Behind the Lines: Advice to the new hasbara czar

The national hasbara office will be effective only if it gets backing from and constant access to the PM.

Olmert 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Olmert 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
On Sunday, the government approved the proposal to set up a national hasbara office to coordinate the communications efforts of all ministries and decide upon a joint national media strategy. It's still not totally clear exactly what the powers of the new office will be. It will operate in the Prime Minister's Office, but will it be able to give orders to government spokesmen? Is it no more than a hollow plan aimed at assuaging the chronic critics of Israel's media operation? Just like other grand-sounding organizations that have little influence - the National Security Council is the best example - the national hasbara office will be effective only if it gets both firm backing from and constant access to the prime minister. Even then, it will take an exceptional personality and impeccable professional to make a success of the disaster that is Israel's public relations. HERE'S A 10-point memo to the new hasbara czar: • The government decided that you are to be both head of the hasbara office and the prime minister's press adviser. While this double-billing might give you valuable access and face-time with the boss, it carries the risk of subordinating a national mission to what is only too often a political agenda. In addition, it will eat into your precious time. One of your first priorities should be to delegate the daily role of handling the PM's multiple media needs to a trusted underling, leaving you to formulate and implement national policy and take control of crises as they emerge. • Choose your allies with care. The most useful partner you can have is the new IDF spokesman, Avi Binayahu, probably the best-connected and most influential man in the business. He knows the political-media-military junction from all sides; has the implicit trust of Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi; commands almost limitless resources in the shape of hundreds of young, bright and eager soldiers; and can keep you in touch with military affairs as they happen, more quickly than any liaison officer. Having him on your side will make life easier and your office that much more effective. • The government's decision preserves the independence of the Foreign Ministry's spokesmen, but the inescapable fact is that they have failed for decades in defending Israel's international image. Use all your powers and charm to disregard this and make sure you control the contact with the foreign media based here, and also have powers to instruct the spokesmen in the embassies abroad. If you fail in this, official Israel will be speaking in two voices and the whole point of your office will be lost. • Appoint two deputies, one for the local scene and another for the international media, and set out two separate strategies. There is little overlap between the two, as they have different needs and modes of operation and should be treated accordingly. • Set up a weekly meeting with Binyamin Netanyahu. He might be your boss's political rival, and his prominence in the international media works to his own benefit, but the fact remains that he is the country's most effective spokesman, and you won't be able to change that. Netanyahu has proven that whatever the level of hostility between him and the government, while abroad he is totally loyal. Not only is he the best vehicle for your message, you can also learn a great deal from him about presentation on the international stage. Netanyahu wasn't born with this capability; as a young diplomat, his first media appearances were stilted, but he worked hard at perfecting his skills, making use of the best advisers. Make sure he is an asset and not a rival. • Single out the ministers, parliamentarians, generals and senior officials who are effective media performers and who are willing to stick to the message; and make sure they are always available for interviews. Find out their strengths and who is fluent in what language, and appoint a special coordinator whose job it is to keep on good terms with the foreign news crews and supply them with the right interviewees. • Keep your own blacklist of poor performers, with bad language skills and the inability to toe the official line, and use every means of covert pressure to keep them off screen. • Use the prime minister's backing to bring government spokesmen and the ministers' media advisers into line. They each have to serve their immediate masters, who have conflicting interests, but must constantly be reminded that they are all serving in a greater cause. Issue daily bulletins and convene regular meetings to ensure they are all aware of the message. Don't hesitate to call them to task for insubordination. • Choose your battles with care. Every day you will come up against a dozen cases of blatantly imbalanced and biased reports. Don't react. Leave them to the various advocacy groups monitoring the media. If you become a serial complainer, no one will take you seriously, and you'll find that senior journalists suddenly aren't taking your calls. Save your efforts and credibility for only the most severe cases, when you can prove beyond all doubt (double check all the facts yourself) that a major news organization has made a big mistake. After that, everyone will have to take you much more seriously. • The best textbook on this job was published this week. Order The Blair Years - The Diaries of Alastair Campbell by express delivery. Blair's communications chief was at one point the second most powerful person in Britain, achieving total political control of the civil service's media operation and using it to devastating effect. But before long, his hubris got the better of him and he became a hated and untrusted figure. There is so much you can learn from this book about what to do - and especially about what not to do. (If the prospect of wading through 750 pages in English daunts you, then you are in the wrong job.) Good luck.