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February 14, 2011 1:00 pm

PR in Israel: From Bad to Worse

avatar by Ronn Torossian

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What Israel must learn is that it's not enough to just display a message - you need to be listened to. Photo: Kudumomo

Quite simply, I believe that the State of Israel is in real danger because of their flawed Public Relations and communications work.

As a proud Zionist who owns one of the15 largest independent PR firms in the United States, I can find no other way to spin this: Israel’s communications are lacking, and poorly managed. Only a few months after the flotilla’s terrible mismanagement, there’s no wake-up call in sight, no explanation. Unfortunately, there’s no sign the next flotilla will be managed any differently in the media, either.

Israel is a young country. Unfortunately, it learns things fast and painfully. The flotilla events with Turkey provided the quickest crash-course on social media to date. It spread through YouTube quickly, and people were responsive, enraged; it damaged Israel’s image. It took Israel some three to four days just to come up with their visual angle of the incident, and when it did come out, there were Hebrew Subtitles in the video. There is no reason for PR in Israel to be neglected this way.

Yet, the annual report on Israel’s advertising and PR industry released earlier this week show that the top 20 agencies grew in 2010 by 20 percent. Clearly, Israel is maturing in this industry, but isn’t capturing those minds for its statesmanship. Instead, diplomats come and go, and English is clearly not a first language for them. The State of Israel does not employ a Public Relations agency anywhere in the world, send timely media briefing statements to its consulates worldwide, or handle PR during conflict as it should, and must.

Israel must recognize how in-person, on-the-ground news differs from that broadcast on the television screen. The flotilla case is the perfect example. It will take a while to recover from what the world perceived as aid-ships being halted by a sea blockade that was stopping them from assisting an under-siege people. If that’s not enough, the YouTube, Facebook and twitter inputs from all corners of the world are not something people are going to forget, and they were not something Israel was prepared to confront.

Israel believed its justified cause would uphold its image in the public eye. While that may be true in some cases, a justified cause is not enough to be ‘right’ these days. You need to be promoted and conscious of your media presence. It’s not enough to just display a message – you need to be listened to.

“It turns out Israel Tourism may be coming on as clients. I’m having a hard time getting a handle on it”. Although this is taken from a scene on season one of Mad Men, it certainly isn’t irrelevant. Having formerly represented the Israel Ministry of Tourism for many years, I know that Israel has so many great perspectives to be pitched on, from the bible to its beach, but it needs to put them to use; it needs to employ a comprehensive, systematic “PR machine” that generates regular output. Immediate promptness and responsiveness are crucial.

What I observe from the 20 percent growth in advertising and local PR firms is that Israel has the orientation and appreciation for media and PR, but it’s not being aimed correctly. Its number one client – the country’s brand – deserves a ‘premium service’ that will provide the needed time and resources required to produce results that represent Israel properly.

Thoughts for Israel’s PR:

1. Framing: The “golden rule” states that framing which harms you can be handled effectively only with counter-framing, and not by debating the negative frame or trying to justify it. If Israel constantly deals with the framing of the occupier, it need not explain the process historically, but rather make use of counter-framing and hit the media with multiple stories discussing its innovations in technology.

2. United PR: There is nothing more counter-productive and irritating to a professional PR spokesperson than having to compete with a colleague’s role. You will never find the media having to compare two or three different sources within a company to discover the firm’s stance on an issue. So, why does Israel have multiple “voices” all stating different approaches, but all claiming the role of officially representing the country? It’s simply unprofessional.

3. The Message: I’m well aware of how tactical and dynamic Israel is. If we imagine the U.S. as boat the size of the titanic, which takes a while to shift and redirect itself, then, in comparison, we can imagine Israel as a small lifeboat that can maneuver quickly and easily within world affairs. In PR terms, Israel can change key messages, and quickly. Still, it is vital to have a strategy.

4. Frequency: Social media is important. It should not be used only as an emergency channel, like the ones Israel uses on TV and radio during war times. Social media should be used on a daily basis, and in a positive way. In the long run, it is the daily actions of a brand that determine its overall image. A daily blog post helps build a reputation for a writer and their topic.

5. The messenger: For crying out loud, get professionals! None of the top 20 firms in Israel’s advertising and PR industry would even consider hiring half of the people that are thrown in front of camera crews or who pitch the media. Get rid of them. Hire professionals, offer incentives and provide a challenge.

Ronn Torossian is CEO, of NYC based 5WPR, one of the 15 largest independent PR firms in the U.S. He lived in Israel and was formerly National President of Betar. Today, he serves on the board of a number of non-profit organizations, including Aish Hatorah, ZOA, RAJE/GATEWAYS and other organizations.

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