‘Israel’s public and media relations is a joke,” a reader of this column wrote to me in response to what I had written about the BDS movement and most recent Palestinian uprising. “The real party at fault is the PR department of the Israeli government. I bet you that so few people in this world know how much better life is for the Palestinians under Israeli occupation than under their Arab ‘brothers.’ Much more health care, supplies, etc. than it would have been under their own rule if Hamas was in full control.”
I am certainly not going to touch that statement with a 10-foot pole here (I do try to remain somewhat apolitical within this space I am granted). However, this reader most certainly had a point that resonated with me, a retired marketing/public relations executive for 30 years: Israel needs some serious help on the PR front.
A recent Pew Research Center report shows that less than half (48%) of Jewish Americans under age 30 describe themselves as “very” or “somewhat” attached to Israel. Only 45% of Jewish Americans say that caring about Israel is “essential” to being Jewish, and 57% say they follow news about Israel closely.
Among Jewish Republicans, 44% describe themselves as “very” attached to Israel – a low number that is still more than double the figure for Jewish Democrats (19%). About one out of five US Jews say the US is too supportive of Israel (double the share that said this in 2013). And among the younger age group, nearly two out of five feel their government should be tougher on Israel. These are some scary numbers.
“Why are Israel’s public relations so poor?” I put this in quotation marks because it is not only my question, but the title of a paper published close to 20 years ago by Dan Diker, then a Knesset and economic affairs reporter for the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s English News. He refers to The Israel State Comptroller’s report, which leveled unprecedented criticism on Israel’s PR efforts. The State Comptroller revealed that “since its establishment in 1948, Israel’s intelligence organs have not succeeded to respond to the broad-based propaganda and incitement by the Arab world.”
The report emphasized that “the lack of a central authority to direct and coordinate all government information bodies to execute a public relations policy, is the main factor accounting for Israel’s long standing failures in this field.”
It highlighted a lack of an overall strategic public relations conception and objective; redundancies, wasted resources, and lack of coordination between government PR offices; no comprehensive budgetary analysis to serve government public relations requirements and ill-defined areas of responsibility and authority between the Prime Minister’s Office, Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry and IDF public representatives.
These different groups, the report continues, are forced to rely on mutual goodwill to coordinate their activities. Unfortunately, “goodwill” has not worked (surprise, surprise), as these offices have “frequently ended up competing for PR authority, thereby forwarding uncoordinated positions and messages, and even carrying out redundant information activities.”
Although that paper and report were published decades ago, it appears very little has changed since then. Witness a more recent (2018) article in the Los Angeles Times titled, “In crisis after crisis, Israel is losing the public relations war. Is it winnable?” There, Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the US, wrote that the country’s mishandling of the media is “the most glaring failure” of its policy toward the Gaza Strip: “There is… no single authority that coordinates and supervises these various activities,” he said. Even more depressing about that complaint is that Oren served as Netanyahu’s deputy minister in charge of public diplomacy.
“The bench of official Israeli spokespersons is pretty much empty,” said Shalom Lipner in the article, a veteran of 26 years in the Prime Minister’s Office. “It is a virtual wasteland.”
ENTER WIKIPEDIA, as I continued down the rabbit hole trying to understand Israel’s PR state of affairs. The lesson I got there was actually quite enlightening. Israel originally used the term hasbara. It’s hard to translate to English, but roughly means “explaining.” It is a communication strategy that “seeks to explain actions, whether or not they are justified.” As it focuses on providing explanations about one’s actions, hasbara has been called a “reactive and event-driven approach.”
Today, Israeli practitioners tend to label their communicative efforts “public diplomacy,” not hasbara, indicating a shift in strategy. They consider a focus on “explaining” too defensive, and prefer to actively determine the agenda by being less reactive and more proactive, moving to a more comprehensive, long-term strategic approach.
But this approach remains fragmented, with various branches of the Israeli government engaged in these efforts, including the Spokesperson’s Unit of the IDF, the Spokesperson’s Unit of COGAT (The Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories), the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office (and within that, the Government Press Office, the Public Diplomacy Directorate and the National Information Directorate are involved). Phew!
What I find interesting – and telling – is that nowhere does the term “public relations” appear; rather, the official title for these efforts is “public diplomacy.” And perhaps that’s part of the problem as well. Nachman Shai, the diaspora affairs minister, recently wrote in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency: “Israel desires to be your partner, to not let our politics or diverse identities serve as barriers to our fundamental belief that we are a people with a common fate and destiny. Israel continues to be the proud manifestation of the Jewish people’s 2,000-year-old dream.
“Israel – the state, the land and its people – with all of its complexities, deserves to remain a central component of Jewish identity-building and experiences around the world.”
Yes, it most certainly does. But it can only do that by developing true “relations” with its audience, whether that is comprised of the alienated Jews referred to earlier in the Pew Report, or the mainstream media that is so quick to jump all over Israel every time it missteps. It is certainly harder to forgive – or appreciate – an entity with which one does not have a relationship.
And we – Jews and non-Jews alike – have so much to appreciate! It boggles my mind how many “good news” stories are generated in Israel. Just take a look at the wonderful online news magazine ISRAEL21c, which “uncovers the country’s rich and diverse culture, innovative spirit, wide-ranging contributions to humanity, and democratic civil society... to broaden public understanding of Israel beyond typical portrayals in the mainstream media.”
In the issue that just landed in my inbox alone are dozens of articles that made me swell with pride including: “The 22 most interesting Israel-United Arab Emirates agreements of the year”; “Israeli women’s health start-up to deliver devices to Gulf”; “Inhaled drug could treat rare cystic fibrosis mutations.” Why aren’t these stories at least there alongside reports in the mainstream media of human rights abuses and settlement expansions?
Let’s hope 5782 is a year of focusing on good news – and positive (public and personal!) relations.
The writer is a Toronto-based writer and can be reached at [email protected]