How Israel can fight a better PR war

E. Rowell:  I frequently hear progressives complain that their side needs “better PR.”  American progressives, who will not criticize the policies they and their politicians espouse, often think their only problem is one of “PR.”  If Israel has a PR problem one possibility is that it is due to progressives embedded in the military and intelligence brass who actually believe the Palestinian PR against the State of Israel!  How can they be counted on to be of help with PR when their raison d’être is to undermine the democratically elected government?  The author blames “right wing” politicians for going off message for political purposes when right wing politicians are very ON message, and it is the progressives who are constantly undermining the Likud for political advantage.  Nevertheless it is a useful exercise to think about how Israel could communicate more effectively with the people of the world.

The Jewish state can play a better PR game against Hamas and the West.

By Nachum Kaplan, MORALITY CLARITY     10 April 2024

Israel can improve its PR game greatly.

Israel needs to do better in the public relations war that it is fighting concurrently with its war against Hamas in Gaza. It is losing in the international court of opinion. Here is what it can do better.

Hamas, an evil Islamist terror group, has an outstanding PR machine that has corrupted and co-opted much of the international media and world leaders to do its bidding. Israel’s efforts have been ham-fisted.

We media strategists are like poker players; we must play the hand we have been dealt. Despite being the victim of a savage attack, and holding what would be the high ground in any morally sane universe, Israel started with five structural disadvantages.

  1. Numerical disadvantage: With almost two billion Muslims and 44 Muslim states, plus sympathetic Western states, Israel has struggled to be heard over a cacophony of hostile voices.
  2. Cultural obstacles: In communications theory, we sometimes use a tool called a power-distance framework to measure cultural traits to communicate more effectively. The pertinent traits are how direct/indirect and hierarchical (formal/informal) a culture is. Anglo-Saxon English-speaking cultures, for example, are more direct and informal than continental Europeans, which partly explains why the British do not see themselves as European. Israelis are the world’s most direct and non-hierarchical people. Other Middle Eastern cultures are indirect and hierarchical. Israelis prefer action to talk, which is not the best foundation for effective communication.
  3. Anti-Semitism: Israel faces a huge amount of anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Israel sentiment in the news media. The likes of The Guardian and the BBC are unlikely ever to write favorably about Israel. In 2021, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, which tracks anti-Semitism globally, ranked the BBC as the world’s third most anti-Semitic organization, behind only Iran and Hamas.
  4. Commitment to facts: As a democracy accountable to its citizens, Israel must take allegations against it seriously and respond honestly (as it has done with the tragic accidental targeting of a World Central Kitchen convoy). This makes it slow. By the time it investigates and responds to an allegation, such as the Al-Ahli Hospital blast, the news cycle has moved on to other accusations and fabrications.
  5. A long war: I am sure the Israel Defense Force (IDF) has prosecuted the war the way it has for good reasons. In terms of PR, though, a shorter, more aggressive war would have been better. Criticism would have been intense, but short-lived, and at a time when world opinion was more sympathetic.

This is the challenging backdrop against which Israel’s communicators had to develop a PR and communications strategy. Here is what Israel could do better.

  1. Clear messaging: Israel has had too many ministers saying different things. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stayed on message, but the more right-wing members of his government have willfully wandered off script for domestic political gains. This is more than the old joke of two Jews, three opinions. It is symptomatic of the government’s dysfunctionality. Two examples are:
    • Gaza occupation: While Israel’s official position is that it does not want to re-occupy Gaza, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu have been calling for just that. They have also called for Palestinians in Gaza to be able to leave, stoking fears that Israel is trying to displace them. They do not speak for the government, but what a global audience sees is Israeli ministers talking about re-occupying Gaza.
    • Distinction between Hamas and ordinary Palestinians: Israel’s government has said that its issue is with Hamas and not the Palestinian people. Officials have also said that Palestinians in Gaza are so radicalized that they are basically Hamas. This makes it look like Israel is changing its position depending on what is expedient. What position Israel takes here is less important than its need for consistency.
  2. Outline a vision: Israel has stated its military goals but failed to lay out a vision. This is more than having “a plan for the day after”. It needs to articulate a positive vision that destroying Hamas and its military capabilities will help realize.
  3. Show, don’t tell: This is a cornerstone of storytelling in communications and news writing. Israel has described the horrors of October 7 in gruesome detail, but it has shown video only to select audiences, mainly foreign journalists, and diplomats. It might have been more effective, and affecting, to release this footage publicly to show what evil it is fighting. Visuals go viral more readily than talking heads describing atrocities.
  4. Identify its audience: It is not always clear what audience the Israeli Government is trying to reach. Is it talking to terrorists? Enemy states and militias? A domestic or international audience? Each requires different messaging. Israel has directed communication at the media, diplomats, and the United Nations, all of which are hostile. Israel needs to include ordinary people as a target audience, without distortions from biased mainstream news media. Foreign governments have responded to loud pro-Palestinian voices in their electorates, many of them young people. Israel needs to reach these people directly.
  5. Better slogans: “Bring the hostages home” is a poor rallying cry. The IDF and Israel’s negotiators are working to do just that. Something that puts the onus on Hamas would be better, such as “Let our people go”, or “Release our people”.
  6. More on Jihadism: Israel does refer to Hamas-ISIS, but the belief that Hamas is a Palestinian nationalist movement fighting for a state is widespread. Israel needs to drum home that Hamas is a Caliphate-seeking death cult that is a direct danger to the West.
  7. More spokespeople: Israel’s English language spokespeople have been exceptional. Avi Hyman, Tan Heinrich, and Eylon Levi (now gone) are the ones I have seen. They have stayed on message, been highly articulate, had the right energy, and not been ruffled by aggressive interviewers asking unlettered questions. However, there have been too few of them.
  8. Focus on military achievements: Israel needs to boast about its military success, specifically the nitty-gritty of how it has avoided a high civilian death toll. The world lambasts Israel for civilian deaths, but the IDF has achieved the lowest civilian-to-combat casualty ratio in history. No amount of slander can change this fact. This will be the benchmark against which all future urban wars will be judged. Mass starvation allegations are being leveled at Israel precisely because it has done so well in avoiding civilian casualties. It has forced Hamas to change its propaganda.
  9. Personalize it: People respond to human stories. The media is covering the Palestinian side as a humanitarian story and the Israeli side as a policy story. Stories of evacuees, family members of the slain, survivors, Arab-Israelis, and people hiding in bomb shelters are starting to be told, but they need to be done so in their own voices.
  10. Feed the illusion: The 24-hour news cycle depends on creating the illusion that what is happening now is the most important thing in the world. Israel needs to exploit this. It must state continuously that this war is about more than defeating Hamas; it is a fight for Israel’s and the Jewish people’s existence. It is the the year 5784 in the Hebrew calendar; an entire civilization is at stake.
  11. Long-term outreach: This war has shown that the broader sentiment towards Israel determines how favorable coverage is more than anything else. A generational change in global attitudes towards Israel is underway. Israel needs to embark on a campaign to educate and shift young people’s perceptions towards it. This needs to be continuous, get into universities, and use modern media methods and formats that resonate with young people.

Winning the war on the battlefield is the most important thing. Politicians never miss a chance to grab a headline, and reporters never miss a chance to write one. The diplomatic pressure on Israel might feel like the most important thing to journalists, but that is because they are not in the firing line and have not had their families murdered and abducted.

The war will end, and then there will be fewer things for Israel’s enemies to tell lies about. The media has the attention span of a gnat. It will move on to the next crisis. However, Israel does need to improve its PR game greatly, to be ready for that.

April 12, 2024 | 6 Comments »

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  1. I think the author makes some good points, but in my cynical worldview first and foremost “follow the money“. That applies whether we’re talking about the financial clout of countries like Qatar and Iran, which use their massive wealth to influence US foreign-policy and sow propaganda, influencing public opinion in innumerable ways, but it also applies to the goose that lays the golden eggs, namely Israel, where Fortune 500 companies employ the greatest Israeli minds at R&D facilities throughout the country.

    For that matter the US and the west are far more reliant on Israeli intelligence than almost any of their citizens realize in part because their IC members speak literally every language on the planet and can blend in with the local populations in any of those countries in ways their counterparts cannot. Add to that all of the technologically advanced weaponry, sophisticated eavesdropping, surveillance, cyber security techniques, etc. all of those countries rely on Israel for.

    So IMHO the PR battle isn’t simply about improving one’s message, important as that may be, nearly as much as being needed in any and every way possible, since it’s interests that form and strengthen alliances, not mere cultural affinities, similarities and friendships.

    As for antisemitism in the diaspora, the Jews living there need to be more like their Israeli brethren instead of relying on them to make it all go away. Being needed and feared are far more effective and achievable than trying to be loved by everyone when many if not most will never love you back no matter what you do, a lesson the Jews of Israel and pre-state Israel were forced to learn in the worst possible ways, which I think
    largely explains why they focus far less on words and far more on actions, because the latter really do speak more loudly, especially in that part of the world.

    Like it or not, the west is becoming more and more like the Middle East in certain ways (eg less personal freedom, more suppression of competing narratives, more double standards when it comes to the administration of justice, etc.) so we would all do well to follow the Israeli lead and let our own actions speak more loudly than mere words much of the time.

  2. Israel has no interest is fomenting Puerto Rican Statehood. Is Israel the U.S.?

    https://archive.nytimes.com/learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/01/march-1-1954-puerto-rican-nationalists-open-fire-on-house-of-representatives/

    Puerto Rican flag. Gosh that looks familiar. Where have I seen that before?

    https://www.amazon.com/Puerto-Rico-Flag-3ftx5ft-Polyester/dp/B07385RW3W/ref=asc_df_B07385RW3W/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=216551059561&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=7129896527067809671&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9004080&hvtargid=pla-351939852165&psc=1&mcid=643877eab6c93598bb832fe90312ca3c&gclid=Cj0KCQjw2uiwBhCXARIsACMvIU0T2FpntzjIVrViZm4pQdsDQylJ0zpNIPfa16FvYFn4zZiVFqFpw_waAnMtEALw_wcB

  3. I wrote

    “Also, so many inventions have come from Israel but the rights have been sold instead of leasing. Israel needs as many ways to hold other countries by the proverbial short hairs, as possible.”

    And, Not just cool gizmos like mobile phones, flash drives, and intel processors but things people really can’t live without, like cherry tomatoes!

  4. LIke this:

    Indonesia May Normalize Relations with Israel to Join OECD

    “…membership for Indonesia would not move forward without “unanimous agreement among all member countries, including Israel.”…”

    https://www.breitbart.com/middle-east/2024/04/11/indonesia-may-normalize-relations-with-israel-to-join-oecd/

    Also, so many inventions have come from Israel but the rights have been sold instead of leasing. Israel needs as many ways to hold other countries by the proverbial short hairs, as possible.

    It’s a good article, but frankly, all of these things are being done to one extent or another. My point is, that, as with the Abraham Accords, and the above desire for membership in the OCD 😀 by Indonesia, if other countries want something from Israel badly enough, the narrative will change because they will have an interest in changing it.

    The article I just cited also speculates as others have that Oct. 7 was perpetrated out of panic at these looming reprochements between Israel and the Muslim world and in order to negate that phenomenon. And, it’s true, the world did jump back into a familiar condemn Israel pattern but there are some signs of disequilibrium. For example, I was amazed to read today that the European Parliament voted to condemn Hamas for its anti-semitic indoctrination in educational materials. The fact that antisemitic Indonesia is in motion is amazing. Remember this is the country whose former president spoke at Columbia University and other places after making blatant, openly traditionally antisemitic statements, unashamedly And anti-semitic Columbia University has been taking action against antisemitic students and student groups.

    “Columbia University suspends Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine”
    By Ben Sales November 10, 2023 3:47 pm

    https://www.jta.org/2023/11/10/ny/columbia-university-suspends-jewish-voice-for-peace-and-students-for-justice-in-palestine

    Though of course they are being sued for it by the NY civil liberties union and some “Palestinian” legal group.

    It’s easy to be depressed but the game is afoot

  5. This from E. Rowell at the top says everything that needs to be said, and thank you for that.

    ”If Israel has a PR problem one possibility is that it is due to progressives embedded in the military and intelligence brass who actually believe the Palestinian PR against the State of Israel! How can they be counted on to be of help with PR when their raison d’être is to undermine the democratically elected government?