One of the biggest mistakes made by those who are engaged by Israel’s apparent PR shortcomings, is to conflate all audiences into one – and assume that it is highly desirable to influence this homogeneous group. “They don’t like Israel” must be changed, somehow, into “They do like Israel.” And a whole series of remedies, from better and more professional tactics (no argument there) all the way up the food chain to a total “re-branding” of Israel, are proposed.
But this approach overlooks important realities about how the world of marketing communications really works. It leads to an oversimplification of the problem, a side-stepping of hard-nosed analysis, and an over-reliance on technique at the expense of strategy.
In real life, the “market” for any entity – product, service, company, organization, or even country – consists of multiple audiences, with differing “going-in” perceptions, differing susceptibility to messages, and – perhaps the most important point – widely differing degrees of importance to the overarching strategy (assuming there is one in the first place – which, as I have noted in a previous blog, is highly doubtful in the case of Israel).
Let’s illustrate this by going through a simple exercise as applied to Israel. Let’s list some key audiences, and for each one, ask the following questions:
1. Who is the audience?
2. How important are they? How can help/hurt Israel’s welfare?
3. What do they already perceive? Why? What is the mix of rational/emotional/cultural/historical reasons for this perception?
4. What do we want to do with that existing perception? Reinforce it? Change it? How likely is it that we can succeed? How much will it cost and how much time will it take?
5. If we can’t change or reinforce perceptions, what else can we do – through communications – to influence that audience? (For example, can we make them look bad in the eyes of other audiences?)
6. Based on all of the above, what’s our program? How do we propose to measure success?
None of these questions is particularly profound. They are routine in the world of marketing and advertising. Now imagine that we applied these questions to the following “audiences” for Israel’s “message.” (Note: I’m not suggesting that these are the only audiences in play; I’m simply trying to suggest at the range)
1. Students on university campuses in Europe and North America
2. The left-wing “chattering classes” – the combination of media, academia, and the punditry who are generally hostile to Israel because they see the Israel-Palestine narrative through the eyes of political correctness and the need to always have a “victim” narrative
3. Christian evangelicals
4. High tech investors and businesses
5. The defence and intelligence establishment, and the think tanks that they plug into, in Europe and North America
It’s clear, even before we started on the analysis (and don’t worry, I’m not going to go through the whole thing in this blog post), that there are wide differences in the importance of the various audiences, in their starting-point perceptions, and in the ability to move them through communications. Here are some points, admittedly argumentative, to consider:
1. The student audiences are of less and less importance. They’re rapidly becoming preoccupied with finding jobs and paying off debts (and good luck with that). There is at least some evidence that “Palestine fatigue” may be setting in – Israel Apartheid Week has lost much of its zip, the second attempt at a Gaza flotilla and the march to Jerusalem both fizzled out.
2. The left-wing media are also losing influence and, in some spectacular cases (New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian) are losing audience and revenue.
This is not an argument in favor of abandoning communications efforts against these two audiences. It does suggest, however, that a lot less alarm needs to be felt, and a holding action may suffice – although, as I noted in my previous post, I do like the idea of shifting to an attack mode against financially vulnerable universities (whose number is rapidly growing).
3. Christian evangelicals are an important audience and vastly underrated by most of the commentators I have read. They have large and very cost-efficient communications channels, they are already very favorably disposed toward Israel, and they can be a more powerful force if addressed properly. More people attend church on a weekend in the USA than go to the movies.
4. Israel already has a very favorable brand in the high-tech community. Much more effort could be made to leverage this brand across a wider spectrum of audiences, and to “position” Israel as the nation of the future (especially when the shale oil and gas kick in) as opposed to (by implication) the Palestinians as the nations of the backward, tribal past. As the Arab spring morphs into a very unstable and uncertain future – with all kinds of negative imagery already being unleashed – this contrast can be played up even further, to Israel’s advantage.
5. Israel also has a very favorable brand in the defence/intelligence world. There is no question that the behind-the-scenes work – diplomatic and not “marketing” – coupled with substantive accomplishments, has paid off. This part of the “message” is working – no need to tamper with success.
I have dealt with the above points in a cursory way only – due to space limitations – and my real goal is not so much to explore each of them in detail as to demonstrate the diversity of audiences and the extent of the “range” of existing opinion about Israel. The truth is, that Israel is not a “brand” but several brands, depending on the audience, and a rational communications strategy going forward would be to strengthen the positive aspects of the brand and play more deliberately and aggressively to the audiences that hold those positive perceptions.
What about the negative aspects of the brand? What about the audiences that don’t like Israel?
I am very skeptical about being able to change people’s opinion by force of rational argument. A better strategy would be to marginalize the audiences themselves. It’s not necessarily impossible, and I’ll explore this in future posts.
The important point is that we recognize that Israel’s PR problems cannot be solved simply be improved technique. What’s needed is a much more honest and tough-minded appreciation of the multiplicity of audiences (with very different degrees of importance to Israel) and the need for a variety of messaging strategies. One size does not fit all!