The Philippines needs to be visible

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on March 12, 2011

Brett M. Decker is the editorial page editor at The Washington Times (TWT), an influential, conservative Washington DC newspaper said to reflect the political views of the Republican Party. The political irony is that TWT commentary is probably watched more closely when the Republicans aren’t occupying the White House than when they are. Other mainstream media demonstrate an understandable preoccupation with the ruling party.

The Philippines is close to Mr. Decker’s heart, and he is a frequent visitor. As a result, the Philippines appears on his page with some regularity. But not as regularly as Mr. Decker would like. Readers just aren’t interested. Last weekend Mr. Decker wrote a compelling editorial on how two U.S. presidents—the late Ronald Reagan and the sitting president Barack Obama—reacted to people power revolutions.

Mr. Decker wrote that although Mr. Reagan initially hesitated as he evaluated the best interests of the U.S. when Filipinos rose up again the corrupt, authoritarian government of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, he acted to save lives when it was clear that high-level officials friendly to the U.S.—Fidel Ramos and Juan Ponce Enrile—were abandoning Mr. Marcos and playing leadership roles in his overthrow. Mr. Decker criticizes Mr. Obama for not attaining similar assurance before taking a stand on Egypt’s revolution.

That failure was punctuated when Iranian warships sailed through the Suez Canal for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution within days after the Egyptian military removed former president Hosni Mubarak from power. Although the Philippines’ democratic journey has been rocky—and the Philippines threw the U.S. military out of the country during the term of Mr. Marcos’ revolutionary successor—ties between the countries have remained close.

There’s no clear indication that will be the case with Egypt. While that is a concern to Mr. Decker, my interest in his column is this: If a people power revolution had not taken place in Egypt, the Philippines probably wouldn’t have been on Mr. Decker’s editorial page. Or the editorial pages of other major dailies that also recalled the 1986 phenomenon that inspired movements for government accountability around the world.

Despite the headline-dominating uprisings taking place in North Africa and the Middle East as well as on-going unrest in Egypt, Mr. Decker told me, “I was disappointed how last week’s column on the Philippines tracked. My two previous columns did well, and one was on the fairly dry and parochial topic of budget cuts and tax reform in Lansing, Michigan—which shot up to the number three most read on the paper’s website.

“So Manila can’t compete with Rust Belt Michigan in a Washington DC newspaper,” Mr. Decker concluded. “I think that’s an indication how much interest there is (or isn’t) in the Philippines these days. I look for excuses to write on the archipelago but it’s a problem if no one wants to read about the place.” Searches of news on the Philippines elsewhere demonstrates that Mr. Decker’s analysis is sadly correct.

When I did a news search for the Philippines while writing this column, nine of the 10 first-page results were from domestic sources. They dealt with a basketful of negative imagery, from corruption in the armed forces to inflation. Only one story by an international news organization—AFP—appeared. And that story began with the line, “For tourists the Philippine island of Palawan seems like a paradise, but for environmental activists it feels more akin to a battlefield.”

The next paragraph was worse.

I did a similar news search for Thailand. Eight of the 10 stories were by international news organizations such as Reuters, Bloomberg, and the Wall Street Journal. They provided glimpses into a bustling economy—AirAsia listing in Bangkok, the role of women bosses, and profits by listed firms—as well as negative issues such as unrest in the south. The point is news on Thailand was balanced and international. News on the Philippines was predominately negative and local.

This is nothing new. And it’s nothing new that nothing has been done about it. The Philippines’ neighbors invest hundreds of millions of dollars annually ensuring sure that the world sees a balanced view of their countries. That money goes to advertising, public relations, events, lobbying, and other communications initiatives. It pays off, with the results that the Philippines chronically trails its neighbors in both foreign investment and tourist arrivals.

Those are the benefits of visibility. Like everything else, unless a nation is willing to invest in managing its country brand image, it won’t enjoy a return on investment. It’s time the Philippines took control of its image, instead of relying on its admirers to carry the message.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn.). Copyright © 2011 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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