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PH’s Image Problem

Greg Macabenta
By Greg Macabenta

Back in July last year, I wrote a piece entitled, “The Philippines’ Image Problem Abroad,” in which I stated:

“To say that the Philippines has ‘an image problem’ abroad is an understatement. What we have is an image crisis.

“This has routinely been attributed to ‘unfair reporting’ by the international media and ‘the endemic corruption’ prevailing in our country. Thus, it is hoped that, with the Aquino presidency, the country now has ‘an opportunity to improve its image,’ subject only to ‘fair treatment’ by media.

“While this premise is partly correct, it is a rather simplistic viewpoint. The harsh fact is that, the best intentions of the new government and its most laudable acts will not necessarily be understood or appreciated overseas – or even heard of. These things do not happen by accident.

“The Philippines is seen through different prisms by its various external publics – foreign governments, international organizations, businesses and prospective investors, human rights and other activist groups, foundations and funding institutions, the travel and tourism sector, the international media, and overseas Filipinos. These perceptions influence their attitude towards our country and the way they deal with us, including providing or withholding support.

“In an environment where perception is often mistaken for reality, much of what these external publics think of the Philippines – or think they know about our country – is based on impressions gathered through the years, like plaque accumulating on unhealthy teeth.”

I suggest that this statement be viewed in the context of what has been recently widely reported as a sharp erosion of the positive image of President Noynoy Aquino. As sure as day follows night, the same erosion will soon manifest itself overseas, among the Philippines’ most important publics.

This should be of concern to the new Philippine ambassador to Washington, Joey Cuisia, and to the former ambassador and current Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario.

My worry is that Malacanang’s information people have been so busy putting out fires on the domestic front, they may have left the overseas image situation untended.

On the home front, the apologists have been busy debating with the critics on the validity of the public opinion polls. But whether or not P-Noy’s approval rating has dived steeply or only slightly, it is a fact that there has been a dip.

What is also obvious is that there are dedicated detractors who consider it their mission to accelerate the erosion. Just scanning the opinion sections of the Manila dailies, it should be easy to spot them. Nothing P-Noy and his apologists say will change their attitudes or soften their rhetoric.

To simply tell them they’re wrong is to invite a sarcastic riposte. Logic will not work on them. It will take the skill of a Barack Obama, giving Donald Trump a dose of his own medicine, to neutralize these committed torpedoes.

On the other hand, there are those critics who are not necessarily “enemies” of the administration. They are sincerely concerned and would like to see P-Noy succeed.

Malacanang’s apologists and firemen need to identify and pay attention to them. In recent months, this has not been done. When Mae “Juana Change” Paner severely criticized P-Noy for his purchase of an expensive and seemingly extravagant Porsche, she was treated like a traitor to the cause.

And then there are those who simply need to say something or to make a point, whatever that point may be, in order to assert their presence.

These should be handled carefully. There is a chance of moving them over to the side of positive perception, and an equal possibility of pushing them farther away to the point of open hostility.

But, more than anything else, what Malacañang should focus on are the reasons for the erosion, even if they would like to think that is is not severe. Allowing for the fact that it is normal for a high positive image (whether of a product or a politician) to drop to a more realistic, less idealistic level, certain facts have to be acknowledged.

First of all, it is easy to feel smug when everything is coming up roses and all the commentaries are positive and packed with God, Motherhood and Country.

Secondly, public perception is volatile and easily influenced by negative factors that do not necessarily reflect the truth.

Thirdly, it is so much easier to chip away at a positive image than to build it back to pristine condition.

Fourthly, unless P-Noy and his team do something about the situation, it can only get worse.

Fifthly, these negative perceptions have a tendency to spread, domestically at first and, eventually, overseas.

I assume that P-Noy and his team have already been adequately jolted from any smugness that they may have felt at the start of his incumbency. When he reasoned that the erosion in image was due to the lack of appreciation by the public of the good things that his administration has been doing, it was an admission that his information team had allowed itself to be snowed under by the negative factors.

It should be noted that these negative factors are not necessarily completely untrue. In fact, the most effective way to erode a positive image is to blend falsehoods with just enough supportable facts and truths to make them believable.

Remember that all it takes is a small leak in the dike to make the dike collapse over time.

The question is, how should P-Noy deal with the situation?

The most logical first step is to plug the leak in the dike, to correct whatever is wrong no matter how seemingly inconsequential, to address concerns even if they seem small.

The advantage of doing this is that P-Noy can more immediately announce positive action and positive results.

But what should also be given enough attention is the possible erosion of the country’s image abroad.

Despite the popularity of the Aquino administration, a lot of what the various overseas publics know about the Philippines range from unclear to unflattering. Even the most supportive of these publics, such as loyal overseas Filipinos, do not know enough about our country.

It doesn’t help that Philippine government offices abroad lack materials and a central source of information, as well as the logistics for effective two-way communications with key publics.

To assume that Western media will take the trouble to extract positive information from the  Philippine government’s brand new websites is to be naeve.

Consider that these people have to deal with a flood of information everyday. Fat chance they will devote a lot of time to dig up the facts about the Philippines, in the face of a barrage of n negative information being fed to them by detractors.

I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again: The proper handling of overseas information and communication is vital to Philippine interests.  I just hope it won’t take a PR crisis for the new administration to realize that.


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