Marcos Jr.’s communication strategy is off-setting his silence with the use of propaganda. Here’s how his competitors and the media can beat it.
By JP Campos
Anyone who’s been following the news about this election’s presidential candidates will notice one glaring thing: Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos Jr., currently the frontrunner, has been quiet.
Marcos Jr. did not make a statement when different groups filed a disqualification case against him. He did say anything even when he’s at the receiving end of tirades from multiple fronts. He says nothing in the face of the most pressing issues that surfaced recently. He did not even appear in the hearing of his own case with COMELEC. On both the Jessica Soho Presidential Interviews and KBP’s Presidential Forum, Marcos was a no-show. He has also not committed to appearing on any upcoming debates by legacy media channels.
If you ask his camp, they’d probably give you pretty self-serving answers: Marcos is above it all, he does not engage in politicking and negative campaigning, he aims for unity instead of division. To his supporters, these are beautiful sound bites — they signal the prestige of their chosen candidate and further push the narrative that the mainstream media institutions are biased and are not worth Marcos Jr.’s time.
But if you’re one of the people who has been analyzing Marcos Jr.’s strategy, you would think that there is an underlying tactic that could either make or break his presidential run.
Has This Worked Before?
We can chalk up Marcos Jr.’s absences in the recent important public appearance to a public relation strategy referred to as “strategic silence.” The concept is straightforward: if a public appearance may cause harm to the status of a person or entity, it’s better to keep quiet.
The use of strategic silence is well-documented. Corporations, for example, comfortably resort to using this strategy when their backs are against a wall (i.e. when there is a crisis). Just think of the biggest controversies faced by any brand and you’ll notice a trend where strategic silence is employed. If they do break their silence, it is already at a point of impasse — violence erupting, plummeting sales, stockholders pulling out. In general, issues are often met with silence. And unless needed, C-level executives are shielded from making any statements to the public, especially if critical media organizations will be involved.
The same happens in politics. As a branch of communications that deals with political actors, political communication is tailored to address the specifics of certain societies — which is to say that the way politicians communicate (as in how they “brand” or project their image) is largely hinged on what works and what doesn’t in certain political territories. Yet “communication” here, according to political scientist Doris Graber, is not limited to rhetoric. It also deals (more importantly) with paralinguistic signs or non-verbal cues (cues that do not use words) such as body language, voice intonation, facial expressions, and, yes, the use of silence. Silence, therefore, is not only among the many features of political communication but is a salient element that emphasizes, rather than omits, what a political actor wants to say. It is a clever strategy if used correctly.
Why Marcos isn’t Talking
Is Marcos being clever by keeping quiet amidst the ruckus?
For political scientist and De La Salle University Asst. Prof. Cleve Arguelles, Marcos’ silence is both a symptom of Marcos Jr.’s authoritarian anxiety and a consistent feature of the family’s brand.
“When you have a huge lead like Marcos Jr, I think it makes sense that you would want to say as little as possible. Less talk, less mistake,” Arguelles said. “The love he & his family are getting right now can easily be shifted to a different direction — we just have to look at what happened to his father Ferdinand. [A] rapid rise and spectacular fall, both at the hands of the Filipino voters,” he added.
“I think Marcos Jr’s ‘strategic silence’ is a response to this particular ‘authoritarian anxiety’ and that they would rather risk losing face and a few points if only to ensure that the public won’t get a closer, deeper, and more intimate examination of him and his family.”
It’s especially important for Marcos Jr. to keep his silence because of the many potholes in his life that he can easily fall into–questions about his education, past conviction on a tax evasion case, benefitting from his father’s plunder–the list goes on. So Marcos Jr. keeping quiet is less about dignity but more about maintaining the morsel of history that they have curated. If they do talk, they could lose everything they have worked for over the years.
Here lies the critical chip in Marcos Jr.’s armor, however. Strategic silence is a clever strategy but only up to a point. Once people notice (and many have) that he is shielding himself from the public, the faith his soft supporters have in him can easily shift. Strategic silence can slowly fail when someone else (his competitors and/or the media) is filling the void that he left. As the rest of the presidential candidates enjoy the publicity they get from guesting and appearing on mainstream television, their base may inevitably widen and eat from the lead that Marcos Jr. has made for himself.
Marcos Jr.’s silence is also part of the brand that his family has cultivated over the years, Arguelles contends.
“The Marcos family brand, including that of Marcos Jr. at present, is a product of a painstaking process of myth-making. Public support for them relies on the well-curated image of who Marcos Jr. is and what the Marcos family stands for.”
As someone who does not perform well in uncontrolled environments, it is then understandable why Marcos Jr. chooses to forgo otherwise critical media appearances such as interviews with journalists or debates. In these scenarios, if one cannot deliver shock and awe or impress a crowd, the result could be detrimental. Marcos Jr. has experienced this in 2016, and it seems that he does not want the same thing to happen this time around.
This gives rise, however, to the need to instead invest in other ways to influence public opinion such as misinformation projects.
“We see how heavily invested they are in propaganda — then and now. This is the same for many authoritarian leaders and royal sovereigns around the world. Like Marcos Jr, their symbolisms & other representations are seen everywhere but they themselves are rarely seen or heard.” Arguelles explains.
Comparing Marcos’ strategy not just with authoritarian leaders but also with royal families is appropriate. If there is anyone truly well-versed in maintaining their silence even in the face of the most tumultuous events, it has to be royal families. This group of people has perfected two important elements of strategic silence as a political communication tool: the use of chronemics (time) and proxemics (distance). By making appearances both rare and distant (both in sequence and in physical space), royal families can maintain their vestige of regality.
“I think has been true for the Marcos family — they see themselves as a royal family and act like one. And they definitely want the public to see them as some sort of the Filipino Royal Family: Imelda as Queen, Ferdinand as King, and Marcos Jr as Prince,” Arguelles posits.
“So Marcos Jr.‘s ‘strategic silence’ is at its core also a reflection of their authoritarian fantasies for the Philippines — as opposed to a democratic kind (deliberating with the people, listening to them, getting their support),” he concludes.
Instead of facing challenging questions, Marcos Jr. appears in friendly media environments where he knows he will not be caught off-guard by whatever might come. He had appeared in an interview with Toni Gonzaga and Boy Abunda’s talk shows, for example, who are both allied to him and his family. When invited for debates, he declined. Except, of course, when invited by SMNI, a network with a painfully obvious bias for Marcos Jr.
The Way Around this Strategic Silence
There are still around two months before the election. That’s two more months of campaigning and building a lasting image to the voting public. Marcos can manipulate his own media ecosystem with the use of propaganda machinery, allied influencers, and disinformation operations. But there is a counterattack that one can employ against Marcos Jr.’s strategic silence: it’s called strategic amplification or a communication practice that puts the focus on certain available details to build a story. At a time when political personalities can publish falsehoods at their whim and remain silent when a response is warranted, strategic amplification works as an antidote as it publicly confronts the bad actor with established truths instead of republishing the pieces of misinformation presented.
Strategic amplification can also be extended to Marcos Jr.’s competitors. They can fill the void that Marcos Jr. left by amplifying important (potentially damaging) information about his life and his campaign. They can highlight the things that Marcos Jr. doesn’t want to talk about and exploit his absence to their advantage. At the same time, his competitors can use the opportunity to bring themselves to the forefront of public consciousness and launch an offensive that the Marcos Jr. camp cannot evade.
In the end, what matters in understanding Marcos Jr.’s communication strategy is that silence is one of his tools. But if silence can be created, it can also be broken — forcibly and in more ways than one. By amplifying, instead of subduing, his absence, a salient piece of information rises to the surface: that here is a man who’s vying for your votes but cannot find even just a few hours to face his competitors or talk to the public. How, then, can such a candidate navigate the complicated world of presidency and politics?