Managing a polarizing crisis

A conversation with crisis management expert Rotem Tony, who artfully handles polarizing issues from all sides of the spectrum

Report: Saudi delegation to investigate missing journalist Khashoggi  (photo credit: KOKO)
Report: Saudi delegation to investigate missing journalist Khashoggi
(photo credit: KOKO)
Crisis and campaign manager Rotem Tony has two law degrees, as well as a master’s degree in government, and is a rising star in the field of crisis management in Israel. Tony has successfully dealt with some of the most talked-about crises Israel has seen, including the 2016 Hebron shooting incident and finalizing the Israel Police retirement deal, which involved negotiations over a period of 10 years with government officials. She is currently forging her way into the international crisis management industry and is becoming one of the hottest names in the industry. 

Just before setting out to handle another international crisis, Tony agreed to sit down for an exclusive interview to discuss the work she’s done over the past five years. 
You’re just 36 years old, and yet you’re already defusing huge crises in Israel. How have you managed to climb so high at such a young age?

You make it sound like I’ve already reached the peak of my career, but in my view, I’m just getting started. But it’s true that determination and faith bring results. When I began working as a young lawyer 10 years ago, I made the decision that practicing law would not be my focus, but that it would be a very helpful tool for me to use as a crisis and campaign manager. 

Two people were incredibly helpful by opening doors for me. One was Eli Aflalo, who hired me to be his spokesperson when he was an MK and asked me to continue working with him when he moved to Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund. This was an extremely significant stepping stone for me. My second mentor was Ronen Tzur, who appointed me to manage the car importers crisis over the green tax, and then later the engineer crisis, which no journalist wanted to cover until I took charge. I suppose that creativity and analytical thinking are the name of the game. Once you’ve acquired those, even the sky is not the limit. 
I recall how when you were hired to handle the Hebron shooter (a.k.a. Elor Azaria) case, the image of the family with their back to the camera was being shown by every news agency around the world within a few hours. Tell me more about that campaign.
This picture shows the crisis within the crisis. I took on the case 48 hours after the shooting was publicized in the national and international media. The handling of the case was absolutely chaotic, and before I arrived on the scene, the family had already made cardinal mistakes when it was suddenly catapulted into the public eye and crucified by the media. The first thing I did when I took over the management of the case was to organize a press conference for 7:30 that evening. 

When I reached the Azaria home to arrange the press conference, which was to take place two hours later, I discovered that there was a disagreement among the family members whether they should hold it inside the home. But since there was still an order forbidding the publication of their names, faces or other identifying details, we couldn’t hold the press conference outside their home either, since people might have recognized the street. 

The clock was ticking, all the media began showing up and we still had not found a solution. About an hour before the set time, I made an executive decision and announced to the Azaria family that the press conference would be held on the balcony. Now I just needed to figure out how we would prevent their faces from being seen, since that was not allowed. And that’s how we came up with the idea to have them stand with their backs to the cameras. 
But you dropped the case two months later. 

Look, I don’t make it a habit of spitting in the well that I drink from. However, when you bring in outside consultants, you must be completely honest with them. There’s a solution to every conundrum. But if my client doesn’t tell me the truth, then I’m not going to make the correct decisions. In the end, not only the client gets hurt, but so does my professional reputation. Sometimes the only path to take is to get up and leave the negotiating table. 
I spoke with a few senior military and political commentators. They told me that when you dropped the case, everything fell apart. 
When you manage a crisis or a campaign, you need to deal with and analyze a large number of variables, and the media is one of the most important ones. You need to interact with people in a professional manner and trust your consultant. 
You ran the teachers’ union campaign and handled the Mevaseret Zion absorption center and police withholding of wages crises. It’s been said that you’re great at exposing corruption. 

If that’s what people are saying, then I guess I’m doing a good job. I’m a professional and so I don’t pick sides. I fight for whichever side hires me.

You joined the Shira Raban campaign against Sara Netanyahu after the previous consultant texted a job offer to an employee at the Prime Minister’s Office, which created a huge buzz in the media and a big headache for the lawyers representing Raban. From the moment you entered the picture, there hasn’t even been one peep. 

Managing a crisis is very complex. Sometimes they are accompanied by a lot of noise, but other times they get settled quietly. Sometimes when I need to make a big decision, I go out into the desert where it’s completely quiet, which actually feels like one massive scream. In certain situations, that huge scream is all that’s needed. And the fact that there was quiet does not necessarily mean that other articles that were published in the media were not also connected to that case. 

For a moment, it seemed as if you were winning in the police wage campaign during negotiations with government officials. Then a few days later, a Globes article reported that the finance minister was holding negotiations with the police, and headlines read that the prime minister had decided not to approve additional payments above what they were owed by law. 

A year ago, I was approached by the spokesperson for the police pensioners, who asked me to help them fight to receive payments they were owed following the 2006 government decision, which had not been implemented even a decade later. The government had failed to transfer the funds it had agreed to allocate to the police, a ruling that was also backed by the court. 

So we decided to call a strike in all central police stations and we set up a protest tent in front of the prime minister’s residence in order to make a statement that the police pensioners were not going to sit by quietly. What happened next? The pensioners were invited to sit down at the negotiating table. The Globes article only covered the second meeting. Unfortunately, the first session hadn’t been covered by the media, since the Finance Ministry had said that a precondition to holding talks was that the issue be kept quiet (against my recommendation). 

If we understand the political map and what might happen in the next election, then there might be a tremendous opportunity here for the police. How? The current clash is between Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and the prime minister. 
Despite your incredibly professional reputation, some people believe that you are overly belligerent. 
You can’t please everyone. I aim for a balance: achieving my client’s goal without ruining my relationship with my contacts in the media. I need to keep in mind that the moment one case ends and I take on a new client fighting for a different cause, I’ll need to deal with the media once again. Some of my colleagues try to push me in a certain direction, but I aim to keep everything professional and as objective as possible. 

If people are calling that belligerent, then I guess I’m doing my job well. There are lots of power struggles during negotiations; every journalist has her or his method to gain the upper hand, and that’s fine. What’s important for me to remember is not to get caught up in issues to the point where I’m no longer acting in a professional manner. So in this respect, all the parties can be considered belligerent.
You’ve expanded the scope of your firm’s activities to represent venture capital funds, angels and tech companies. Is everyone going through a crisis?

Yes, my firm has indeed expanded and now provides strategic planning and public relations services for the high-tech sector, as well. When you know how to survive a tsunami, as well as how to create one, then the next step is to figure out how to prevent a tsunami from occurring in the first place. 

The tech industry is about to experience a tsunami, and companies know that the best way for them to weather the storm is to differentiate themselves from the competition. In addition, they need to prepare for the tsunamis that their competitors are going to generate and throw at them. When that happens, they know they’ll be safe if I’m on their side. 
You worked as a partner of veteran political strategist Moti Morel, who was known for his underhanded ways. 

I will never forget the moment when I was told he had died. It was on the eve of Remembrance Day, and a journalist called me before the announcement was made public. Moti had been on his way to a meeting with a client. Yes, he was extremely professional, and he supported me in my work. But I learned how to run a negative campaign when I worked for Ronen Tzur. 
Not every campaign needs to be negative, though, just like not every crisis is solved in front of the TV camera. Each crisis requires the use of its own unique method. Think about a crisis as a disease. My job is to correctly recognize each of the symptoms, figure out what the sickness is and then treat it. Sometimes, however, my job is to create a sickness (Tony says while smiling). 
A colleague of mine told me that it’s worth hiring you to sit on their bench just so that you don’t get hired by the opposing side. 

The only benches I’ve ever spent any time sitting on are the one in my office and the one I rest my shin pads on when I’m getting ready for my boxing lesson. 
One source told me that the Prime Minister’s Office tried to hire you, but that you turned them down.

You should double-check your sources.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.