Opinion: Duterte's PR genius - what he knew that you didn't

Doy Roque, CEO and founder of M2.0 Communications in Quezon City, explains how the hardline uncompromising new president of the Philippines won over so many local hearts with a message that is alarming the international community.

Doy Roque

When Rodrigo Duterte declared his candidacy in late 2015, he believed in something that his rivals had only a vague idea about.

The president-elect himself knew about the power of his story: that of a tough-talking, no-apologies bruiser who was willing to take on anything (and anyone) who was in his way. In fact, he didn't just know about the power of his persona, he revelled in it.

Early last year, he declared that once he became president, he would kill 100,000 criminals and dump their bodies in Manila Bay, adding, "so that the fish will become fat".

In November 2015, he hurled curses at the pope for causing monstrous traffic jams during an earlier visit to the Philippines. Barely a month before election day, he shot off about a gang rape and murder victim being "so beautiful, he wished he could have been first".

Political suicide? More like political genius

Each of these incidents would have spelled political suicide for any other candidate. But each time the president-elect said something that left the media and the elite aghast, something very interesting happened: large masses of Filipinos responded with approval that bordered on schoolgirl glee.

Duterte's ratings shot up every time he shot his mouth off. This has led people to ask, what is this man’s secret? What led him to win the Philippine election?

Was he a media darling? Far from it. The mainstream press has mostly branded him a misogynist, a human rights violator, and a thug.

Did he deliver a populist message? By most accounts no. In fact, some of his promises revolved around matters that other candidates would not touch with a 10-foot barge pole.

He spoke about family planning. He even spoke against Catholic priests and the pope in a country that is around 86 percent Catholic!

Telling a people’s story

Instead, Duterte delivered something unprecedented in Philippine politics: he told the story that the poor, who comprise at least 50 percent of the country, really want to hear.

His story, one where the hero never apologises for killing criminals who deal drugs and rob people blind, is one that the poor hanker for, but never get.

What the establishment has delivered instead is a telenovela about economic growth and improving debt ratings, where the stars have foreign names like Fitch and Moody’s.

While the other presidential candidates spoke about hand-outs (like more jobs) that everyone always promised but never materialised, Duterte threw a dirty finger at the pope, the United Nations, and the elite, essentially blaming their legacies for creating the fetid morass the poor continue to wallow in.

To cap it all off, he never, ever apologised for anything he said. This was a crucial kicker, because in the hero’s narrative, apologies meant capitulation.

The president-elect, in not apologising, gave a people who were sick of inserting pasensya na po (sorry, sir) in every other sentence, a glimmer of hope that one day they could also stop apologising for being poor.

A narrative for 40 million publishers

Yes, Duterte’s narrative resonated with the poor Filipino community. But this is perhaps only half the story. The other half lies in the social media technologies that have carried his message.

Consider this: only about 15 million Filipinos owned smartphones in 2013. By 2016, at the time of the elections, more than 50 million Filipinos were likely to already own smartphones, estimates On Device Research; gadgets that allowed them to filter feeds from traditional media, and essentially become publishers themselves.

In a country where more than 90 percent of those online have a Facebook account, this amount of penetration meant enormous power to publish and to share opinions that could spread like wildfire through highly networked communities.

And Duterte had the most powerful, most resonant opinions.

This is reflected in the fact that he captured over 60 percent of the conversations online despite having only a middling Facebook community of 2.4 million fans.

In this world of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram publishers, the phone-wielding millions finally took control by marginalising the media’s interpretation of the narrative, and replacing it with their own.

In this story, Duterte was the hero who could finally flip his finger at the establishment, and say that Filipinos no longer need to be ashamed of and disempowered by their poverty.

Like it or not, Duterte’s tough guy narrative has become part of the Philippine story, and this will likely continue to be so for the next six years.

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