The Saga Behind the Man Behind the Woman Behind the Bank

Sivan Klingbail
Shlomi Sheffer
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Sivan Klingbail
Shlomi Sheffer

Rani Rahav, who runs the biggest PR company in Israel, has serious clout in the media world. His star-studded client list includes Strauss-Elite, the Ofer Brothers Group, Ganden Holdings, the Arison group, Africa Israel, El Al, United Mizrahi Bank and Castro.

Yet the veteran PR man's handling of his superstar client Shari Arison led industry insiders to wonder if he hasn't lost his touch. He behaved like a novice, stumbling into every mistake in the book, not like a pro who regularly hosts Israel's wealthiest people.

On Sunday Rahav circulated a letter he'd written to the journalist Shelly Yechimovitch, in which he claimed her "wickedness" had spurred Arison to leave Israel, which she and her family did last week, moving to Miami via New York. His letter, the second he'd written in a similar vein to Yechimovitch, caused many an eyebrow to shoot up in the PR industry.

They decline to be quoted by name, but say the PR strategy for Arison, as managed from December 2002, was one of the most ill-conceived ever to hit the Israeli airwaves and printing presses. Its main effect was to fan fires of criticism leveled against Arison by the media and the public.

Rahav's first mistake, say top industry sources, was to hold a news conference on the job cuts at Bank Hapoalim, in which Arison holds a controlling interest. When the bank announced it was firing 10 percent or 900 of its employees in late 2002, union leader Amir Peretz pointed an accusing finger at the bank's shareholders, accusing them of avarice.

Peretz, a PR mastermind, kept harping on the fact that the bank netted a billion shekels in 2001. In response, Arison chose, in coordination with Rahav but not with the bank management, to call a news conference.

Job cuts are never pleasant, say public relations mavens. All that PR executives can do is hunker down, endure the blows with patience, wait for the storm to pass, then resume business as usual. Arison's news conference was the exact opposite. After years of staying quietly in the wings, she faced the press head-on to explain why the biggest bank in Israel had to fire workers.

Instead of going quietly away, the story generated even more headlines, say industry sources. "You can't pit a billionaire against simple people who are losing their jobs," says one PR manager. "The press conference played right into Peretz's hands. He managed to make the whole story personal - rich Arison against the poor bank workers."

Before that, not many people in Israel were aware of Arison's link to Bank Hapoalim. After that news conference, everybody knew how many shares the richest woman in Israel held in the nation's biggest bank. Arison became Bank Hapoalim, and indeed, Peretz lost no time in pasting posters and billboards all over the country that blared the message: "Arison is laughing, 900 Hapoalim workers are crying."

Arison reacted to the billboards dotting the countryside by demanding they be taken down and she also threatened to sue. That was the second mistake, the experts say. "Instead of letting the campaign fizzle out and fade away, Arison turned the media spotlight onto it and increased the number of articles on the subject," one said. In the press, she came across as a steamroller trying to use her money to threaten her opponents.

Some of the criticism came from Shelly Yechimovitch, who expressed her opinion of the developments on Channel 2 news. "Mustn't get Shari Arison upset," she quipped. In response, Rahav sent her his first letter, which he also forwarded to 500 of Israel's richest people, and 500 journalists too.

"This is a nation of good people, and there is no place for people like you. Wicked, wicked, wicked," he wrote. That letter sucked Rahav himself into the center of a media maelstrom, turning him from the man operating the strings in the wings to part of the story.

Rahav is famous for his identification with his clients, say industry sources, and in this case, the distinction between a PR manager and a customer disappeared entirely. Rahav's letter again made headlines, and again, instead of letting the story fade away, Arison was back in the headlines.

Peretz certainly had no interest in letting the story ebb, since there was a general election a month later, and he leads the One Nation party. Political pundits say Peretz owes the third seat his party got in parliament to Arison.

The feud between Peretz and Arison ended in February 2003, with a handshake on camera. Peretz received a gift from Arison - reducing the job cuts from 900 to 793. That was seen as his achievement rather than the purely professional decision of Bank Hapoalim.

Three months later, with the Bank Hapoalim story still echoing in the background, Arison launched her "Substance of Life" campaign. Over the years, Arison had donated more than $23 million through a family foundation, but always quietly. Yet at a press conference, she chose to announce that she was earmarking a million dollars for the ad campaign, saying "Peace begins within us".

Industry sources say launching a campaign called "Substance of Life" so soon after the Hapoalim scandal made Arison look like she was trying too hard. "Israelis like to get donations, but they prefer not to know from whom," one explained. "Donations should be made quietly. PR people should always remember the adage, don't blow your own horn."

The campaign was accompanied by a big story in the women's journal Laisha and an interview with Ilana Dayan on the popular TV show Uvda (Fact). Both events showcased Arison, the woman behind the billions and changed her from a businesswoman into a celebrity.

Instead of having her picture taken at a hospital wing built with her donations, she was shown sailing on a yacht. Instead of portraying her as an intelligent, sensitive person, she was depicted as a billionaire detached from the day to day travail of life in Israel.

Arison's decision to be photographed in an embrace with her new husband, Ofer Glazer, landed her on the gossip pages, instead of showing her as a personality worthy of respect for her business or social activities. Then their wedding attracted coverage as gossipy celebrity fluff news, say the PR sources - ensuring Arison a running presence in the press.

Rahav's expertise is in campaigns for new product launches. He used the same strategy on Arison - the more media exposure, the better, but it did not suit this story, PR experts say. This was setting a bull loose in a china shop. Every marketing move Rahav made shattered another facet of Arison's clean, distant image, and turned her life into a prime time TV miniseries.

The whole intensive PR campaign went supercritical and exploded in its creators' faces when Arison's shiny new husband was accused of sexual misconduct. The accusations and his denials made the front pages, of course. The prior PR buildup had a knock-on effect - Arison's personal life had entered the public domain and the scandal drew extraordinary coverage. Sunday morning Rahav fired off his second letter to Shelly Yechimovitch, saying it was her fault the richest woman in Israel was leaving the country.

Rahav is now trying to spin the whole mess, said another PR executive with a shrug - and it's working, too. The press has stopped harping on about the accusations leveled against Glazer and is concentrating on Arison's pain. It is also seeking who to blame for her departure.