Israel’s communications breakdown
The government keeps scoring a PR own goal as ‘public advocacy’ remains a political football MEDIA ANALYSIS
hen I visited Israel with a Board of Deputies mission three years ago, the British delegation was candid. Jerusalem had a good story to tell as it contemplated an end to the Greater Israel policy and unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. But this dramatic shift, together with all the other positive developments in the Jewish state — from high-tech breakthroughs to the fantastic work being done in Israeli hospitals for all communities — was not being projected because of failing of hasbara (communications).
The repeating of the Palestinian mantra of “occupation, occupation, occupation” in every possible media and public forum was drowning out Israel’s belief that it could unilaterally break the deadlock in the Middle East. At a relaxed meeting with Ariel Sharon in the Prime Minister’s office, the delegation was assured that things would be different from now on. Sharon would be taking charge of hasbara, there would be an increased budget and the responsibility would rest with his office.
Three years on, the Board was back in Israel this week to express its solidarity and to gain a better understanding of Israel’s mood following the second Lebanon war and amid the continuing fusillade of Kassam rockets targeted at the Negev town of Sderot from near neighbours in Gaza. But as was the case in 2004, the narrative of the war — more
Wvaliant from Israel’s viewpoint than widely reported — has been let down by a serious failure of what Jerusalem now likes to call public advocacy.
We s hould not b e surprised. The promised reforms of the communications process pledged by Sharon were never implemented. Instead of one clear message from throughout government — a lesson that could have been learned from Tony Blair’s sophisticated spin machine in Britain — public advocacy remains a political football. The Israel Government Press Office, the Foreign Ministry and the IDF each do their own thing. The Knesset is currently holding hearings on how better to organise communications and whether budgets should be allocated in a different fashion.
In many ways, Israel’s problems with the domestic and international media are a great compliment to the Jewish state, reflecting a vibrant, pluralistic democracy where parties and coalitions rise and fall with astonishing regularity and the ministerial pack — with the notable exception of Shimon Peres — is regularly reshuffled. Israel goes out of its way to make life as easy as possible for the international press corps, which makes Jerusalem its centre of Middle East reporting.
During the Lebanon conflict, the government press office, headed by veteran Daniel Seaman, set up forward headquarters in Haifa for the world’s media. Al-Jazeera was offered much the same facilities as CNN and the BBC. The view in Israel is that the best way to deal with Englishlanguage Al-Jazeera and critical media is through “judo” — engaging them on their own territory. Israel offers critical broadcasters high-level spokesmen. If the media outlets fail to take up the offer or provide balanced airtime, then claims of independence are challenged.
There is a belief in Jerusalem that the internet, bloggers, podcasts, mobile telephony and social networks now offer new information sources to millions of younger people who don’t bother with the traditional media, making critical outlets like The Independent and The Guardian less important over time. The reality is the opposite. Far from being in retreat, traditional outlets are seeking to leverage their expertise and content through new media. As Google dominates the search sphere, so the BBC website and Guardian online dominate the news sphere. The Guardian is no longer just an opinion-former in the UK but reaches millions across the United States. MySpace may appear merely a “social site”, but as part of the Murdoch empire it can be used eventually to distribute content from Fox News or The Times.
There is a tendency in Israel to blame the media for all the ills. The Mayor of Sderot — who wants decisive action to bring an end to the reign of terror against his citizens — suggests it is the media’s fault that retaliation cannot take place. The politicians, he argues, take a lead from a press ready to pounce on Israel for exercising its right of self-defence.
The media is never going to buy into every Israeli version of events. Yet the key to good communications is fast and accurate response to criticism, repetition of the Israeli case and using public advocacy at every level. Simply complaining that the media is anti-Zionist or antisemitic does not address the issue but is an admission of defeat. Israel does have a media story to tell. But it appears congenitally incapable of organising its communications in an effective, coherent and co-ordinated way.