"If it's not sneaky, it's not good persuasion," says Alan German. Photographs by Jar Concengco
Culture Spotlight

Q&A with a spin doctor: "Only 2 ways to persuade voters—make them laugh or make them cry"

The second generation "persuasion specialist" —his father invented "Tama Na! Sobra na!" and wrote the book on Erap jokes— Alan German talks about how to sell a candidate, the dumbing down of the senatorial campaign, and why he doesn't mind being called a spin doctor.
Audrey Carpio | May 12 2019

Alan German is quite possibly one of the most influential persons you haven’t heard of and don’t see all over the internet. As a PR practitioner—persuasion specialist, rather—he works behind the scenes, machinating some of the more interesting political campaigns, diversionary tactics, and media stunts the average Juan might not attribute to a PR company. He has also successfully kept things out of the media, diffusing a potential publicity crisis before it virals out of control.

Alan wants to keep his incognito status that way—Agents International, the agency his father Reli German founded, is ranked the number 1 political PR company in the Philippines, yet they have never advertised, don’t join tradeshows, and don’t even have a website/Facebook page/social media presence. “We believe that the client should take center stage. Persuasion is people talking about you in a sneaky way,” he says. "If it’s not sneaky, it’s not good persuasion.”

The extent to which a candidate’s persona is crafted by strategists is not often talked about, but advertising professionals have long been involved in election campaigns. The elder German was part of the creative team that Ferdinand Marcos tapped in 1965 in his run against Diosdado Macapagal. The V or peace sign, which was used with the slogan “Stop Mac, Go Marcos,” are all contributions by German. Even “Sobra Na, Tama Na,” which was eventually co-opted by the opposition, was first used for Marcos.

When Marcos became president and the president became a despot, German experienced “a crisis of conscience, wanted to atone for his sins, and became very active with the Cory movement,” as Alan says. For Cory Aquino, Reli bestowed on her the L salute and the color yellow, referencing the popular ‘70s song Tie A Yellow Ribbon (Round the Old Oak Tree), about a soldier returning home from war.

 

More on Halalan 2019:

 

Not many people can take credit for the creation of two immortal, diametrically opposed political brands—the pervasiveness of the term “dilawan” is a testament to the longevity of that genius "yellow" idea.

Alan German, who took over the agency after his father retired, continues Reli’s legacy of crowning kings while serving his own style of spindoctoring in the age of disinformation. ANCX snuck in a conversation with Agents International’s chief architect of persuasion just a week before the midterm elections to talk about the marketing of politics, the making of presidents, and the meaning of a whole bunch of acronyms.

 

How did you get involved in your father’s line of work?

My dad would bring work home and use us as a sounding board. I was in 4th year high school when he held the account for Erap, and I’ll never forget that meeting in Club Filipino with Erap’s high-level advisors. At that time the biggest knock on him was his inability to speak English. He was being ridiculed for it. They went through a battery of consultants who suggested they award him honorary degree from so and so university, or that they make him wear an earpiece. When it was our turn, my dad says, “It’s all about persuasion.” In the Philippines, there are only two ways to persuade voters—make them laugh or make them cry. He told them, “Why fight this? Let’s embrace this and laugh all the way to the Palace.” So when I say my dad wrote the book on Erap jokes, he literally wrote the book. It was called Eraption: How To Speak English Without Even Trial. And Erap became the president.

With his father Reli. "I didn’t want to be that guy who slots into his dad’s company. But emotional blackmail goes a long way."

 

Jokes also brought him down. And he really did go on trial. Did you believe in Erap as a candidate at the time?

If you look at [our clients] Marcos, Cory, Erap, GMA—we’re like Hitler’s barber. Which is a terrible analogy, but it’s a brilliant short story about a Jewish barber. Hitler sits in his chair, and the barber has every chance to slit his throat. But he thinks, he’s sitting here as a customer and I am a barber. I will give him the best shave I can. We’re sort of like Hitler’s barber. Personally, I believed in the idea of Erap being a rallying point for Filipinos and a force to up morale.

 

And yet you didn’t always want to be a PR guy.

I’m a math guy. My background is in quantitative economics, and I have a second degree in industrial economics. I actively fought against joining PR—I didn’t want to be that guy who slots into his dad’s company. But emotional blackmail goes a long way. It was a very nice night in 2007 when my dad put his arms around me and said, "Son, I’m not getting any younger."

 

You changed the name of the agency from “Public Relations” to “Persuasion Specialists.”

Public relations are just one blip in a sea of disciplines. Ultimately it boils down to persuading people. We have persuasion architecture that we apply, designed solely to persuade people, whether to vote for a candidate or buy a brand of toothpaste. We base it on the IDEAL system: Insight, Definition, Experience, Activation, Longevity.

 

How do you go about packaging a candidate?

The first thing we look at is where are we going to slot him/her in. There’s the Head/Brain—is he/she smart? A problem solver? There’s the Heart—is he one of us? Do people idolize him? Then there’s the Gut—is this the person who can put food on our table? You cannot package Mar (Head) the same way as Duterte (Heart), it would be inauthentic. There was a time when GMA’s presidency was massively challenged. To counter this, her other advisors came up with “Gloria Labandera” and “Ate Glow.” There was a disconnect, and she got hated even more. GMA was never a heart candidate, she was head and gut.

 

In an election year, around 60 percent of your clients come from politics. Who are you handling this season?

We have senators from Otso Diretso [Ed: German would rather not name which candidates.]. A couple of administration guys came to us, so we had to refuse. We also have a lot of candidates for local elections, which are far more exciting. There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears that go on behind the scenes, and that’s what gets my blood pumping. The race for mayor is the hardest, and I enjoy that. Right now, we have a couple of local candidates from different parties, hardline Duterte supporters, Liberal Party, it’s not a problem.

 

Why is the senatorial race not as exciting?

Campaigning in the Philippines has unfortunately reached its peak and has plummeted. It’s really dumbed down. There’s no more art and science to it. I’m not blaming it on any particular candidate or movement, but the glory years have passed. Like Joker Arroyo’s “Pag bad ka, lagot ka!” Stuff that would really touch your heart; Manong Johnny’s “Problema mo, sagot ko!” There was a single-minded message. Of course, there’s an acronym for it now—DEAN: delight, entertain, amuse, and make noise. It’s a dog-and- pony show.

 

The Otso Diretso slate, at least, has been trying to do things differently.

Sadly, look at where they are in the surveys.

 

How accurately do these surveys reflect society anyway? Duterte has an excellent rating and yet I don’t know many people who feel that way.

I went on a determined quest to find out. I’ve never been asked to do a survey in my life, and my friend with the most Facebook friends asked them if they had ever taken part in a survey. None. Then I found someone, a Goldilocks store crew member. She said a Pulse Asia rep came in and asked who would she vote for. He was watching her the whole time, and he said they would turn over the survey to the barangay. She got nervous. “Baka matokhang ako,” she said.

I can’t quantify this, however. It’s anecdotal at best, just one person in a sea of alleged responders. And I don’t know how pervasive and true it is. But 2016 is a good starting point. A lot of people did not vote for Duterte. It’s 2019 and I am 100 percent sure there isn’t a person who, in 2016, didn’t like Duterte and is now a convert. On the other hand, I know a lot of hardcore DDS who have changed their minds. So if the midterm election is really a referendum on the current administration, how are these guys scoring so high? It boggles the mind.  

 

As we know, media has been weaponized in the Philippines. How do you use social media as part of your campaign arsenal?

Social media is an integral part of our discipline. But the content has to come from the ground. If you just use it as a tool to bash an opponent or create a meme about them, the conversion rate is low, around 6 to 9 percent. It’s very unsophisticated. Fake memes are pang inis lang. Social media makes sense if you use it to amplify ground work. For example—and I’m not saying we do this—you get a strike team to get 50 cases of Emperador Light, stick your opponent’s face all over them, and plant them outside an elementary school. Then you get somebody to take a picture of that, which you amplify on social media. Social media is just a mic.

 

What have you learned from the 2016 elections?

The Duterte mythos was a creation of social media. My reading of the voters then was wrong—I didn’t think Duterte’s foul mouth and misogynism would connect him with the people, but grudgingly, it worked. From one Hitler’s barber to another, galing. The most overlooked part of the equation is that this would not have worked anywhere else but the Philippines, because of free Facebook. Years from now when PR and political science classes discuss this, they will talk about the DDS wave becoming a rallying cry, change is coming etc, the one thing they will overlook is free Facebook.

 

Even India rejected free Facebook in favor of net neutrality. Facebook used the Philippines as its testing ground and look who we elected. 

All you have to do is write four sentences [on free Facebook]. If I wrote an article that says, “Mar Roxas mishandled the Yolanda funds, and here’s the proof” will they click to read the whole article? No, because then it’s bayad na. Those headlines about Leni Robredo being buntis, when you click it, it’s a dead link. That’s why we’re steeped in fake news. That term actually makes my teeth ache. I hate it, it’s become such a cliché. But that’s why we became the fake news center of world.

 

How do you decide what issues to focus your campaigns on?

We’re very numbers-based. We have two beautiful computers that measure stuff like pervasiveness index. That’s what I bring to the table that my dad didn’t have. For example, people don’t care if the President is a misogynist. 'Love you!' say all the insecure male heterosexual Pinoys. But people are getting affected by China. [The China issues are] malapit sa bituka. When you run for office you need to have an issue na malapit sa bituka. You remember Loren Legarda’s heyday? She was beautiful, well-spoken, sharp as a whip. What did she decide her message would be? The environment. Malayo sa bituka. Jamby Madrigal? Worse, the trees. Contrast that to Ed Angara, who ran on a platform of education. He was the education guy, really malapit sa bituka. Do you know how many years he actually taught in UP? Zero.

 

Do you like being called a spin doctor?

I actually do. Take this coffee cup, I spin it this way and it looks like one thing, I spin it another way and it’s something else. They’re just different ways of looking at things when you spin them around. You’re not necessarily spinning away from the truth. We have an ironclad rule in the company, we will not make shit up. It’s unclassy and amateurish. But we will amplify.

 

Photographs by Jar Concengco except for photo with Reli German which is supplied by Alan German.