Dr. Evil in Israel’s corner

Richard Berman, the bad boy of American lobbyists, explains how he believes American Jews can get the word out about Iran.

RICHARD BERMAN 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Evil. The name evokes an image of comedic actor Mike Meyers as a bald, scarred, scheming and largely ineffectual recurring villain from the Austin Powers movie series. However, there is a “Dr. Evil” in real life as well, and his name is Richard Berman.
At least this is the name his critics – and he has many – have given the 70- year-old lobbyist and public relations executive from Washington. As an ad man, Berman has provoked the ire of groups dedicated to healthy eating, animal rights and eradicating drunk driving.
Promoting libertarian and conservative causes, and often slaughtering sacred cows in the course of his work, Berman is either a hero or the devil, depending on your interests and political leanings.
He certainly is the go-to guy when a cause is so devoid of popular support that its proponents don’t know what to do about it. Berman puts it a different way; he says he has certain interests and then he looks for people or institutions who “share that bias” and asks them to support a media campaign.
During a trip to the Middle East last week, Berman took the time to speak with The Jerusalem Post about the failure of recent attempts at hasbara (public diplomacy) by Jewish groups seeking to educate the American public about the Iranian issue.
This issue, he says, is of concern to him not just because he is a Jew or because his grandfather was a Zionist but also because of the potential threat that he believes Iran poses to Western Europe and the United States.
His claim that he normally doesn’t speak to the press is belied by YouTube videos of recent appearances on 60 Minutes and The Colbert Report in which he lambastes what he sees as the hypocrisy of self-appointed do-gooders.
After taking on People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the unions, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Humane Society, he says that his next target may just well be the Islamic Republic and its nuclear quest.
Asked if he believes that Israel has a problem with PR in general, Berman replies in the negative – but with a caveat.
“Here in the United States, people don’t fully appreciate the threat from Iran,” he says. “One of my concerns is that in the US, if you ask people, ‘Do you support Israel?’ you can get a substantial majority who support the country, but I don’t know what will happen if there is a blowup between Iran and Israel and somehow it results in long gas lines.”
“I think that there is a quick erosion of support for Israel from people who are presently saying that they support it when it doesn’t cost anything to be supportive.
As soon as it becomes inconvenient, people may be less supportive. I would like people in the United States to understand that the Iranian threat to Israel is real – but the Iranian threat to the United States is just as real,” he says.
If Americans felt threatened and understood that this was a legitimate threat, he continues, sipping a cocktail, “a lot of Americans would then become more alarmed and be more supportive of the Israelis, being basically in the same camp as the Americans.
“There needs to be an intellectual understanding that this is a fight that goes beyond Israel,” he says.
Explaining how to go about making such an impression, Berman says that it all starts with information. “There are many ways to get the message out,” he continues, “but the fact of getting the message out is more important than any specific media format that you might choose.
“So if you put the information out, whether it be in full-page ads or whether on the Internet, whether in video commercials, is not terribly important at this point. That’s where there is more art than science, in the communications business. But what is important is that it be done.”
At the moment, Berman believes, such a campaign is not being undertaken. The major American Jewish organizations are falling down on the job, he alleges.
“I don’t see what I would consider to be more than an occasional reference to some wild statement coming out of the Middle East that is designed to be threatening to Western Europe or America. It’s all about Israel. Any communications campaign that is going to create awareness has to be relentless and has to be deep and has to be broad and, on that particular issue, it doesn’t exist in the United States.
“I have talked to a lot of major Jewish players in the United States and everyone is concerned about Israel, but if you ask people what should we do about the problem... there is no consensus. You put something on the table and they say, ‘That won’t work.’ When someone has a reason to move forward, they can’t get anyone else to follow them. It’s paralysis by analysis.”
Berman also believes that important information is not getting out because it is not being presented in a professional manner by public relations firms in the same way that commercial products or political campaigns are packaged.
Or, as he puts it, “most people are not reading the journals and the news reports and they are not connected to the State Department and the CIA, and they are not seeing this stuff.”
While Jewish organizations publish long white papers and reports on their websites that nobody reads, he says, a message critical for the American people is getting buried.
He is “giving serious thought” to the idea of taking a break from work and his normal bêtes noires of animal rights activists and “overreaching” public health advocates to focus on Iran, he says.
Thinking about how he would handle such a public relations campaign, he says that one issue facing current efforts to rally support for Israel and other opponents of Iran is that information put out “doesn’t reach everyone it should reach.”
“I think you have to ambush people with information. You can’t give people information that they get from reading a journal or a long article. If you can’t put information on a bumper sticker, you are probably not communicating with the vast majority of Americans.”
However, he is not sure it is the job of the Israeli government to sponsor such a media campaign.
Getting into territory that is slightly less comfortable for many people, Berman asserts that what is needed is a campaign modeled after the negative ads decried – and thoroughly utilized – by both sides in the recent American presidential election.
Negative ads work, he says. “What I’m talking about is giving people a negative impression of the future; not an unfair one, but a negative one nonetheless. It happens to be the truth, and facts are facts.”
Living up to his reputation as an in-your- face PR guru who is unafraid to upset people, he turns combative and says that American Jews must “put up billboards, or you put information on television or you just get in people’s face with some reality and say that the leaders of some of these Islamic groups have a serious agenda of threatening the United States.”
“Even if it’s uncomfortable or unattractive or somehow upsetting to your day, it’s too bad. You’d better understand that that’s the reality.”