Martin Andanar
Martin Andanar

Communications Secretary Martin Andanar announced last weekend that his office will soon launch a “big project.” He was referring to a program to promote the country as a tourist destination and encourage foreign investments.

By “big,” however, he also meant it will be heavily-funded, which should further warm the hearts of his already overpaid, skills-challenged fellow top bureaucrats in the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) who’re daily trying to prettify the regime they’re serving while demonizing its critics and anyone else who doesn’t agree with it.

Andanar described the project as “all encompassing.” It will include a campaign to attract foreign investments, boost tourism, celebrate the country’s allegedly exemplary educational system, play up its cultural uniqueness — everything. It will involve, he continued, all agencies of the government.

“It will center on the entire nation and it is the first time the country will be branded,” he (incorrectly) declared.

If the project is indeed “all encompassing” — meaning really “big” — expect its costs to run in the hundreds of millions. Andanar didn’t say so, but it will require the hiring of international public relations firms in convincing the rest of the world that things aren’t as bad as they seem in this earthly paradise.

Andanar said the plan was approved by President Rodrigo Duterte during the last Cabinet meeting. The project is “national branding,” meaning identifying the Philippines with a characteristic that’s uniquely its own to make it globally attractive to foreign visitors and business executives.

National, nation, or place “branding” is a public relations and marketing strategy of dubious ethical merit. Its basic aim is to change through advertising and media campaigns a country’s tarnished, middling, second-rate, or mediocre international reputation into something better, so that its name will evoke images of friendly natives, pristine beaches if it’s in the tropics, snow-covered peaks if it’s in the temperate zone, a pleasant environment, cultural uniqueness, or whatever, depending on the particulars of the country involved.

Andanar said his project will be the first to “brand” the country, but it’s not exactly new in these parts. Previous administrations have tried it, and at great expense. “Wow Philippines” and “It’s more fun in the Philippines” were among past attempts to brand the country and were aimed at boosting the number of tourist arrivals. But because branding isn’t a magical cure-all that will upgrade a country’s poor image overnight, those attempts failed to raise the country’s tourism industry to the same level as, say, Thailand’s. It’s still the reality rather than image-making that counts.

Other countries offer their own national brands to the rest of the world, such as, for example, “Incredible India,” “Amazing Thailand,” “Malaysia truly Asia.” Those countries are supposed to call to mind those adjectives when they’re mentioned as possible vacation destinations, rather than, say, such unflattering descriptions
as “overpopulated,” “politically unstable,” or “one-party ruled.”

Andanar’s “big” nation-branding project has been approved in the context of the continuing decline in the Philippines’ international standing. The country’s reputation hasn’t been as good as many think it should be, but neither was it was once quite as bad as some imagine.

A Philippine passport is an invitation in many parts of the world for the holder to be thought of as likely to overstay his visa, but that’s the common fate of third world people when they land in the airports of developed countries.

During the Marcos terror regime, a US Senator described the Philippines as “a nation of 40 million cowards and one son of a b_ _ _ h.” But that was corrected soon enough by the 1986 People Power Uprising, which, among other consequences, encouraged tourism and changes in the way Filipinos were perceived by the nationals of other countries.

Eventually, however, as succeeding administrations failed to make good on the promises of EDSA 1986, the country became more identified as a source of mail order brides, undocumented immigrants, and domestics — who do understand, and to some extent, do speak English (in a manner of speaking) — rather than as the homeland of a freedom-loving people.

Among human rights defenders and press freedom watch groups, the Philippines was once a country as enviable as it was puzzling. It is the only country in Asia whose Constitution explicitly protects free expression, free speech, press freedom, and freedom of assembly. But it is also the only country that is supposed to be a democracy and is officially at peace where journalists have been killed with impunity in record numbers (156 since 1986), and human rights are constantly under threat.

Both have given way to the conclusion that despite its Constitution, there is now a human rights crisis in the Philippines due to the murderous “war on drugs” that the Duterte regime launched in 2016 and is continuing to wage against suspected drug users and pushers in the country’s poorest communities.

International human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, have raised the alarm over, and demanded accountability for, the extrajudicial killing of some 14,000 individuals including women and children at the hands of a regime that has quickly gained global notoriety not only for the profanity-laced rants of its head, but also for its refusal to heed calls for restraint and accountability.

The conclusion is inescapable: the Andanar nation-branding project is being launched because of regime recognition of the country’s fall from being once perceived as governed by a far from perfect political class to its being ruled today by its most violent and most retrograde wing reminiscent of the Marcos kleptocracy.

Changing that perception will be difficult. But leave it to the skills at public manipulation of public relations and marketing practitioners to convince the world that everything is right in this part of the world under a regime that’s heaven-sent. After all, it is some of the country’s own PR practitioners, who call themselves professionals but who’re without an ethical bone in their bodies, who’re pulling the strings of the trolls that are spreading false information, demonizing regime critics and responsible journalists, and making rational discourse virtually impossible by spreading the use of hate speech through social media.

What will the Philippine brand be in this context? The killing of journalists provoked in the 1990s the branding of the Philippines as “the most dangerous place in the world to practice journalism.” That has since changed, the Philippines now being the most dangerous place on the planet not only for journalists, but also for political activists, social reformers and the poor, while being a haven for drug lords, human rights violators, plunderers and incompetents.

Whatever brand Andanar and company may dream up is unlikely to truly reflect these truths. “Land of woe,” “Troll haven,” “Drug lord paradise,” or “Assassins’ Eden” may accurately brand the present state of the country, but certainly won’t encourage tourists and foreign investors.

Lying won’t help either. Most of the informed people of the world are in tune with events here, the present regime having become a global disgrace because of, among other vices, Mr. Duterte’s misogyny and his cursing Pope Francis, Barack Obama and whoever else challenges his manner of speech and governance.

A positive brand that will accurately sum up the Philippines’ many attractions will have to wait for another, better time when the Duterte regime shall have passed into history and things have changed for the better. But because falsehood is the current order’s favored currency, that truth will not stop Andanar’s “big,” heavily-funded nation-branding project.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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