A PR Lesson from Rodrigo Duterte

Rodrigo Duterte

With Philippine presidential election results now clear, it’s time to take a look back at the public relations strategies each candidate used during the heated campaign period. In the first of our series, let’s take a look at president-elect Rodrigo Duterte.

Unapologetic, feisty, and loud-mouthed, Rodrigo Duterte was an unusual candidate for President. He’s not a veteran lawmaker, a political dynasty heir, or a popular celebrity. Instead, he was a mayor known for transforming Davao City from into one of the most peaceful locales in the Philippines—a remarkable achievement in a country tired of rampant criminality, disorder, and lack of discipline.

However, the metamorphosis came at a price: alleged mayor-backed vigilantism against criminal elements, personified in the so-called Davao Death Squads. Duterte himself has openly admitted that he has killed three suspected kidnappers, and ventured the opinion that a president should be willing to kill.


 No Such Thing as Bad Publicity

That Digong ran his campaign by embracing his tough-guy reputation and brutally frank personality meant that controversy would become a campaign certainty. And for him, that was not necessarily a bad thing.

While his crass remarks on women, rape, and a host of other topics had traditional and digital media buzzing with shock, disgust, and censure, these statements made headlines and effectively buried what the other candidates had to say. Instead of setting their own agenda, they were forced to measure themselves to the Davao City Mayor and position themselves as his polar opposite—effectively keeping the spotlight trained on their rival.

Additionally, the controversies meant his name constantly appeared on social media feeds, newspapers, and radio or TV broadcasts in one form or another. The Rule of Seven considers that an ad must be seen seven times before convincing a person to buy; by that metric, Brand Duterte was flying off the shelves because of the constant exposure.


Unshakeable Message

Others would assume that all the different controversies would take Duterte’s popularity down a notch. But despite international censure about rape jokes and last-minute bank account inquiries, nothing seemed to harm (or distract from) his core message. Digong stands for order and discipline, the will to carry these goals out, and his reputation in Davao backs these assertions. Despite his seeming tendency to shoot himself in the foot, and then place it in his mouth, his core message was never questioned.

And now, he is our president-elect.

The Duterte presidential campaign is a lesson in the power of brand perception and the courage to embrace controversy. It is a path that brands will have a hard time to follow but will be able to reap considerable rewards, like the sitting President.