Like many others, I spent a lot of time this past week agonizing about Israel’s public-relations battles and image problems. And I remain extremely worried.
I own one of the one of the nation’s 25 largest public-relations agencies and make my living building brands and enhancing images. I represent a number of major corporations, foreign governments and concerns worldwide and consult regularly with senior Israeli government officials, advocacy organizations and consulates, mainly on a pro-bono basis.
Last week I spent an entire day escorting a client, a very senior foreign government official from an embattled area (outside the Middle East) from media outlet to media outlet. He met with a reporter for a large weekly newsmagazine, and after the 45-minute interview the reporter spoke heart to heart with the official, advising him to do interviews even when there’s nothing going on, speak the same language as those doing the interviewing, and invite the media to events. Irrespective of the issues, it’s harder to write negative about my friends, the reporter laughed.
In other words, fostering relationships is a must.
After graduating from college I lived in Israel in the mid 1990’s and worked in public relations and politics. I soon realized that Israelis don’t pay attention to the human side of journalism, nor are they flexible with the business of PR. Israeli government officials don’t, and in fact can’t, spend time and money entertaining reporters. The almost unbelievable reason for this is that Israeli officials aren’t permitted to turn in regular expense-account bills for meals or entertaining. And in nearly all instances they pay their own cellular phone bills for calls to and from reporters.
I believe Israel’s PR problem is due primarily to the fact that Israeli officials view the practice of public relations not as a necessity but as a secondary thought. Similarities can be drawn to Israeli technology companies, which produce incredible products but utilize poor marketing programs.
Israelis are a tough people who believe that since their cause is just, they don’t need to spend time convincing others. Is it anything short of absurd that Israel’s entire public-relations budget for the U.S. is under $250,000 annually?
The State of Israel does not use a public-relations agency anywhere in the world and hasn’t for many years. How can Israel expect to win the war for hearts and minds when its emissaries, noble as they may be, come for a few years and then leave? While Israeli diplomats undoubtedly work hard, English is not their first language. No wonder Israel’s public-relations efforts always seem to be characterized by an all too palpable tentativeness and defensiveness.
Primary Arab spokespersons, by contrast, tend to be longtime residents of Western countries. They are individuals who were educated in the West or have lived here for a long time and communicate in fluent English. While Israel’s spokespeople may be coherent, the government doesn’t pay for outside professional media training. And coherent doesn’t necessarily mean compelling. What makes an army commander or a police chief suitable for worldwide media appearances? At a minimum, should they not undergo media training by outside PR agencies expert at helping people develop their messages?
Israel has planes and tanks but little media savvy. Israeli leaders don’t pay enough attention to the media, nor do they enlist the troops needed for today’s media war. While the Arabs brilliantly started Al Jazeera (created by a $150 million grant from the emir of Qatar), Israel counters with a few very smart Foreign Military representatives who engage on Twitter and dabble in creative YouTube campaigns. In other words, a David vs. Goliath battle in the world press.
I believe Israel’s lack of financial investment in PR is a major mistake. Israel needs to invest as much in the public-relations battle as it does on the ground for military battle. As the owner of a PR agency, I view public relations in terms of business rather than ideology, and this allows me to be the rare Zionist who says Israel’s foreign media problems aren’t strictly about anti-Semitism or inherent bias. Israel’s PR problem is primarily a business problem.
Public relations is neither a hobby nor a pastime, and funds must be invested to garner success. Last year the Pentagon admitted spending millions upon millions to shape media coverage of the Iraq war. Yes, PR is big business, and Israel doesn’t take it seriously.