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Sunday, September 25, 2022

LP: The fall of a political brand

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Rob Ramos
Rob Ramos is the former Media Officer of the Liberal Party NHQ. Communications graduate from the Ateneo de Manila. Alumni of the FNF International Academy for Leadership. 10 years in Public Service.

Introduction

Delawan.

It’s amazing how that has become both corrupted in form and derogatory in meaning. There was a time when maybe only the Marcos Loyalists disliked the term. 

In fact, a decade ago 15.2 million Filipinos, arguably, were part of this demographic since they voted Noynoy Aquino into office then, ostensibly on a moral vote against widespread corruption and in memory of the death of former Pres. Cory Aquino (Noynoy’s mom).

But now, it’s not just the DDS – the fanatics (not counting the paid trolls and also-paid organizers) of Rodrigo Duterte – who dislike them. There is a general feeling of… indifference if not hostility even among those who criticize the current regime.

Dragged into that mess is, sadly, the name of the Liberal Party. It could be said, of course, that the country’s second-oldest political party has been tied with the Aquinos since 1986, despite Cory not becoming part of her husband’s organization. After all, Noynoy was for long one its Congressmen until he became a Senator and then President. Many Aquino “partisans” are prominent in the Party and were even leaders of it. 

It’s only perhaps after 2016 that the LP is under the management of people who are not directly linked to the Aquinos. Yet the moniker stuck, in all its gory reality. 

How did it come to this? 

The “Party of Good Politics” until the mid-Aughts, where even if we could fit in a small bus prior to 2004 at least we were proud of what we represented, of the brand of the LP. 

And now it’s a byword for either politics only slightly better than that of Duterte’s regime, or a failure in more ways than one. VP Leni Robredo, ostensibly its head (even if poor old Sen. Kiko Pangilinan is its President; they really disliked him that much, the Yellows of the Party, that they made him captain of a mostly-sunk-and-burning ship), seems to operate separate from the Party she supposedly leads.

So how did it come to this?

Some Background Info

You can skip this if you want. This is merely me establishing some bonafides so at least we can make the paid trolls earn less by heading them off casting aspersions on my qualifications to talk about these things.

TL/DR: I’ve been doing PR and Communications since college and right on after graduating in 2000 all the way to today. Ten years of those were spent in political PR, including a nasty PR war for five years.

I’m a Communications graduate who specialized in advertising. I took my practicum in the Reach Out Training Program of J. Walter Thompson, which was then the No. 2 Ad Agency after McCann Erickson. Even back in college,  I was already designing and running campaigns for one of my organizations. 

Then, in October 2000, I got hired as the Media Officer of the LP’s National Headquarters. I served the unified LP until 2005 as such, and the “Atienza Wing” from 2006 – 2010. I was also National Media Director for the Kabataang Liberal ng Pilipinas, the oldest political youth wing in Asia until the Delawan murdered it in 2010.

Since decamping to the private sector in 2010, I have served in various roles as writer, creative, and PR. My longest stint (seven years) so far was as Marketing Communications officer of Pointwest, the country’s top Filipino-owned IT-BPM company. Most of my work there was about branding and how to sell that to our target markets.

So, there. Bonafides.

Establishing the Brand

To find out why it fell, we need to know how the LP “brand” got built in the first place.

I came in around October 2000, so I don’t know if there was a “brand” or not. This was, after all, the dawn of a new century and “branding” wouldn’t be a thing for at least ten years. And God only knows what most politicians, even in the LP, thought about communications and PR outside of the traditional. The earliest example I can think of that showed politics in the Philippines was making use of modern PR techniques was with the “Mr. Palengke” thing of Mar Roxas in 2004, and that was done by Malou Tiquia’s people in Publicus.

The first real attempt at branding the LP I think can be traced back to when Dr. Ronald Meinardus became Country Representative of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. The FNF is the political education arm of the German Liberals, the FDP. Part of their mandate is to enable the maturity and organization of the liberal ideology worldwide.

Dr. M, if I recall correctly, had his roots in Broadcasting. So more than just the FNF’s usual organizational development, Dr. Meinardus went into a lot of what could be called today as branding activities for the liberals of the Philippines, not just the Party proper.

Three important things come to mind, all initiatives by Dr. M: the creation of a fully-functional website for the Party, the first of its kind in the country (note: FULLY. FUNCTIONAL. I am well aware the others had theirs in 2003 but none of them had the extensive news pages, comprehensive “About Us” and history sections, and an active Contact Us system. We had regularly updated galleries); the establishment first of the Liberal Philippines magazine and the subsequent inception of the “Liberal Family”, and; the FNF Podcasts.

Without going into detail about what we did where in each of those instances, these allowed us to simultaneously broaden our reach and circumvent the still-strong gatekeeping of Traditional Media. 

Understand this truth about communications: a website is important because if someone is interested about you and has access to the Internet, they will find you and the message they will see is yours, not anyone else’s. 

I was Webmaster of liberalparty.ph from the first time it came online to the day I and the rest of the HQ staff got unceremoniously booted by the Delawan in 2006. And one of the highlights of that part of my job was checking the Contact Us section.

Because we’d regularly get inquiries from people asking how to join the Party.

Take note that these are not people who want to run for public office (at least not at that moment). They were ordinary men and women who just wanted to be part of the “Party of Good Politics.”

Understand that this was before modern social media. This was the era of Friendster, or maybe even MySpace and Multiply. Social Media was somewhere you stalked your crush in or learned HTML to make those snazzy customizations to your page. Even as blogging and the then-newfangled Podcasting was being touted as the breaker of MSM’s gatekeeping over information, the traditional media giants still held sway. Except in a few instances, we’d be lucky to get Page 3 on the newspapers. And most of our officials who get featured on TV or radio didn’t really carry the Party banner with them.

But we did have other means to get the word out. 

There was, of course, the Party Newsletter, The Liberal. This was of course straight-up Party propaganda, but duh. It’s the LP’s newsletter; what did you expect? But it had a large circulation and would be in all our events nationwide. We’d send local officials copies of it to give away in their events.

Then, there’s Liberal Philippines, that awesome invention of Dr. M. At the time, this was the flagship communications medium of the Party, as well as Philippine liberalism. It had a small print run, but it was glossy, colorful, with a gorgeous layout, and filled with content. It talked about politics of course, duh. But it… broadened the idea about the LP and Philippine Liberalism. 

More than just seeing Party stuff and politicians like in The Liberal, we’d feature other people and organizations. And I think those, more than just the well-written propa on the Party in the magazine, was what attracted people to the LP. You’d see a few copies in National Bookstore – we had a limited run, sorry – but it was almost all gone as soon as we printed the issues. Someone was buying them.

In a time before social media, that was a big thing. Print has its own power called the “pass on” ability. It’s basically what happens when you read the tabloid when you’re at your corner barbershop or riding shotgun on the jeepney. A single newspaper bought has the ability to be passed-on to other people. So your initial message gets a wider reach. Think of it as analogue reposting.

And when you got really curious, you could end up searching for us in the modernizing Web of the mid-Aughts. Because we had a fully-functioning website, then you can see us more, read about us more, 24/7.

Prior to 8 July 2005, I’ve never attended a Basic Orientation on Liberal Democracy that wasn’t full. In fact, at the height of it all, we managed to fill at least half of that big ballroom of Club Filipino. Sen. Kiko was also very active in recruiting, and that’s why I feel sad for him because, his political ambitions aside, he genuinely seemed to believe in the Party and its ideals and wanted to grow it organically, like a real political party. Yet look at what the Yellows did to him.

I think that was what Dr. M wanted to do, and which I know is one of the objectives of the FNF: to transform liberal parties worldwide into organizations that were made up as much of “civilians” as they are career politicians and who operated based on an ideal, not (just) the practicalities of power politics. 

And it was working.

Aside from the tens of thousands of KALIPI – we in the murdered youth wing were large and national, after all – there were probably hundreds if not thousands of “ordinary” citizens who were already members of the LP prior to 8 July 2005. People were joining us because they wanted to help. Because they wanted to be part of this movement for “good politics.” Even before 2010, the LP already had that “branding.” 

For real, the Liberal Party was synonymous with a different kind of politics.

Breaking the Brand

So what happened?

I am not privy anymore to how the Party operated after 2010. I don’t know if they continued with the idea of swelling the ranks of the grassroots of the Party, but the victory of Duterte in 2016 and the difficulties in making Mar Roxas get elected as President tell me they didn’t. 

After all there are practical reasons for growing a grassroots membership: those are command votes, more or less. Loyalists to a brand are the ones who are easiest to control with regard to the brand. Their resistance to outside influences towards the brand can be phenomenal. You only need to look at your professional, college-educated, Netflix/Documentary-watching, religious friends who are also die-hard Dutertards to know this is true. You know them: the ones who will defend, or make excuses for, Tatay Duts and his regime for free. At least some of those trolls are paid for it.

The fact that the LP’s name, its very brand, is the mockery of the shadow of the brilliant lamp on a hill it once was 15 years ago is a testament to the failure of the Party, and liberalism in the Philippines in general.

Go ahead, ask your friends what they think of the LP. Unless that’s another KALIPI, you’d most likely get a negative remark or three. Maybe not as bad as what’s said of this regime, but certainly not as sweet as honey.

So what happened?

Brands fall for a variety of reasons. There’s neglect. Sometimes, the caretakers of the brand stop caring for it, if they cared for it in the first place. Or they get replaced by people who don’t believe in that same branding, who want to push their own agenda.

Even during the heyday of the “Liberal Family” era, not even half of the Party leadership were fully onboard. I mean, sure, they loved the exposure: what politician doesn’t?  But how many genuinely believed in the push for the Liberal part of the Party being central to it and not the Party part?

Sen. Kiko, of course. I saw the man dive headlong into it. He even lent his staff often to helping out with organizing. Then again, they did hamstring the man until he just gave up in I think 2005, right before or just after 8 July 2005. Certainly before the start of the LP Civil War proper in 2006.

Maybe Butch Abad? Ka Butch does come from a grassroots organizing background and he’s progressive enough in his own right to want such a transformation to the LP. But…

Of course it didn’t help the Party that it gutted its own youth wing. Most of us questioned what happened on 8 July 2005, when the Party’s national leaders – Congressman upwards, and a couple of Mayors – called on Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to step down. 

I wrote KALIPI’s position paper on it and I don’t recall it being changed substantially from my draft. We merely asked the “elders” to respect Party processes in making such monumental decisions. The Party must convene the National Executive Council and then have it decide on the fate of PGMA, like we’ve always done. Like what was written on the Party constitution.

The death of Asia’s biggest and oldest political party youth wing was the price for our “insolence.”

Many of the members of KALIPI I still keep in touch with are a far cry from the college kids they were at the time of those events. All are professionals. Some have families. A good number are lawyers and with advanced degrees. One of them is steadily-climbing the ladder of public office.

Imagine what it would have done for the LP “brand” had they remained part of the Party. This was the LP’s next generation. And what I see of them is that they largely kept true to the ideals of the Party. By and large, the core of KALIPI has kept true to the ideals of liberalism far more than the dying Party that says it represents those ideals. 

I’ve seen how they’ve taken this regime on. Imagine, for a moment, had they – we – remained a part of the LP.

Brands need a kind of institutional building if it is to survive over the years. When this institutional memory is gone, how can a brand survive? Look at Star Wars after Disney declared the “Expanded Universe” moot, or what happened to Star Trek after Gene Rodenberry died. Look at Apple: when was the last time it was known for innovation?

Brands also die when there is a massive disconnect between the branding and the actual product. At the end of the day, “branding” is just a pretty term for gift wrapping. For the bells and whistles that make you look our way and consider what we’re selling you over the other things competing for your attention and spending power.

When you say one thing but do another, then there is disconnect. Amd people dislike disconnect. Either they’ll do mental gymnastics fit for a highwire trapeze act to make sense of the disconnect (like your typical DDS) or, more likely, not buy what you’re selling because people will always give more weight to what they experience to what you say.

The LP had pages of plans for when it was once again in Malacañang. For years, we  had a General Program of Action that clearly stated the things to expect in a Liberal Government. I remember that last activity I helped organize for a united LP where we spent I think 2 million PhP to come up with a plan to get us the Presidency in 2010 and that Mar was our man. Only one from all those came true in 2010.

So I think it was strange to see a Liberal government but there being barely anything liberal about it. At least on the level of Noy himself and some of his immediate coterie, there appeared to be this disdain for critique (although not in Dutertian levels) and, especially for Noy himself, a certain kind of snapishness. 

Let’s not forget that before they cried for Jesse Robredo, the celebrated former Mayor of Naga City and then DILG Secretary was at odds with the “Delawans” in the government.

Ask yourself: what do you remember of the Liberal regime? 

Was it the upper grade credit rankings? The recognition of the Philippines as a rising power? The fact that even with the world deeply in a recession, the Philippines wasn’t and was actually growing? 

Did you know that the modernization of the AFP began during Noynoy’s regime? Just like he inherited a vibrant economy from GMA, so would he give as inheritance a modern AFP to his successor. In this case, Duts, who claims all of these things he’s done for the Philippine soldier but are in fact stuff that was begun in Noynoy’s time.

But what do you remember? 

The SAF 44 and Noy’s callousness in the early days.

Yolanda and the disaster of relief activities after it.

The dead Chinese in a bus in Rizal Park.

“But. Did. You. Die?”

Mar Roxas in the rain playing at traffic cop. Mar Roxas figuring in an accident on a motorcycle while doing Yolanda relief. In fact, how many Mar Roxas blooper reels can you remember from that time?

During a Liberal Government, the first since Dadong in the middle of the last century, did you see:

  • Progressive laws on labor
  • Social justice legislation to alleviate poverty
  • Legislation for the increase of equality and inclusiveness
  • Progressive laws on business
  • Laws that provided for the betterment of the employed
  • A freer, livelier and responsible Press
  • Truly responsive policies on education reform

No.

All you remember are the antics of a couple of personalities. Noy, of course. Mar, most definitely. 

But it’s these that indelibly marked the last Liberal government in your head, over and above any good that was done by that same government.

Why?

Because the Liberal Party ceased to be the flagship organization of liberalism in the Philippines the moment it got co-opted by those you associate with the “Delawan” tag. With the Aquinos. It wasn’t anymore the LP being about the liberal ideology: it was, fully, the political party of the “Yellows”, whatever the fuck that meant.

What that did mean for a lot of people was all that was wrong with Phiippine politics. Whether right or wrong, that was the perception many people had of the Yellows and, consequently, of the LP, coming into the elections of 2016.

To fight the LP Civil War of 2006 – 2010, institution building had to be sacrificed. Which was odd considering the side that won said they were the good guys, the “better”, truer liberals. We in the Atienza Wing were the bad guys, the ones helping perpetrate a corrupt regime that cheated in the 2004 elections. Nevermind the same people who said these things were the same people insisting to me as chief PR to include in any and all writeups that we were a senior partner to the Coalition. It would be strange for cheating to happen on the scale that makes you backstab a president and for a senior partner to not know.

Because the proof is in the pudding: if the LP was still the Party of Good Politics coming into 2016, we wouldn’t be having problems with Rodrigo Duterte now., The votes not for Duterte are far more than the 16 million he got. If people genuinely believed in the Party, nevermind who was its banner-bearer, we would not have the plethora of problems we now have.

Because you vote for who best reflects your beliefs. Unless you’re in a fight for survival of your way of life in the US coming into the 2020 elections and you have to swallow that bitter pill and vote for anyone who isn’t Donald Trump.

The LP failed because it stopped being about ideals. It attracted thousands of ordinary people because it reflected values and ideas they treasured and wanted to protect. And in the Party at the time, they saw a way to contribute, no matter how meager, to the perpetuation of these ideals.

It’s that “shared community of believers” that Fr. Luis David, SJ, told our class about why Ateneans active in social amelioration activities during college stop being so when they graduate. They lose that community that promotes and preserves those ideals, that way of life.

In the early- to mid-Aughts, thousands of Filipinos who believed in Good Politics had a home in the Liberal Party. By 2016, that home was gone.

Because the people who won the LP Civil War had no intentions of keeping that brand, those ideals. And have people question their leadership? Take them to account for their own hypocrisy, greed, and hubris? Perish the thought.

Imagine being told that we in the youth wing had this “election mentality”, like voting to see what the majority’s will was from a position of informed decision making wasn’t a tenet of the liberal ideology. 

Can it be resurrected? Maybe not. Sen. Kiko refuses to reach out to the orphans of the LP Civil War even when they could use all the numbers they can get to fight the regime. Some of the best operators of the Party were in the youth wing, and they did, after all, gutted us. I don’t even know how much VP Robredo knows or if she even cares.

The LP brand is dead.

Good politics hopefully isn’t.

How we get back to that track given how devastated the public sphere of the Philippines is, I don’t know.

But I hope we find out soon. Too many have already died, not just from the actions of the current regime but the sins of the last one.

The ones responsible for killing the Liberal Party.

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