Bad PR? – If only it were that simple

If you love Israel but want to criticize its performance, by far the safest topic is PR. It’s Israel’s good old reliable piñata – always there to be bashed, and never failing to yield a treasure trove of goodies.

The Gaza flotilla. The fiasco of foreign journalists kept waiting in the blazing sun, while supposedly summoned to view a captured ship running arms to Hamas. The botched ad  campaign to entice Israelis in North America to come back home. The hits just keep on coming.

Israel has bad PR. Ho-hum.

Of course Israel has bad PR. It has been bad for decades. Google “Israel’s PR fiasco” and and you get over 7 million results. Or maybe you think “fiasco” is too lurid – Google “Israel’s bad PR” and the total jumps to over 400 million results. Many articles, and the accompanying gnashing of teeth, date back 20 or 30 years.

I’ve spent over 35 years in the marketing communications business, first as a partner in a large ad agency and then as consultant, working in the USA and Canada. I’ve participated in the creation and spending of over $5 billion worth of media advertising, promotion and PR. My experience has given me a very unsentimental view of what works and what doesn’t – along with a deep appreciation of the degree to which organizations are willing to believe their own BS. Bottom line on Israel: I wish it were only a PR problem.

The truth is, PR is only one communications technique. And, yes, to the degree that you’re going to engage in it, you might as well do it competently. But PR must be the creature of a broader communications program – a program with a coherent strategy, deploying a variety of techniques and channels (offense as well as defense), and with clearly defined goals and criteria for measurement.

There is no evidence that Israel has any such strategy, or has ever bothered itself with one.

To demonstrate how stupid this is, let’s transfer the example to the military.

Let’s imagine a senior IDF officer whose one and only focus has been…well, pick any branch of the service…let’s say, artillery.  He is always researching the latest advances in equipment from around the world, to ensure that Israel’s artillery is at the leading edge. He keeps fussing with better and better training methods. After every combat situation, he conducts a ruthless analysis of performance, and rolls the findings into new plans, tactics and programs.  He lives, breathes and sleeps artillery. Is he doing the right thing? Of course. Nothing wrong with making the artillery the best it can be.

But now let’s imagine that he goes to the Prime Minister one day and declares that all of Israel’s military needs could be satisfied by artillery alone. Forget the air force, forget the infantry, forget tanks, navy, espionage, special forces…the artillery can do it all.

Ridiculous, isn’t it?

How can Israel’s safety be secured through a single military resource, no matter how capable? Surely Israel requires a whole range of weapons, delivering a balance of both offense and defense. What’s more, surely this balance must be carefully thought through, built from an overarching strategic point of view – a point of view grounded in a ruthless appreciation of the competitive environment, of the strengths and weaknesses of Israel, its allies, and its enemies, and in a resulting assessment of means and ends, of what is possible, how much it will cost, and how best to achieve it.

Artillery alone? Our imaginary officer would be led – quickly and not gently – from the room, and would soon be in a different career.

It sounds like a joke, doesn’t it, when I place it in a military context. But substitute “PR” for “artillery” and you have a good description of what is happening, in real life, in the arena of communications. The focus on PR creates immediate, and serious, problems:

  • PR is mostly about creating a favorable image for yourself. As desirable as this may be, it may be easier (and more important) to create an unfavorable image for your opponent.
  • PR relies mainly on intermediaries – ie., the mass media – to carry your message. There are many other ways of reaching the audience. What’s more, the mass media are steadily losing audience and influence.
  • Israel’s PR has been based almost exclusively on “explaining.” The discussion therefore becomes “Israel is explaining itself competently” vs. “Israel is not explaining itself competently.” But “explaining” is 100% rational – facts, figures, left brain, “reasons why” – and does not address non-rational, or emotional, sources of support (or reasons to oppose Israel’s enemies).

In sum, by obsessing about PR, Israel unnecessarily limits the range of techniques available, and also the range of objectives that can be achieved.

Which leads to the second – and much bigger – issue: what are the objectives, anyway?

It is  remarkable how little attention is paid, either by critics of Israel’s PR efforts or by the government itself, to questions that would be routine in any private sector marketing communications situation.

  • What are we trying to accomplish in the first place? What will success look like, and how will we measure it?
  • Who do we have to communicate with, in order to accomplish our goals? Who are the audiences and sub-audiences we are going after? Why is each one important? How does each one factor into what we are trying to accomplish?

We’d then go on to more thoroughly analyze each of the defined audiences:

  • What is the importance of this audience to our overall strategy? What is their influence on our success/failure? Can we/should we bypass them?
  • What is the current state of play? (Attitudes, behaviors, communications channels available)
  • To what do we want to move the state of play? What specific actions do we want/expect each audience to take as a result of our communications efforts?
  • How quickly do we want/expect this to happen? (A key question, because it helps determine our choice of communications channels and techniques and, in turn, our allocation of resources and budget)

The answers to these questions will dictate the design of the actual program: message content, mix of communications vehicles (not just PR), balance of defense (get the audience to favor us) and offense (get the audience to oppose our enemies), financial and operational assets required.

The need for measurable benchmarks is not a trivial issue. It’s really no more than what Israel already expects when it comes to its military performance. But in the communications area, for some reason objectives are soft, and there is no discernible correlation between effort and achievement, except for the idea that a specific event (Gaza flotilla, captured Hamas weapons ship), was handled competently or (usually) not. Even assuming that Israel has some proactive communications strategy in the first place (by no means a sure thing), performance standards and measurement criteria appear to be absent.

Sharper identification of target audiences is also critically important, because it would enable Israel to move from unfocused complaining about “failure to explain” toward clearer goals (and they might vary from audience to audience) and a more robust menu of tactics.

Consider, for example, the difference between creating a positive response toward Israel and a negative response toward Israel’s enemies. They are not necessarily the same thing at all. In many ways, it is easier to provoke negative responses than to create positive ones. It is certainly easier to create negative emotions than to mount positive arguments, particularly if those arguments depend on background knowledge or logic.

Israel, in fact, has very favorable raw material to work with:

  • The Palestinians include extremist elements who generate articles, speeches and videos that are unattractive, to put it mildly, to mainstream Western audiences.
  • Most Western supporters of the Palestinians come from organizations and institutions that are increasingly losing support and power – the left, academia, much of the mainstream media.
  • There are wider issues in the Muslim world that can create a negative rub-off on the Palestinians – terrorism, sharia law, Iran, instability in the Middle East, etc.
  • The Palestinians are themselves divided, with one faction “owning” a shrill written charter that can be easily characterized as primitive and hateful.

The blunt truth is that the Palestinians present a target that is easy to demonize, and it is remarkable that Israel has done so little to exploit this advantage. True, there is an audience that will have no part of this, an audience that is persuaded that the Palestinians are victims – and victims only – and that sees everything from this point of view. But there is no reason why Israel must willingly cede the battleground to that audience, especially since, in other areas of political debate, that audience is losing, not gaining, ground.

Adding “offense” to the communications would not only mean a direct attack – painting the Palestinians in a more negative light – but could also extend toward creating negative consequences for their supporters. Here again, there is no reason for Israel to passively sit on the receiving end of such tactics as boycott campaigns, without giving back the same, and more.

Communications can be a powerful way of peacefully creating penalties by taking advantage of the more lurid negative qualities of Israel’s enemies and gluing them to vulnerable Western institutions that support those enemies.

Universities, in particular, would make an excellent target. They are already becoming much more vulnerable due to financial pressures and a growing backlash against paying high tuition fees in return for no job guarantees. As student debts skyrocket (topping $1 trillion in the USA now) and the talk of a “higher education bubble” grows louder, universities – and, in particular, the “softer” liberal arts programs – are back on their heels, losing enrollment to more job-oriented community colleges, and under great pressure to reduce administrative and other costs. It is the perfect time to consider launching initiatives against the donor bases (especially alumni) of universities with strong pro-Palestinian programs (including biased faculty and aggressive Israel Apartheid campaigns).

Going on offense should not be considered shocking. There is no reason why academia should be given a free ride in Israel-bashing, and even less reason to believe that the only way to fight this is to win polite, rational arguments. True, Israel does need and should continue to recruit effective speakers who can prevail in those kinds of arguments, but that is only one weapon in the communications arsenal. Why not deploy others?

To be fair, there are some encouraging signs. Israel is getting ever more active in social media (though sometimes ham-handed in the messaging), and (slightly) more proficient in anticipating communications situations and deploying more competent representatives. But these are baby steps – equivalent, to go back to my earlier analogy, of developing better aiming mechanisms for the artillery. There are many other fertile areas to explore, and there is still an urgent need to roll everything up into a coherent strategy with measurable objectives.

Unfortunately, though, the development of such a strategy, and the use of a wider range of communications weapons, seems unlikely to occur. Israel’s preferred communications strategy (sic) appears to be rooted firmly in the left brain – explain, explain, explain. And so we can expect a continuation of the oh-so-familiar PR saga.

The stage is always the same. The theater and the audience are always the same. Israel stumbles in from the wings, late to the cue, missing the mark, and flubbing its lines. A few friends and family try to raise a cheer, but the main bulk of the audience, which has seen the show before, yawns or occasionally throws a tomato.  The reviews have already been written anyway.

You can argue, as the show’s investors do, that more rehearsals and a better performance can still win the day.

But as I hope I have demonstrated, what’s really required – if the show is to keep running – is a new stage. In fact, a whole new theater. And not just a different audience, but a whole new set of audiences.

And above all, a completely new script.


About the Author
David Cravit is a career advertising and marketing professional, with over 35 years' experience in the USA and Canada. He is the author of The New Old (2008) and Beyond Age Rage (2012), analyzing how the baby boomers are reinventing aging, and the impact on public policy and social issues as well as marketing.