Former clients of publicist Larry Weinberg include celebrity divorce attorney Raoul Lionel Felder, a charity which kept quiet about what it had done with its funds and the New York City Yellow Taxi industry. If making them look good was tough, it was surely a breeze compared to his latest client: the State of Israel.
For the past three years in his role as executive vice-president of the nonprofit organization Israel21c, Weinberg has worked on branding Israel to the American public whose familiarity with the country extends to the recurring war-torn images on their television screens. While he is far from the first to try and counter the impression made by Israeli soldiers in tanks fighting Palestinian children, Los Angeles-based Weinberg says the approach taken by Israel21c has broken a mold.
"Most pro-Israel advocacy focuses on justifying war and blaming the Palestinians," says Weinberg, speaking to Anglo File during a trip to Israel earlier this month. "But if all pro-Israel communication is based on the geo-political issues that relate to the war with the Palestinians, then Israel becomes defined only by that war. If you talk about the Balfour Declaration, Americans' eyes will glaze over. Americans are more interested in what you have done for them lately. You can't lose an argument that Israel is good because Israelis have improved diabetes treatment for people or found ways to diagnose cancer earlier. Americans should know that Israel does something for them every day."
Reasons for respect
Indeed, Israel21c's Web site (www.israel21c.org) is packed with Israeli scientific, medical and cultural achievements. Last week's issue of the organization's newsletter, which was circulated to 8,000 e-mail subscribers worldwide, reports on a study showing that the juice of the pomelit - a hybrid of a grapefruit and a pomelo that was developed in Israel - lowers blood cholesterol and increases antioxidant activity. "This is good news for the 37 million American adults who have high blood cholesterol levels, and the 105 million who have cholesterol levels that are higher than desirable," says the article written by Israel21c staffer David Brinn.
"We try to find stories that give Americans a reason to respect and care about Israel," says New York-born Weinberg, who worked in PR for 20 years before taking up his current post. "We look for any product, patent, technological device, pharmaceutical, company, NGO, event or person that can show Americans how Israel adds value to American life or shares the values that underpin American life. There are 1 million Americans walking round with heart stents who might not be alive if not for the Israeli device inside of them. Tens of thousands or more have benefited from diagnostic imaging systems in Israel. We have figures showing that almost half of all telephone calls in the U.S. utilize technology created in Israel. Americans touch Israeli contributions scores of times a day. They just don't know it."
News and feature stories which endorse this message - mostly written by Israel21c writers and occasionally picked up from the Israeli press - are identified by the Israel-based staff of the organization, which can be considered a quasi news service. Each week, they speak with Weinberg by telephone to select which stories will be pitched to the mainstream American media by their hired PR firms. Weinberg says that in 2003 over 1,000 stories appeared in daily newspapers, magazines and on television in the United States as a result of Israel21c's efforts.
A better brand
"Why should [these stories] languish in the Hebrew press?" asks Weinberg, who is especially proud of a piece about a technology incubator in Nazareth helping Arab and Jewish start-ups which led the World Business section of The New York Times after being pitched by Israel21c's PR firm.
Israel21c was founded in December 2000 by two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs: Israeli-born Zvi Alon, a founder and owner of Netvision, and Eric Benhamou, chairman of 3Com and Palm, who was born in Algeria and grew up in France. Weinberg reports that a few months into the second intifada, the two became increasingly horrified by the images of death and destruction from Israel they saw on the news every night. "It wasn't the Israel they knew. They wanted Americans to also know the 21st century Israel of high-tech development and advanced medical research, the Israel that is a force of decency and democracy in the West, the Israel that wasn't being seen," he says. The pair named the organization they set up with this 21st century Israel in mind and set the highly ambitious goal of changing American public opinion by showing "the Israel beyond the conflict."
Weinberg believes the organization has significance beyond the pro-Israel stories it presents to the American public. "What was born of a desire to do something positive in the media has evolved into a much more sophisticated program," he says. "We have tried to shift the paradigm of how pro-Israel communication is done in America."
Weinberg acknowledges that the "adding value to Israel's image" approach is not the only answer to Israel's communication problem. "I'm not saying don't answer questions about security or don't react when something blows up," he says. "But we must use Israeli assets as a tool to make Israel's case and to improve the emotional connection Americans feel for Israel. The tactic is branding. A brand is a series of promises that a company or product make to a potential consumer. We want Israel's brand to be more than a place where there is a war going on, we want it to be seen as a place where there is a diverse, vibrant life for its citizens, where medical and technological innovations and progress are making the world a better place. It's a better brand for Israel."