From manipulating Google searches to extinguishing scandals before they’re alight, the public relations executive has spent years refining the art of saving face. Arianna Lim gets an exclusive tell-all from this digital PR pioneer, the unseen hand that shapes public perception of some of the biggest names in the Philippines
If you were to make a determined effort, you would still be able to uncover years-old blogs and online comments hosting scattered discussions about Tony Ahn.
Specifically, you would find shoddy assertions of his alleged involvement in sexual misdeeds, supposedly taking place under a different name.
Following a ruckus in 2009 when he co-founded an anti-racial discrimination campaign for foreign teachers working in South Korea, opposing parties countered with a smear campaign of their own in which “one founder was called an anti-Semite, they called one a communist, and then me they called child molester,” Ahn recalls now. He eventually relocated to China—where he met and promptly panicked the woman he was seeing when her family decided to Google his name. “Just because I’m gone doesn’t mean it’s gone,” he realized. “I spent the next three years getting all that stuff cleaned off the Internet.”
But what began as a nuisance and an even greater embarrassment turned out to be the seeds of what is today an impressive and far-reaching career. Ahn had worked in PR in the past, but it was only after he wrote a well-circulated press release for friend Carlos Celdran—after the latter’s arrest for his Manila Cathedral protest—that he turned it into an independent entreprenurial venture. Two years later, Ahn founded Tony Ahn & Co., an online reputation management firm whose digital approach made it a pioneering and necessary venture in a PR industry that had yet to catch on.
Where the first phase of a fledgling business is usually an uphill battle to earn and grow a customer base, Tony Ahn & Co.’s first client was an immediate catch. In the heat of the Renato Corona impeachment trial, rumors of corruption bubbled when PSBank was threatened with contempt for refusing to disclose information about the then-Chief Justice’s dollar accounts. It was at this point that Tony Ahn & Co. was called in, arranging for a ghostwritten blog and a system for social media monitoring and response in which an attorney joined online discussions to explain bank secrecy laws. In place of a potential media wildfire, public opinion was neatly won in nine days time.
Since then, Ahn has done work for a wide range of clients with a wide range of needs. His work has spanned revising the digital campaigning rules and campaign finance tracking for Comelec, finding the right celebrity for a restaurant chain willing to pay a pretty penny for mentions on Twitter, and getting a “Gucci Gang” article deleted from Wikipedia, which he claims may have been a first.
Every public relations strategy must be tailor fit to the client in question, and the deeper a crisis is steeped in scandal, the more complex the strategies tend to be. Ironically, the client that could have singularly defined Ahn’s career is also the one that eluded him: Janet Lim-Napoles, alleged pork barrel scam mastermind and, by the time Ahn was commissioned for a PR proposal, the recipient of widespread public antagonism.
Apart from standard procedures of social media monitoring and online reputation management, much of the plan revolved around getting out the story that Napoles’s camp insisted the press kept getting twisted: for one, the coal mine that Philippine Daily Inquirer reported could not have been the source of the family fortune because it didn’t exist. But despite one failed venture, they were, they insisted, the owners of another lucrative and very much functional mine. The plan: hire an independent attorney to examine their documents and deeds and fly bloggers and journalists to the mine for interviews, with the end goal of revealing the newspaper’s shoddy research. But Ahn says, “We didn’t get to that point. Two weeks later she got arrested, and that was kind of the end of that.”
There was also the task of preempting the stories which, with their irregular but unrelenting emergence, was fanning the flame of public ire much longer than Ahn thought necessary. His recommendation to the Napoleses was to make a full list of their assets and publish it as a full page ad in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. “Every press outlet will write a story about it, and then after that, there won’t be any more stories,” he recalls explaining to them. “‘There’s really no new information in your case, but the problem is is that every day, a journalist finds a new car, or a new yacht, or a new bank account, or a new condo.’” But then attorney Lorna Kapunan killed the idea: “Lorna said, ‘That’s not a very good idea . . . because if we take out a full page ad in the PDI, it’s going to confirm to the whole country how rich they really are.’ And I said . . . ‘She bought her daughter a Porsche for her 18th birthday! The country already knows how rich they are!’”
Napoles’s arrest got in the way of any of Ahn’s major recommendations, but he got his share of flack for considering her case all the same. “I don’t know what Janet did and didn’t do. I don’t know. And it wasn’t very important because the stuff I was supposed to do for her didn’t hinge on whether she did it or not,” he maintains. “She definitely had her part to play, and I wasn’t trying to hide that, but I was trying to add some perspective.
“Any time I have a client that comes to me and says, ‘Okay, here’s what’s really going on but I wanna spin it this way,’ I tell them ‘I can’t help you with that,’” he reiterates. “As a PR agency, the only thing that we have is our integrity. And the first time that’s breached, there’s no coming back from that.”
There will always be suspicion surrounding his line of work. But in the wired age—when the slightest public misstep can trigger vehement and viral protest—using the same medium to carve out a space in which the accused can tell their side of the story is a noble if thankless effort. “Morally dubious people have rights and they deserve a day in court too,” Ahn asserts. “And the court of public opinion is not fair.”