April 13, 2017

Duterte vs the World: it's time to review our international PR strategy

Social media is arguably one of the biggest factors behind President Rodrigo Duterte’s surprise win in the May 2016 elections and his continuing popularity almost a year into his term. Despite the chronically slanted coverage of oligarch-owned mainstream news outfits, Duterte still enjoys sky-high ratings that exceeds even those of former President Aquino and his “Cory Magic”.

But Social Media is not enough.

[FEATURED: Switzerland-based OFWs stage a demonstration in support of the Duterte Government earlier this month.]

The Domestic Public Relations War

Clearly, Facebook has become the primary battleground for local political discourse, and Duterte-aligned social media influencers collectively enjoy higher engagement rates than those of the opposition combined [TP: Mosquito Press].
For example, oppositionist Liberal Party (LP) Senator Bam Aquino attributed VP Leni Robredo plunging net satisfaction scores to “black propaganda”. Whether Anti-Robredo news’ is “black propaganda” or an inconvenient truth depends on which side of the political spectrum one belongs. However, one thing is clear: the propaganda war against Robredo is waged largely on Facebook, and it is extremely effective.
Suffice it to say, Duterte, his communications team, and independent Duterte-aligned social media influencers, have managed to cement his grip on popularity, at least for the foreseeable future. That is, I have good reason to believe the that local Public Relations battle has already been won, and the task of maintaining Duterte’s satisfaction ratings is just a matter of keeping the current supporter base within the fold.

This is the same reason why I, ThinkingPinoy, do not publish posts as often as I did a year ago. 
Just look at what the opposition did to Lascañas: instead of pushing for more local coverage, he was flown out of the country and has started to wreak PR havoc overseas. 
Sans any well-founded corruption issue against Duterte that may pop up in the future, Duterte will enjoy popular support until the end of his term, the same popular support that enables him to be as decisive as he is right now.

But the international PR situation is not as rosy.

Duterte vs the World

The international community’s opinion of the president can use some improvement, to say the least.

Let me state it more bluntly:
Thanks to overwhelmingly negative international media coverage, and his chronically acerbic language, most Westerners think he’s a mass murderer, with some believing that his administration is the reincarnation of the Third Reich.
I have extensively discussed the summary execution issue in "Duterte's War on Narcopolitics and Rappler's Bad Math," where I demonstrated how the oft-cited death toll statistic of 7,000 is the result of mangled definitions or worse, malice on the part of the reporter.

However, quoting part of an email from LP-aligned billionaire lobbyist Loida Nicolas-Lewis:
"(It) doesn't have to be true. (It) just needs to look like that.”

And that's exactly what happened.

In January, for example, the European Parliament has threatened to revoke our GSP+ status [Star], which will raise tariffs on our exports. But this pales in comparison to what happened just a few months before.

Late last year, US President Obama used sharp rhetoric to denounced what he perceived as Duterte-instigated human rights violations. At the rate they’re going, a Democrat win in the 2016 US National Elections might have resulted into intervention [TP: Goldberg]. Luckily for us, the Republican Trump won, allaying immediate fears of local political observers [TP: Good for PH].
Western Governments, which are mostly democratic like that of the Philippines, are composed of political animals who generally act in accordance with public opinion. The European Parliament in itself is amoral, and it derives its “morality” from what the general public has to say. The United States Congress generally works the same way, though I can safely say that it has less of conscience than Europe.

Europeans have an extremely negative opinion of Duterte, thanks to its media giants that have close ties with LP and Philippine mainstream media. Yes, the same Philippine mainstream media owned by the same abusive oligarchs that Duterte is desperately trying to rein in.

Take for example, the time when Senator Leila de Lima sent an aide to speak against the Philippine Government in the Human Rights International Forum in Geneva, and all we had as a defense is a passionate Filipina OFW:

I sincerely laud her passion and patriotism, but the fact remains that we have a better chance at being heard if the speaker has the imprimatur of the National Government. As a matter of fact, that Filipina's heartfelt statements fell onto deaf ears, as UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard, the same exact person that the Filipina was addressing, ignored her plea and continued disparaging the Philippine Government right after the event.

But I am digressing.

Time is of the essence

At this rate, it may only be a matter of time before we lose our GSP+ status. And worse, given Trump’s catastrophic unpopularity further exacerbated by launching airstrikes on Syria, it may only be a matter of time before he gets impeached and consequently replaced by Vice-president Mike Pence, a known supporter of “humanitarian intervention” [GR].
Humanitarian intervention is a euphemism for the threat or use of force by a state, group of states, or international organization.
While it may be argued that an American-led invasion of an increasingly China-friendly Philippines is unlikely, a Pence presidency brings with it a great likelihood of more subtle, but just as destructive, destabilization efforts against the Duterte Government.But before we go too far, let me make this very clear: Good Public Relations is not the end all and be all of successful diplomacy. It is, however, an integral part of it. And this dilemma is something that the internationally frowned-upon Duterte cannot sweep under the rug anymore.

Besides, I think Duterte owes much to Overseas Filipino Workers, the same OFWs who are suffering from the international PR backlash today. 

Just take a look at what his Switzerland-based Filipina had to say:

What can Duterte do?

Admit it or not, Duterte is a Western PR disaster and something has to be done so that international opinion will not translate to increasingly likely economic and military sanctions.

During their incumbency, Duterte’s predecessors had a solution for this: they have been known to hire influential international PR firms, or what I personally call “deodorants and sanitizers”.
President Aquino hired in 2010 an unnamed public relations firm for his US State Visit [Star]. Meanwhile, President Arroyo in 2002 hired Burson-Marsteller "to enhance the global image of the Philippines" especially in the eyes of "decision-makers from both government and private sectors [Star]."

The problem, however, is that Duterte seems put Public Relations at the end of his list of priorities. A cabinet secretary recently told me, “The president thinks PR is important, but he’d rather spend the money on infrastructure and food security, because he thinks they’re more important.”

I cannot really blame Duterte for his disinclination in spending government funds on PR. The Philippines, despite having one of the biggest economies on the planet, is still very poor. The pie is large but the number of people who’ll share the pie is so much larger.

The cost of hiring a PR company

A senior member of the Philippine Diplomatic Corps, who shall not be identified for lack of authority to speak on the matter, told me that they cost around US$3 million annually on the average.

Actually, Arroyo took it to the next level in 2007, as the beleaguered president allegedly hired influential US lobby firm Covington and Burling for US$ 50 million.

In fairness to Duterte, I believe that for now, his PR nightmare is not as bad as Arroyo’s in 2007. International Law scholar Paula Defensor-Knack herself explained that an ICC investigation is unlikely to lift off. Well, at least for now. Regardless, Duterte been espousal of austerity in public spending since his first day in Malacañang makes it extremely unlikely, even for his most trusted men, to convince him of doing what Aquino and Arroyo did. And even if he wanted to, Duterte will find it difficult to rival the drug-fueled pockets of the Liberal Party [TP: Jesse Robredo].

Even I would cringe at that kind of price tag: only LP drug lords will be okay with that!

But Duterte is the Patron Saint of Striking a Compromise and of Finding the Middle Ground.

His stance against corruption, drugs, and criminality are non-negotiables, and I am happy about that. However, his stance on other issues, especially those that he admittedly isn’t very good at, can be negotiated.

Take, for example, the Php 2,000 SSS pension hike issue:
His three populist cabinet members – Agrarian Reform Sec. Mariano, Social Welfare Sec. Taguiwalo, and NAPC Chair Maza – were totally for it. Meanwhile, his three economic managers – Finance Sec. Dominguez, Budget Sec. Diokno, and NEDA Chief Pernia – were reportedly against raising pensions by P2,000, arguing that doing so would drastically shorten the SSS fund’s actuarial life. 
Duterte met them halfway: he approved a Php 1,000 pension hike [Inq].
Now, what’s the halfway mark on the PR issue?

A Public Relations Compromise

To President Duterte and his men, I offer a compromise:
Please reinstate the Press Attaché position in major embassies.
From what I’ve learned through my friends in the Diplomatic Corps, Philippine embassies and consulates used to have press attachés that served as the single point of contact for media inquiries from their host state. 

With access to press attachés in their home country, foreign media organizations can get first-hand information about the issues they cover, instead of having to tap to their Philippine correspondents, who are mostly stringers whose primary employment is with Philippines’ Big Media.

And we know what Big Media thinks of the president [TP: Media’s Ego], especially after his recents tirades against ABS-CBN and the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Stringers are correspondents who are not on the regular staff of a news organization, especially one retained on a part-time basis to report on events in a particular place [Reuters].

Press attachés can also serve a lot of other purposes that I’d rather not mention in this article in the interest of National Security. If the higher-ups want to know more, they can contact me and I’d be more than willing to share my thoughts.

Overworked Ambassadors

Unfortunately, President Cory Aquino, upon assumption of her duties, decided to eliminate the press attaché position in our diplomatic roster, so we have not had a single full-time press attaché since 1986.

While some camps would say that ambassadors and consul generals can take over the press-related responsibilities, the fact of the matter is that almost every major embassy we have abroad suffers from serious personnel shortages. For one, I know of a few diplomatic missions where the head even has to occasionally man the embassy’s windows. That’s how bad the situation is.

Consuls and ambassadors are just too overworked as it is, and a dedicated press attaché is necessary to fill the gap, at least in terms of handling the country’s image overseas.

It’s safe to say that Duterte enjoys a certain degree of popularity in Asia while the South American and African States are already busy with domestic affairs, so we ned not reinstate press attachés in those three continents for now. Thus, we are left with the two continents to deal with: Europe and North America.

To cut on costs, my friends and I think that we can start with two key cities in the United States and two key cities in the European Union, i.e. we will open up only four press attaché positions for the meantime and see if it works.

How much would each press attaché cost? I bet it's just a small fraction of the US$ 3 million price tag I mentioned earlier.

With that said, having a press attaché is not a PR panacea but it will, at the least, help cushion the negative publicity overseas. With press attachés, international media outfits will have no excuse for not getting the government’s official side in every story. With press attachés, international media outfits will not have to source information from local stringers whose loyalties lie on their oligarchic employers.

Will the cost of having four press attachés outweigh potential losses from losing our GSP+ status? I think not, and don’t even get me started on the American Front.

Mr. President, the local PR battle has been won. It’s time to look beyond our borders. [ThinkingPinoy].

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