Bias, branding and Bar Refaeli; The Israeli PR debate

“The question isn’t why the media hates Israel, the question is why people in the world hate Israel.”

Bar Refaeli311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bar Refaeli311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Can creativity, technology, social networking, and a little bit of Bar Refaeli help Israel’s maligned hasbara (public diplomacy) programs, or are the facts on the ground the only thing that can really change Israel’s image abroad?
If the divergent opinions expressed at a conference on hasbara held in Haifa last week were any indication, the jury’s still out.
One of the first speakers, BBCWatch founder attorney Trevor Asserson, stressed the impact of biased news reporting in the perpetuation of negative images of Israel, using the BBC as an example of such an “unfair” outlet.
Asserson said the BBC, which he called “the most dangerous opponent Israel has in the media,” has an “astonishing” impact on its viewership. He described what he perceived as very one-sided coverage of Operation Cast Lead last January, coverage he said played a large role in forging anti-Israel sentiment abroad.
Prof. Gadi Wolfsfeld of the Hebrew University took issue with Asserson’s assertions, in a talk that focused largely on what he called “the myths of hasbara.”
Wolfsfeld said that “politics influences the press far more than the press influences politics.”
“The question isn’t why the media hates Israel, the question is why people in the world hate Israel,” he said, arguing that such animosity fuels the media coverage, and not the other way around.
Wolfsfeld raised a number of what he called hasbara myths, including “If only we could find the right way to explain ourselves everyone will love us,” “we never get good press,” and “Israel doesn’t have resources for successful hasbara.”
In regards to the last “myth,” Wolfsfeld said, “the United States, the most powerful country in the world spent billions trying to convince the world that [George W.] Bush was a smart man and that they went to war in Iraq for the right reasons. That didn’t work.
“But they were able to convince people all over the world to eat McDonald’s, so it depends on what you’re selling.
“It’s much easier to sell the Oslo Accords than the Gaza war,” he added.
Wolfsfeld also took issue with “re-branding” campaigns which used Israeli models and scenes of the beaches in Tel Aviv in an attempt to change Israel’s image as a conflict zone, saying “elites are the ones who shape the media and you won’t win them over with gimmicks. To change the image, you must change politics.”
In February, Information and Diaspora Minister Yuli Edelstein (Likud) announced the launch of the Masbirim program, which sought to give Israelis pointers on how to boost Israel’s image while traveling abroad. The program included the launch of a Web site with facts meant to belie the popular image of Israel as a war-torn land of religious conflict and constant bloodshed.
The program was met with a largely lukewarm response and was lampooned for an accompanying advertising campaign, that some in the foreign press said depicted foreigners as completely ignorant of modern Israel.
During last week’s conference, Tel Aviv University professor and Shalem Center fellow Dr. Immanuel Navon, called for a stronger assertion of Israeli pride and chutzpa, saying that the time has come for Israel “to remove the tariff on Israeli chutzpa.”
Navon said Israeli, both politicians and civilians; do not express strong enough confidence and pride in their country or forceful enough messages of principle, saying “we need to reclaim our self-confidence and pride. As long as we respect ourselves, the world will accept us.”
University of Haifa communications professor Eli Avraham described the ideal hasbara as a process of “controlling the message” and reaching out to different target audiences in different ways, to change the image of Israel in the world.
Avraham highlighted a number of campaigns launched in the past, including ones that focused on Israel as a sun-and-sea destination replete with bikini-clad women; a Maxim magazine photo shoot of female IDF  soldiers out of uniform, and a campaign that stressed Israel’s tolerance of its gay community. All of these, Avraham said, were  efforts to “soften” Israel’s image abroad.
Avraham said that for hasbara to be successful, Israel must take the initiative, control the message, and finds the right “aesthetic” the country wants for its image abroad. For these efforts to be effective, however, Avraham said Israel needs to tailor hasbara campaigns to different audiences and find the right aesthetics and messages for each campaign.
Such efforts also demand professional speakers and an independent tourism marketing campaign showing Israel “and the different ways of life and lifestyles” here.
Aharoni argued that the image of Israel could be improved by promotingmore Israeli brands and increasing their recognition abroad.
“We must increase awareness of our brands in the world. We have manybrands to be proud of,” Aharoni said, arguing that currently Israel’stwo most famous “brands” are the IDF and the Mossad.
He argued that Israel could use Albert Einstein’s support of Zionism tohelp in Asian markets, in addition to wider efforts to show thevitality and ingenuity of Israel’s innovators in medicine and hi-tech.
“We have a great product, the State of Israel. Instead of marketing itlike we should, we’ve spent 60 years focusing only on fighting the[Middle East] crisis; we need to focus on other things,” he said.