante Online, Online, Global Voices, Tempo Online, Inquirer.Net, Philippine Star, Asian Journal, Philippine Star, Tempo, and ANC News, among others.

The spreadsheet is unclear about the methodology behind the PR value estimate.

However, by the sheer size of the list, I have reason to believe that at least some of employees of the abovementioned organizations benefitted from Ramirez’s financial machinations.

Regardless of the fine print, I believe it’s safe to deduce that the Roxas Camp’s black propaganda against then President Aquino, despite its astronomic cost, was very effective in hammering the message that Aquino is to blame.

That is, it’s clear that as #NasaanAngPangulo entered public consciousness, Mar’s task of fending of criticism against him became much, much easier… So what did Roxas do while this PR campaign was being rolled out?

After initially denying any knowledge of the Mamasapano operation before it took place, Roxas backtracked in February 2015 when he said that he knew of the operation and texted PNoy about it to which the latter replied, “Thank you.

Why? Because Ramirez is already taking care of it?

Questions, Questions, Questions

These discoveries led me to ask the following questions:

First, just how desperate was Mar Roxas to become president?

While Ramirez supposedly claimed that Roxas right hand man Tom Villarin was her contact person, there is no way Villarin, who hails from LP-aligned partylist Akbayan, could have funded that operation. That is, Mar, the scion of a one of the richest families in the country, must have provided the money, right?

Is Mar so desperate to become president that he doesn’t mind throwing delicadeza out the window? Mar screamed, “Ituloy ang Daang Matuwid!,” in May 2016… so what exactly did he mean with “Daang Matuwid”? Surely, spending millions of pesos in destroying a close ally via black propaganda isn’t “Daang Matuwid,” right?

Second, up to what extent can mainstream media be manipulated?

I think it’s pretty clear that Ramirez’ operation is aimed at manipulating public discourse,  and that mainstream media fell prey to it. So, just how many times have the public been manipulated?  SURELY,  this is not the only project of this kind.

Is this the same technique used in the recent anti-Duterte media blitzes?  Just how much have these anti-Duterte media blitzes cost the opposition so far?

It’s interesting to note that mainstream media has been on the offensive against bloggers, accusing the latter of lack of accountability and irresponsible reporting. This is despite the fact that they themselves fall prey to fake, manipulated news.

Third, how much does Leni Robredo know about this?

A person who wants to lead the country must, at the least, be cognizant of the internal struggles of her own political party. Surely, Leni Robredo, being the standard-bearer of the Liberal Party, should have known about this. Did she choose to run for VP even if she knew that her running mate, Roxas, was a backstabbing bitch?

Did Leni Robredo accept the VP nomination without batting an eyelash, or was she totally clueless about this issue, just like most other issues facing the country today?


Epilogue

The English author and satirist Douglas Adams once wrote:
“It is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it... anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”
And boy! I’m so glad that Mar didn’t make it but then, I cannot help but ask:

If Robredo supporters are hell bent on replacing Duterte with Robredo, are they basically amenable to the idea that they will be putting back to power the Liberal Party, whose own members betray each other?

And lastly, a President Leni Robredo means she gets to appoint a new VP from the senate.

Are Robredo supporters amenable to a VP Hontiveros, de Lima, Trillanes, or, God Forbid, Drilon?

And how certain are Robredo supporters that her appointed vice president will not stab her in the back, similar to how Mar Roxas backstabbed Aquino… with a hundred-million-peso knife?

Power should only be given to men who want it least.

Surely, that person is neither Roxas nor Robredo. [ThinkingPinoy]

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