'Hasbara' lessons I learned from Al Jazeera

Since its founding, the governments of Russia and France have launched their own 24-hour English news networks, Russia Today and France24.

al-jazeera 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
al-jazeera 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Hasbara is a composite of public relations, communications, branding and survey research. It is held together by a complicated web of bureaucracy, and forms the backbone of our public diplomacy. The country's latest public relations efforts are much improved from past wars, but a lot more can be done. Today, with the global reach of electronic and mass media, the court of world public opinion is no longer in the hands of decision-makers and opinion elites. Citizens in every country with a television set or Internet access are the ones deciding our future. Thomas Paine, the leading author and intellectual of the American Revolution, once said, "An army of principles will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot." Last week I had the privilege of presenting Israel's position on the Riz Khan Show on Al Jazeera, the English version of the Arabic-language news network. The interview took place at Al Jazeera's studio in the Malha technology park in Jerusalem and was entitled "Gaza Bloodshed." I had only an earpiece and had to differentiate between the host, Riz Khan, his other guest - Khalil Jahshan from Peperdine University - and callers from around the world. During the course of the interview a steady stream of images from Gaza filled the screen. NOT SURPRISINGLY, the editorial slant of the show and Al Jazeera is much more favorable toward the Palestinians. Their video images and commentary represent their interpretation of events, while our televisions exhibit our point of view. Each side focuses on its own tragedy and narrative. This is the way news media work - everywhere in the world. The Riz Khan Show is broadcast live and is repeated twice the following day before it is available on the Internet. I stated Israel's case and stressed every nation's right to defend its citizens from missile attacks. The show is broadcast to 130 million households including many in countries that don't have relations with Israel. It is a way to convey Israeli messages to places where Al Jazeera is the leading news network. Besides the very challenging aspect of appearing on Al Jazeera for 23 minutes, I learned a lot from the experience which can be applied to public diplomacy and international hasbara efforts. 1) Invest money in English-language news programs. The emir of Qatar gave the initial $150 million grant to start Al Jazeera in 1996 and still underwrites the network. Al Jazeera English began operations in 2006 and broadcasts 24/7. In just over two years it has made an incredible impact and been able to shift the public debate and focus toward its editorial angle. It is framing the debate in this region of the world. In the wake of Al Jazeera, the governments of Russia and France launched 24-hour English news networks, Russia Today and France24. Even Iran has started to broadcast its own English television news station called PressTV. There is a global trend for governments to fund, either partially or wholly, English-language news broadcasts for global viewership. Israel has an excellent and high-quality English news program. IBA English News is viewed here and by syndication in the US and various European countries. It reaches hundreds of millions of households through syndication agreements, but unfortunately is only a 23-minute daily show. Israel is competing with Al Jazeera, Russia Today, France24 and others who are broadcasting 24/7. Israel is the media version of David vs. Goliath. Instead of threatening budget cuts and possible closure every year, the government should expand IBA's daily English programming dramatically. This country's story and point of view require regular exposure, otherwise viewers will continue to rely on the reporting of CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and others. Our tax money pays for the IBA, so using it to improve our image is an investment toward a secure future. 2) Get the best talent to represent you. Al Jazeera has recruited world-class professional talent for their programs. Riz Khan and David Frost host two of its flagship programs. They bring with them creativity and credibility that would have taken years to build. We need to attract and retain professional and talented spokespeople. These people should be recruited to the ranks of the Prime Minister's Office, Foreign Ministry and IDF Spokesman's Unit. This especially includes diplomatic postings abroad. There are some very good people in hasbara positions today, but more are needed. 3) Go where the audience is. Besides the English news, the IBA produces television news programs in Hebrew and Arabic which are available on-line on its Web site (www.iba.org.il). It is a user-friendly and popular site, but is not on YouTube. Hundreds of millions of videos are viewed there every single day, and the IBA needs to have a strong presence. All Al Jazeera English-language news broadcasts and programs are uploaded to YouTube after they are aired, and they are viewed hundreds of thousands additional times once there. The Riz Khan Show that I appeared on received 7,000 views and 135 comments in the first six days. The IBA needs to have its own channel on YouTube just like Al Jazeera, Russia Today and France 24. Al Jazeera is a pioneer in many respects. Call-in shows stirred a lot of controversy in the Arab world when they were first introduced, and suddenly Arab governments and leaders could be openly criticized. As a result, many in the Middle East rely on Al Jazeera for their news because it is not censored and allows for debate. As Israelis we need to recognize that the other side has a legitimate opinion. To be a good spokesman you have to be a good listener. King Solomon said it best in Proverbs: "Death and life are in the power of the tongue." Now more than ever, the future of Israel depends on it. The writer is CEO of KEEVOON Research. In the past he worked in the Prime Minister's Office, Finance and Foreign ministries.