Academics wonder: Do PR and advertising distort politics?

New study finds that the current state of politics originated in pre-state period.

knesset 88 (photo credit: )
knesset 88
(photo credit: )
As Israel's top strategic analysts gear up for a new election campaign in which they will play a key role in determining the winner, a yet-unpublished academic study, analyzes in depth the troubling relationship among media, public relations, and advertising in the country's political sphere. After 20 year of practical experience as a public relations expert, including a stint as the chair of the Israeli Public Relations Association, Margalit Toledano has recently completed a doctoral dissertation in public relations at the Sorbonne, and is now teaching at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. Her new study, which maps the evolution of public relations in Israel's changing political, socio-cultural, and economic environment, sees a direct connection between the current state of public relations in the country and their origins in the pre-state period and in the first decades of the state. Israel's process of nation-building, Toledano argues, "put an emphasis on the values of solidarity, unity and consensus, and on an enlisted and obedient media and society, rather than on individual rights and freedom." Yet even today, she told The Jerusalem Post, she believed that "the boundaries here between politics, public relations, and journalism are very blurred, and there are still elements of enlistment." She added, "The Israeli public relations field is really one of propaganda, or hasbara." Toledano's study examines the fluid boundaries between advertising, journalism, public relations and politics in Israel -- where it is common and accepted practice for journalists to move into public relations work and back again to journalism. Recent examples include Ron Ben Yishay, a veteran journalist who left Yediot Aharonot to serve as President Moshe Katsav's media adviser, and who resigned from this position prior to the disengagement from Gaza in order to return to journalism. Ilan Ostfeld, who was recently appointed as Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom's media advisor, left his position as a senior military reporter for Galei Tzahal in order to assume his new position. While Lior Horev, the prime minister's strategic advisor, started his career as part of the founding team of cable news in the mid-1990s. Toledano's argument also raises questions about Israeli advertising executives currently preparing for the new election campaign, while simultaneously entertaining relations with private clients who may well choose their advertisers based on their allegiance with certain political figures. Such advertisers include Reuven Adler, a long-time feature of Sharon's; Gil Samsonov, an advertising executive who will consult with Binyamin Netanyahu on his campaign within the Likud; and Amir Peretz consultant Benny Gaon, whose son, Moshe Gaon, himself an advertising executive, is a consultant to Ehud Barak. In addition, Toledano said, part of the problem was an uncritical approach towards information coming from PR professionals on the part of the media itself. Although since the 1970s the Israeli media scene has become more critical and more competitive, and the need for public relations had increased, Toledano argues that to a large degree, public relations in Israel were still shaped by the concept of what she calls "one-way communication," which was geared towards "engineering acceptance." "The question is to what degree spokespeople in a political system are also representatives of the public, who communicate its demands for changing policy," Toledano said. "There is still not enough self-awareness on the part of [public relations] practitioners of the role they are playing in the public sphere, and of the importance of creating dialogue and mutually beneficial relationships with the public. They are not empowered to say 'I won't cover up, I won't mislead.' It's about listening to their master's voice - they don't have the power to stand up to their client." One question, Toledano said, was whether a public relations professional studied the public's will in order to influence policy making, or whether the study of the public was only a way to create a more effective manipulation. "It's not about finding ingenious gimmicks that can change public opinion, but about a deeper dialogue with the public," she said. Toledano defined the current state of affairs in Israel as characterized by "a still worrisome blurring of boundaries between journalism and public relations. The fact that people move back and forth between these fields is very unethical - it's a total conflict of interests. She continued, "There is a lack of recognition that there needs to be total separation between advertising, journalism, and public relations. And this lack of recognition is part of an Israeli society where there is a lack of transparency and a high degree of corruption. "Rather than a mutual, beneficial relationship between a given organization and the public, what take place here is soft propaganda - a certain body transmits a message, and the public is expected to take it in."