Cool enough to go viral
Good PR can't win the war on the ground, but it can extend the window of opportunity the Israel Defense Forces has to do what it needs to do.
NEW YORK - "There they go again," commented an American friend over a drink early this week, apparently bored by the latest round in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. With or without a halt to hostilities, as Israel continues to roll out its international PR effort to rally support for the war on Hamas, the top political and military echelon should continually evaluate its "communications weapons" and the "officers" it is deploying on the world's media battlefields. With an increasingly savvy, if not cynical, digital-media viewership already impatient and suffering from information overload, Israel needs to think differently and identify public opinion "game changers" to help it make a clear break from its often defensive, predictable and ineffective PR practices of the past.
Good PR can't win the war on the ground, of course, but it can - barring the ever-present possibility of an errant missile tragically hitting a civilian population and/or a serious and worsening humanitarian situation - extend the window of opportunity the Israel Defense Forces has to do what it needs to do.
The realistic goal, just as on the real battlefield, should not be total victory but rather to disrupt a veritable deadlock, in which so many people don't get beyond thinking that both sides are to blame.
The protests against Israel in world capitals will continue, and will likely intensify. Nonetheless, we'll know that the campaign is working if we can move my friend, and others in the middle, to see that Israelis are different from their foes - more likable, more understandable, and more like Europeans or Americans.
To have a chance of pulling this off, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni needs to answer four questions in leading the public-relations effort:
First off, in contrast to Lebanon 2006, is Israel prepared to better execute the communications fundamentals? Beyond the reportedly improved coordination between ministries, is Israel covering other basics, such as more fluent and, yes, attractive, spokespeople; a series of persuasive and provocative op-eds that lay out Israel's goals; and well thought-out, pithy responses to tough questions on the blockade and "Israeli aggression"? Moreover, selecting clear and compelling key messages, and sticking to them, is crucial.
No wonder Israeli leaders this week were repeating the analogy made by Barack Obama (the new gold standard for spokespeople) regarding how he would respond to a missile attack on his home and daughters. Similarly, notice how Israel's foreign news champion (Benjamin Netanyahu) plays offense, as opposed to most other Israeli leaders, who get caught playing a passable but ultimately unsatisfying game of question-answer ping-pong (Livni).
Which brings me to the second question: Is the Israeli PR campaign better positioned to humanize the Israeli "military machine," so that it will have a better chance of securing understanding, if not a measure of sympathy? One would have thought that this war could have been a catalyst for Israel to develop its own thematic alternative to the Palestinians' dated but still powerful mantra of "end the occupation." But cheesy military taglines like "Operation Grapes of Wrath," and the new-but-not-improved "Operation Cast Lead," take Israel in the wrong direction.
A better hope for refreshing Israel's image is the coincidental timing, one day before the campaign began, of the U.S. release of the stunningly creative antiwar film "Waltz with Bashir," which promises to do more for Israeli hasbara than all the press officers in the Israeli Foreign Ministry combined. Though very critical of the Israel that went to war in Lebanon in 1982, the film captures the fact that most Israeli soldiers are often reluctant warriors - conflicted, flawed and deeply human - and quite the opposite of Islamist suicide bombers, with their presumably unquestioning fanaticism.
Yes, Israel is imperfect - and saying that in public can be a refreshing and disarming act. Imagine the impact if a Foreign Ministry spokesperson were to modestly acknowledge the effectiveness of Israel's military operation but balance it by going on the record with a colloquial line like, "War sucks, but at the moment we have no other alternative."
Third, the fact that the government and IDF now tout their new media toys, YouTube channels, Twitter and video blogs is not enough. Will they have the commitment to keep posting regularly (not a given, especially for Israeli bureaucrats), and moreover, can they pull off the gritty production and unexpected content that is cool enough to actually go viral? For example, picture Ehud Barak unable to sleep, speaking into a Webcam in the middle of the night, talking about Gilad Shalit and now countless other soldiers in harm's way, from his living room or better yet, directly from Sderot.
Finally, does Israel have the same level of audacity it demonstrated in launching the surprise military (and disinformation) campaign last Saturday, to be truly collaborative and put out the call for "people-to-people diplomacy" - that is, to encourage the country's creative and technology wizards, as well as ordinary people, to communicate in their own medium? Imagine Israel's video gamers creating a new game in which you're a member of the Southern Command protecting the Negev against incoming rocket attacks, or an Israeli urban design student engaged in a competition to create futuristic models, with text in Arabic, of what Gaza and Israel living in peace could one day look like.
As someone who served briefly in the IDF Spokesperson's unit, but who has been living in the U.S. for the past dozen years, I'll be the first to acknowledge that I'm far removed from the action, but a little outside perspective and inspiration may well be in order. Impress us. Surprise us. Speak to us. Please.
Marco Greenberg is a managing director at Burson-Marsteller, a global public relations and communications firm. The views expressed here are his own.