Perhaps it would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. This week it was announced in the Knesset that Israel spends the paltry sum of 40 Million shekels annually worldwide on hasbara (the word used in Hebrew for public r). Just under $10 Million dollars — it is a paltry sum to be spent on something so crucial to Israel. As Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein acknowledged, “we are fighting ignorance around the world.” Public relations, public perception and positioning are vital when many of the challenges Israel has faced since 1948 begin with someone else’s narrative of Israel’s moves and intentions.
Israel is using gum to hold back the dam – and it gets worse every year. The State of Israel is in danger in part because of its inability to adequately communicate its message. If it spent real money on public relations and communications efforts, it would impact international opinion. As a proud Zionist who owns one of the largest US PR agencies, there can be no other way to say it than to say that Israel’s communications are lacking and poorly managed.
Israel is a country that is perpetually in combat mode. And if it is a universally accepted principle that PR is a crucial element in any war fought today, then why is Israel’s Ministry of Public Diplomacy a “transient” position? Perhaps it is time for public relations to be managed professionally and properly rather than by transient politicians?
Prime Minister Netanyahu was recorded in an interview earlier this year as saying the two main enemies of Israel are the New York Times and Ha’aretz. He said, “They set the agenda for an anti-Israel campaign all over the world. Journalists read these publications every morning and base their news stories … on what they read in the New York Times and Haaretz.” Netanyahu is of course a PR genius – so why does the State of Israel not employ public relations agencies as many other countries often do, including Arab nations?
There are those in Israel who are so convinced of the righteousness of its cause that they believe the “truth” will rise above in the public eye. Indeed that may be true in some cases, but the flaw is that even a justified cause needs to be pronounced and demonstrated for anyone to accept it. It is not enough to be “right” these days; you have to make the case for the truth. Israel needs to promote and be completely aware of its media presence. It’s not enough to just display a message – it needs to be heard.
Having formerly worked with the Ministry of Public Affairs, the Ministry of Tourism, the mayors of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and other entities, I am well aware of just how special Israel is. But without a comprehensive, systematic “PR machine” that generates regular output, media simply will not do better by Israel. The issues Israel faces are often complex, and it is too easy to get caught in the “underdog” narrative of its enemies. The public, often fueled by media, appreciates the easy explanations and forms its opinions based on what it can effortlessly understand.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the mentor of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s father, spoke very eloquently on the need to manage media:
Who were the first to teach us to always interfere in matters that are not ours, to judge people and nations, even though we were never chosen for the position of judge? The work of the publicist is a legacy from the Prophets of Israel…Our passion is to speak, to proclaim—”‘Shouting” is what the same audience calls it, ‘we have no need for words, give us actions.’ One thing that audience forgets is that speech is also an action – Perhaps the most authentic of all actions. Cities have been destroyed, and more will fall, but what was shouted in the wilderness thousands of years ago is alive and still relevant. The world was created by the Word. The world will be mended by the Article.
The publicist is a legacy from the prophets of Israel – and today the State of Israel needs to spend more to get more. Spending more on PR today will mean spending less on bullets tomorrow.