Country brand visibility

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on July 2, 2009

Will those billions materialize?

The Philippines had quite a run of international visibility over the past week. Thanks to the untimely passing of “King of Pop” Michael Jackson, inmates at the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center enjoyed another round of international publicity. The Huffington Post reported that the inmates’ original 2007 performance of Mr. Jackson’s “Thriller” has received more than 24 million hits on YouTube, “with nearly a million of them in the 24 hours since news of Jackson’s death spread.” (Update: As of this posting, views have increased to almost 28 million.)

The performance was carried by media around the world, including CNN. The report in The Huffington Post quoted two inmates incarcerated-one who has been on trial for a year-for drug-related offenses. That might have reinforced another perception of the Philippines, that as one of the top methamphetamine producers in the world. The United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) released a report last week showing that the Philippines was number five in legal seizures of the drug-popularly known as shabu-in the world after China, Thailand, the US, and Taiwan.

The Philippines was at the top of another list last week as well. The World Health Organization reported that as of last week, the Philippines ranks 12 worldwide in terms of the number of confirmed cases of Swine flu, otherwise known of Influenza A(H1 N1). (The Philippines has now moved up to the number 10 spot.) While a close look at statistics shows a sharp drop off from the top-ranked countries and the Philippines for both methamphetamine seizures and confirmed Swine flu cases, that reality is rarely mentioned in media (Of course, the reasons behind the dramatic drop off might not be reassuring, so perhaps the lack of scrutiny is a blessing.).

What readers are likely to remember is the perceived reality that while prison inmates may have had their self-esteem restored as a result of the global attention they’ve received, they were incarcerated in the first place in one of the world’s biggest producers of illicit drugs. And, if that weren’t bad enough, traveling to the Philippines is dangerous because of the high incidence of Swine flu (Forget about the fact that H1 N1 in its present form is hardly insidious and that the US has 48 times as many confirmed cases.).

Investors and government officials alike take reports of these rankings seriously. Singapore and Australia both cautioned their citizens against travel to the Philippines. Following an alert by the Singapore Health Ministry last week, Singapore business executives began cancelling planned trips to the Philippines, in part fearful of catching the Swine flu, and in part fearful of being quarantined upon their return.

Not everyone will agree perhaps that dancing inmates represent a negative perception of the Philippines. But even those who rave about the prisoners’ performance-as many did-probably agree that there’s a long list of legitimate attributes the Philippines should be communicating, and that most of them should take precedence over a tribute to Mr. Jackson emanating from a correctional center.

A positive story about the Philippines did make it to CNN International last week, although it will never receive 24 million views on YouTube. The report, initially filmed in April apparently, was inspired by Greenpeace public relations experts. The organization has worked with the Makati City government to introduce eight electric jeepneys into transport routes within the Philippines’ premiere business district. Unfortunately, green jeepneys aren’t as exciting as dancing inmates or as alarming as a culture of drugs and the spread of H1 N1.

There were some stories that the Philippines can be thankful didn’t make it to the international media. For example, media might find the fact that a head-of-state goes missing-twice-on an international trip, undertaken to earn “billions of dollars” according to officials in the administration of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, of interest. Ms. Arroyo took side trips to Colombia and Hong Kong that were not on her official itinerary.

So far, the billions of dollars have not materialized, however. Instead, in March, the Central Bank reported a net outflow of $27 million, and according to University of the Philippines economist Benjamin Diokno, foreign direct investment for the first three months of the year was down a staggering 83.5%. The Philippines trails, in dramatic fashion, most of Southeast Asia in FDI.

In a recent breakfast briefing for executives in the business process outsourcing industry, Oscar Sañez, CEO of the Business Processing Association of the Philippines, said that his association is preparing a major public relations and advertising initiative for the Philippines. The move is in response to industry executives’ continuing concerns about international perception of the Philippines not so much within the industry, but among clients, as competition heats up.

If the campaign works as it should, other industries will benefit as well. Perhaps then the Philippines will be generally known for more than what made up most of the news about the country this week, and maybe those billions will materialize.

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