Inside spin central

THE WAR for votes must be won on two fronts: from the air and from the ground, according to veteran political strategists who have seen action in past elections.

This is especially true for candidates for national office who must have — more than just oodles of cash — the right message and image to communicate well, and thus sell, to voters, on television, radio, print, and online media, and at the hustings.

For the first battlefront, political ads and media relations are a candidate’s handy weapons. For the second, pit-stop rallies across the nation to press palm with, kiss, hug, sing, and dance for voters, and the machine and network to do all his or her bidding.

About 20 media agencies offering full service and specific line service – creative and production work, media planning and placement, public relations, digital marketing, social-media listening, and special operations, among others – are now working with the campaign teams of the top candidates for president, vice president, and senator for the May 2016 elections.

For sure, they are just one of the many groups that all together make up a candidate’s campaign team, which includes the candidate’s family members, top donors, campaign managers, lawyers, political allies, and ward leaders.

But it is this cluster of creatives, PRs, ad agents, and media managers — also called the “Comms Team” of the candidate — that is defining the public discourse about a candidate and his or her rival to voters and the news media. And they do so in a manner largely secret and sneaky, by methods overt and covert, and always for a lot of money.

One senior ad and PR industry hand even remarks, “During election season, you bend the rules. If you stick to the rules, you will get nowhere.”

The political campaign veteran also says there are almost “no limits” on how far one should bend the rules, “even for special operations.” It is, says the source, “a free-for-all game.”

Some agencies have been hired for overt and “above ground” activities. They include the creatives who craft, write, and produce the “messaging,” concept, copy, and materials for political ads; the agents or agencies assigned to media planning and media placement (for ad buys on TV, radio, print, outdoor billboards) for the candidates; and PRs coordinating the candidate’s guesting on TV or radio programs, meet-greet visits to newsrooms, groups, and other public events.

Still others perform combined overt and covert or “underground” tasks. One candidate’s team even has a unit dedicated to “special operations,” whose recent activities included the mass distribution across the nation of leaflets bearing the image of Pope Francis warning against thievery of public funds, and a rival candidate’s photo printed on one corner.

Some “media coordinators” or PRs, meanwhile, deal with the delivery of “free media” stories that run without payment in newspapers, radio, television, and online media.

Then there are the agents who secure “paid media” reports, or get the candidate’s press releases published or aired by paying several thousands of pesos to news media and social-media players. In some news agencies, ad buys are bundled with guaranteed “free media” stories for the candidate as a bonus.

Indeed, today’s going rate per story has reportedly been scaled up to as much as P10,000 by two opposition candidates. In past elections, P5,000 was the maximum rate per story, according to those interviewed by PCIJ.

But this is just for “paid media, retail” or money given for stories. After all, it is not just stories, but also “friendship” and “goodwill” that PRs want from the newsroom gatekeepers. Hence, there is also “paid media, wholesale.” Through gifts in cash or kind, PRs try to create “bonds” or ties with some editors, producers, anchors, columnists, and media bosses who are open or given to taking such deals.

For this second group, one candidate’s team recently sent kilos and kilos of crabs and prawn, and other goodies to newsrooms. Cash of up to P100,000 has also passed hands from the candidates’ teams to some media practitioners at private meetings, PRs say.

To be sure, one PR said, “just a few” newsroom executives are engaged in the practice. The PR adds that to save face, time, and money, “we do not approach anymore the hostile ones, or those who would not accept.”

Social media, which many PRs consider to be a buzz trigger, did not figure as yet as a major platform for courting votes in the 2013 elections. These days, though, the latest social media metrics place the number of Filipinos with access to the Internet at a low of 42 million and a high of 48 million, enticing many national candidates to now mount pitch battles online.

As a result, a candidate’s “Comms Team” now also includes a couple of social media managers assigned to do both monitoring and message management tasks, including growing the content and traffic of the candidate’s official web and social media accounts; “listening” to conversations online; engaging followers; drawing eyeballs; posting promotional blogs, tweets, and photos; and even supporting or buying certain media accounts with significant followers.

The teams of three candidates for president – Mar Roxas, Grace Poe, and Rodrigo Duterte – have reportedly courted and won over such accounts with 2.6 million to 3.16 million followers to assist their campaigns online.

Some candidates who are the most engaged in social media have also hired  “under the line” social media teams to stage troll, “astroturf,” and “black hat” operations on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, the insiders say.

“Astroturf” refers to “creating the impression of public support by paying people in the public to pretend to be supportive,” according to the Urban Dictionary. “The false support can take the form of letters to the editor, postings on message boards in response to criticism, and writing to politicians in support of the cause.”

As for “black hat” operations, computer programmer and software freedom activist Richard Matthew Stallman, often known by his initials rms, has been credited for coining the phrase, which refers to the “malicious hacking of secure networks to destroy, modify, or steal data; or to make the network unusable for those who are authorized to use the network.”

But aside from ad and PR agents, a few others with little or no experience in doing message and image for candidates influence, and sometimes even command, the candidates’ Communication Teams. Such is the shared misery of the Roxas, Binay, and Poe campaign teams, industry insiders say.

They say that these three presidentiables have teams or persons assigned separately to do the following tasks:

  • Traditional advertising, promotionals (stickers, leaflets, handouts, tarps, billboards).
  • Media relations and PR for print, radio, TV, and online/social media;
  • “Special operations,” including mounting “negative attacks on rivals”;
  • “Ground operations,” including managing the schedule of rallies, public events, and meetings with local ward leaders; and
  • Networking with the “Con” or conventional (i.e. local politicians), and “Non-Con” or non-conventional (i.e. civil society organizations, civic groups, churches) allies and groups.

But that’s not all. On top of all these teams, say insiders, are those who compose the “Execom” or executive committee, and “ManCom” or management committee, of the candidate’s campaign team.  These committees include the charmed circle of family members, top donors, campaign managers, political party leaders, and the personal friends and allies of the candidate.

“In elections past, there used to be one overall bastonero (sergeant at arms),” says a PR agent working with a wanna-be president’s team. “In this case, I don’t see anyone doing that for the candidates, and for the ad and PR agencies.“

“There are so many cooks in the kitchen,” continues the source. “And it’s the same with the other candidates. Away-away sila (They fight), the one who speaks loudest and the strongest, and with the backing of money, wins the arguments.”  — Malou Mangahas, PCIJ, March 2016

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