The scene is a familiar one these days – one by one, looking at the floor, the accused arrive in court to face a judge and a media frenzy as Israel goes from one police investigation to the next. But now, alongside the businesspeople, tycoons, government officials and politicians, media advisers are in the dock, too.
The very people who are supposed to work behind the scenes to ensure their clients look as good as possible in the public eye are now finding themselves at center stage, their personal reputations in tatters.
The list of media advisers and public relations people who have been swept up by police investigators starts with four who advised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: Nir Hefetz, who acted as spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office and later in the same role for the Netanyahu family, has agreed to turn state’s evidence.
Another media adviser, Eli Kamir, is being investigated for brokering a deal for the prime minister ensuring favorable coverage from Bezeq’s Walla news site in exchange for regulatory help. Two other Netanyahu media advisers, Natan Mor and Tzachi Lieber, have been questioned in the submarines affair.
The investigation into allegations of widespread corruption in Yisrael Beiteinu has ensnared Ronen Moshe, a media adviser for the party. Tal Silberstein, a veteran political and media adviser, has been questioned in the investigation of suspected money laundering by Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz.
Zvi Rabin, who once headed the public relations firm Kwan Communications, was convicted in 2014 of using insider information to trade shares in Evogene, Alvarion and Aladdin Knowledge Systems.
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“The ‘media consultant’ has become prostituted. In the most recent cases, for example, the work they were doing wasn’t about what a media consultant does. The criminal acts didn’t involve a client and the media, but much more like lobbying,” said Shai Eliash, a partner in the communications consultancy Eisenberg-Eliash, one of Israel’s biggest.
Nissim Duek, CEO of UNIK Public Image, said he understood how many in PR ended up becoming lobbyists and fixers for their clients.
“There is something [PR people have] in common with people whose job is to solve clients’ problems. There is something very tempting about it: power, influence, connections coupled with the desire to create an effect with our presence,” he explained. “You always want to give added value and be part of something important. It’s very tempting to say, ‘I’m a businessman too.’ The big money is very tempting. Many of them came from the world of communications and never saw the big money.”
Even in the days before they started appearing in courtrooms, media consultants didn’t enjoy stellar reputations: They were regarded by the journalists they were supposed to make contact with as people who distorted information and manipulated facts.
But now their reputation has hit a new low and that’s caused many in the field to begin thinking about what their roles are and when to draw red lines.
Eliash said the field has to draw a sharp distinction between media consulting and lobbying because they are very different activities.
“Media advice is transparent. The relations between me as a media adviser and the reporters or editor are visible 90% of the time. The reporter knows what my aims are when I approach him,” he said. “The problem starts when a media adviser uses his connections, for example, to influence a government ministry. It’s not a criminal or ethical problem, but it’s not the work of media adviser.”
Eliash said that for the PR agencies, their long client lists made it almost inevitable that sooner or later they would have to advise one who becomes ensnared in a criminal investigation.
“If I represent a suspect in a criminal case and issue a statement of one kind or another, that doesn’t make me a partner to the crime. The red line is if I am knowingly part of something inappropriate,” he said.
Tal Alexandrovitz-Segev, CEO of the media advisory firm Ben Horin & Alexandrovitz, said her office gets at least two requests a week for PR help from people involved in criminal cases but turns them down as a matter of principle.
She also avoids taking on clients who would present a conflict of interest, for instance representing a bank and a bank regulator. “We’re constantly losing clients because of conflicts of interest,” she said. “Our business is to be strategic advisers, and you have to do it within the law and in a way that will let you sleep well at night.”