September 2005
The Presidents and the (Jueteng) Lords

Presidential makeover

A foreign PR firm is re-engineering Mrs. Arroyo’s image.

The famous Baywalk stroll at the height of the Gloriagate scandal. [photo credits: Malaya]

WHEN TV and newspapers carried images of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and some members of her family taking a Sunday morning stroll along Baywalk on Roxas Boulevard last July, those who had witnessed the dying days of the Marcos regime were reminded of a presidential family photo in 1985, showing the Marcoses relaxing on Malacañang grounds.

The Arroyos’ Baywalk stroll and the Marcoses’ Malacañang garden picnic both tried to give the impression that they were spontaneous, casual activities. In reality, however, both were well-planned, serious undertakings that were part of high-budget communication plans hatched with the help of international public-relations companies.

During the critical Marcos years, Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly was directing the show. This time around, Arroyo is being helped by Burson-Marsteller, a leading global communications company that lists among its capabilities, crisis and issues management, reputation management, and media relations. For what could be as high as $2 million, the president is getting a service that Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye says is aimed primarily at communicating “to international audiences that the economic team is promoting economic reform and actively managing a growing economy.”

Bunye, however, says Burson-Marsteller does not advise “on the president’s image, (and) neither are they involved in domestic communication issues.” It was in fact the late Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino Jr.’s sister, director Lupita Kashiwahara, who hovered over the Arroyos at Baywalk and gave instructions on each shot. But as a local publicrelations expert points out, even if Burson-Marsteller is supposed to ensure a good international image for the Arroyo administration, that would still mean it has to help package the president for the Filipino audience.

That could be a real challenge. Since 2001, when she took over ousted President Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada, Gloria Arroyo has undergone so many makeovers she would make Oprah Winfrey’s head spin. From Iron Lady to Dolorous Mother of the Nation, Arroyo has done it all. Yet the president still can’t seem to connect with the public, especially the masa, and often ends up being perceived as insincere.

Indeed, when her foreign PR consultants sat down with her early last year, “lacking in charisma” and “perceived as untrustworthy” topped their list of her liabilities. Husband Mike Arroyo was also a negative factor, they said.

On the plus side were her being an economist and her unassuming only daughter, Lourdes Evangeline, better known as Luli.

It may seem precious dollars were wasted for an assessment that could have been obtained free in coffeeshops. Although Roberto R. Romulo, presidential adviser for international competitiveness, denies the supposed $2 million price tag for Burson-Marsteller’s services, local PR people say it’s not unheard of for a hotshot global PR firm. Says one public-relations executive: “I imagine that (Burson-Marsteller) would be charging the Arroyo premium rate considering that it includes crisis management.”

In 2002, when Burson-Marsteller’s ties with the Arroyo administration first became public, Presidential Management Staff head Rigoberto Tiglao said its fee was $800,000 for a one-year contract paid by a group of businessmen. In any case, Arroyo’s business relationship with Burson-Marsteller allowed the consultants to be frank with her, something no Palace official would dare do. A Malacañang insider says Arroyo just listened as the foreign PR experts talked.

Apparently, her domestic handlers had their ears pressed against the wall. Even if Burston-Marsteller’s assessment was for a PR campaign abroad, Arroyo’s local team used it to craft her political strategy. Mike Arroyo deliberately kept a low profile during the election campaign. Luli, meanwhile, was featured in at least two of the president’s campaign ads, with mother and daughter talking about leadership and governance.

Last June, as the twin issues of jueteng and election fraud were pummeling the president, Burson-Marsteller representatives discussed with some Cabinet members ways to promote a “soft image” for Arroyo. Social Services Secretary Dinky Soliman submitted her “Bright Child” campaign aimed at producing healthier, brighter Filipinos with programs starting from prenatal care to high school education.

Soliman resigned on July 8, along with nine other key officials. On July 29, Arroyo launched the “Bright Child” campaign, followed two days later by a breastfeeding project.Soliman says the foreign consultants had also suggested a more prominent role for Luli. Sure enough, after the Baywalk stroll, the First Daughter was interviewed on TV and in newspapers and was soon being called her mother’s “secret weapon.”

But Luli is not the only family member Arroyo has mobilized to win the public over. In her speeches and inter views nowadays, Arroyo often invokes the memory of her father, the late President Diosdado Macapagal. “I talk to my father, ‘Dad, please intercede with God for me,’ “she said in a recent TV interview.

Toddler Evie, daughter of Arroyo’s younger son Dato and his wife, Kakai, has also been popping up in presidential photo ops. Just recently, the Palace released a picture of her straying into her grandmother’s office while the president was having a meeting.

A smiling president had cuddled the child at Baywalk, and later at nearby Aristocrat restaurant, where the family stopped for a bite.

“She is now smiling a lot,” says Campaigns Advocacy and PR’s Ramon R. Osorio. He says there has been a marked improvement in Arroyo since her disastrous “I am sorry” speech. Osorio says it’s fortunate that her favorite color is blue, which lightens her otherwise steely aura.

Arroyo, however, used to relish her Iron Lady persona, which she has donned a few times in the last four years. One of her first images as president was as a Tough Mama, perhaps to compensate for her lack of an electoral mandate. “Strike now so I can crush you,” she had dared Estrada’s followers, who took up her challenge and tried to storm Malacañang on May 1, 2001.

Isang bala ka lang (You’ll fall with just one bullet),” she taunted Abu Sayyaf bandits. Tons of bullets and millions of dollars in U.S. aid later, the bandits have become terrorists.

For a time, Arroyo seemed unfazed. To underscore her fight against crime, she posed with criminal suspects in the Palace. When a notorious convict was slain, she motored to Cavite to have her picture taken viewing the fly-infested corpse.

The public, however, remained unimpressed. And so she turned into “Ina ng Bayan” asking for the people’s help. She also became a tricycle-riding Ate Glo who even went to market in flip-flops.

But the image she is most comfortable with is as a working president. As a strict chief executive, she scolded officials in front of TV cameras. Today the working-president image has been resurrected, but she has not snapped at an underling in public since the controversy over the tapes broke out.

Admittedly hardworking, Arroyo has been doing overtime in trying to make herself more appealing to Filipinos. At the beginning of her unelected presidency, she held a weekly press conference telecast live. Her messages, however, were often overshadowed by her smirks, frowns, and dismissive replies when provoked with questions not to her liking.

She tried weekly lunches with small groups of reporters without TV cameras, and then a radio program every Saturday. Neither lasted long. Malacañang tapped actresssinger Jolina Magdangal to host the “The Working President” on government-controlled TV stations. But Arroyo continued to post dismal approval and trust ratings.

Ironically, Arroyo has the most competent media team ever assembled in post-Marcos Malacañang. It is headed by two ex-journalists, Bunye and Tiglao. Cabinet Secretary Ricardo Saludo is also a former journalist.

Since August 2004, there has also been the Office of Communications Director, which has a Crisis Communicating Team “to assist in meeting extraordinary issues.” But when the “Hello Garci” issue exploded, Arroyo imported Kashiwahara from San Francisco. When that still wasn’t enough, Mai Jimenez, who took charge of media for the Arroyo camp during the 2004 polls, re-entered the scene. Last July 5, Jimenez presented a communication plan meant not to makeover Arroyo but to “stress on programs, projects and reforms to show that the government is committed.”

Before the current crisis, Arroyo had scheduled foreign trips star ting with Hong Kong and Singapore to sell what she called “an economy about to take off.” She pushed through with the Hong Kong leg in June, but all they wanted to hear from her there was about the “Hello, Garci” tapes.

The Singapore visit, scheduled for July, was moved to August. It has since been postponed indefinitely. Says a foreign affairs official: “What is she going to tell foreign investors when she doesn’t even know if she is going to make it to the end of the year?”

And that’s why Burson-Marsteller, Arroyo’s PR for an international audience, should and could be concerned as well with her domestic survival.