Everyone’s talking about Bongbong Marcos’ absence in this or that presidential interview, and being a no-show in this and that forum. To his detractors, it’s a sign of cowardice, of the presidential aspirant’s unwillingness to face accusations and his unpreparedness to offer a convincing response.
To Alan German, a veteran campaign strategist, politicians who intentionally choose to miss out on certain interviews and debates might just be taking advantage of their right to do so, doing it in the name of establishing narrative control. According to him: “Kailangan ikaw ang may control ng istorya, ng sinasabi [ng ibang tao] tungkol sa iyo, as much as possible.”
German was recently a guest on the evening program SRO Teleradyo where he shared insider insights and his on-ground experience when it comes to elections. A “Persuasion Specialist”—at least that’s what he prefers to be called (he doesn’t mind the tag “spin doctor,” too)—German is the head of Agents International, considered one of the country’s top political PR companies, a group founded by his father Reli, veteran kingmaker, the man who coined “Tama na! Sobra na,” and the guy who invented Erap jokes.
To hear the younger German say it, not showing up in a public debate or a televised interview is a candidate’s prerogative. “Kung mahuhubaran ka lang sa isang venue, aba e mas maigi sigurong umiwas ka diyan,” he said. “Kasi there are other ways naman na mae-establish ang tinatawag na narrative control—magpa-interview ka sa isang friendly [host], or i-stage natin [ang interview], or bawiin na lang natin sa commercial, bawiin na lang natin sa YouTube or sa Facebook.”
German said political strategists employ cost-benefit analysis in deciding whether an interview or debate would be beneficial or a detriment to a political career. “Merong net neutral, net negative, net positive,” the advisor added. “So it’s up to the strategist na mag-decide, ‘Net neutral yan, sige sabak tayo diyan. Wala namang mawawala. Wala din naman malaking maitutulong sa kampanya. Sige okey na rin yan.’ Pero may mga pagkakataon na net negative [there’s more to lose than to gain].” A situation that is net positive would have an overall gainful impact on one’s chances and is therefore most preferred.
But isn’t bad publicity still publicity?
Well, it’s an ancient belief and it doesn’t always work, German said. According to him, Filipinos have varying sensibilities. “Siguro pag-aralan natin ng mabuti ang definition ng bad publicity,” he suggested. “Yung tinatawag nilang macho culture sa Filipino, halimbawa maraming asawa, may chicks—hindi na bad publicity yan sa Filipino. In fact, nakakabuti pa yan minsan. People will say, ‘Ay, barako.’ Yung pagmumura or tinatawag nilang pagiging authentic, kumakabit din yan sa Pilipino e. So bad publicity has to be qualified.”
What really puts a candidate in a bad light is when he or she fails to fulfill what was promised. “Yung may ipinangako ka sa isang interview o debate, at nalaman ng tao na hindi mo pala kayang tuparin ito, diyan malalagay sa alanganin ang kandidato,” said German.
Based on his agency’s studies, there are three major issues a candidate should definitely avoid getting embroiled in, especially in the months leading to the elections—issues involving murder, children, and graft and corruption.
Being involved in the last one is a big deal among Filipino voters, according to German. “Resonant yan lalo na pag nagkaroon ng exposé shortly before the election or nalagay sa headline or pinag-usapan,” he said. “Tumatatak yan especially on the local level. Let’s say 12 days before the election, biglang lumabas sa media na ito palang si Mayor or si Gov. ay sangkot sa pagnanakaw ng kaban ng bayan.”
Other things that work and don’t work
The “Robinhood” concept—“stealing from the rich, giving to the poor”—resonates quite powerfully with Filipino voters. “Proven yan sa aming sariling studies,” said German. “Yung mga mapang-aping korporasyon at oligarch ang kinukuhanan nya ng pera at ipinamimigay niya sa masang Pilipino.”
Political success is not transferable. “Makikita mo sa mga political clans, magtataka ka sa mga ibang lugar sa Pilipinas, [merong] nine years na mayor or congressman yung ama, nung tumakbo ang anak, talo. Kasi hindi transferable yan,” German explained.
One’s winning strategy may not necessarily work for another. “Nakita din natin sa administrasyon ni Pangulong Duterte. May mga cabinet members siya na sinubukang gayahin ang kanyang style—medyo off the cuff magsalita, medyo konting brusko, authentic—hindi nag-translate e. In fact there are studies that bear that out,” the strategist said.
You still need big money to run for office in the Philippines. It remains an indicator of one’s chances of winning an election or at least one’s capacity to keep running a campaign to the very end. The minimum amount of funds a candidate needs to run for a national post is the equivalent of the number of votes he needs multiplied by 24 pesos, said German. Which means a senatoriable or presidentiable should have at least P408M at his or her disposal—if he needs 17 million votes. “Dapat ang amount na yan ay nasa iyo ngayon—hindi pangako, or may donor kang iniintay.” This money will go to the stipend of volunteers, their gas money, their cell phone load. There’s also airtime, tarpaulin, posters, billboards and TVCs. Some even employ trolls, or wraith accounts (“mga multong accounts”), as they are now called.
A good and conscientious campaign strategist, German said, should tell his client in advance if he thinks his candidate has little or no chance of winning. “Ang madalas mangyari diyan yung nauubusan ng pera. ‘Hanggang seven months ka lang boss,’” German would tell them. “‘Hindi mo kakayanin hanggang eleksyon. Magkakasimutan lang. Baka mabaon ka lang sa utang.’”