It is not every day you are given the chance for such a big peek behind the scenes of one of the most secret industries in Israel. “Everybody knows us as those who run publicity-filled battles. Not everyone knows the problems we have solved behind the scenes, quietly, without headlines.” This is how the presentation recently sent out by the public relations firm of Moti Morel to potential clients begins.
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Morel, one of the most experienced and best-known PR people in Israel, seems to be on the decline and naturally he is marketing himself aggressively to reverse the trend. The pitch? His impact isn’t limited to public opinion and the media — Morel says he can influence regulators, politicians and even the Supreme Court.
One case study: When the government tried to privatize the ports 10 years ago, the unions were at a loss about how to stop it. Morel says they “recruited the Manufacturers Association, which in the previous fight was against the workers, to support them in the negotiations.” The result? Morel is happy to inform us “privatization was rejected, port workers received raises and bonuses, and all of this without a single day of a strike.”
Morel’s slide show, as boastful and excessive as it may be, signifies a growing trend in the web of relationships between business, government and the media: The strengthening of the status of media consultants. Alongside the information revolution, or possibly because of it, the position of media advisers in this triangle is on the rise. They pull the strings, whisper in the ears of the rich and senior executives, and are well-connected to politicians and other decision makers.
In recent years the number of those employed in PR has risen sharply as has the number of clients. Other groups who had influence over the press have seen their grip weaken, and the PR industry has taken their place. But the faces of the main players, the sophisticated and well-connected advisers, are almost unknown to the public. Except for the infamous Ran Rahav, who really belongs to the previous generation of media advisers, most of those working in it today stay in the shadows.
‘A horrible role’
“Public relations people fill a horrible role. They distort information systematically. As an industry they sabotage the quality of information accessible to the public,” says Prof. Zvi Reich of the communication department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, whose research focuses on Israeli media.
Veteran journalist Uzi Benziman, who worked for Haaretz and was a founder of the media criticism site and journal the Seventh Eye, says PR people are more than a façade – they often shape policy. “The proposals they whisper into politicians’ ears are those that are accepted, and politicians act accordingly.”
The PR industry has been around long enough that Israel’s existence can be partly attributed to it. Theodor Herzl promoted the Zionist idea partly by using mass media. After the state was founded a half century later, the government was quick to cultivate the media by appointing officials called at the time “press officers.”
Private organizations may have also employed spokespeople back then, but they were not very active and certainly did not hire PR firms. In general, PR was a part of advertising. The first dedicated PR firm in Israel was, according to some versions, set up by Shmuel Shai, a former employee of Israel Radio who opened an agency dealing with the entertainment and music business. Other pioneers were David Eshkol, Moshe Trivax, Yohanan Kidon and Uri Sela.
Since the 1970s the business has blossomed, particularly in the public sector, spurred on by the new institution of party primaries and personalization of politics alongside the growth of the media and the professionalization of the PR industry. The industry grew in the 1980s and 1990s with the rise of more competitive elections after Likud’s 1977 victory and economic changes such as privatization and the emergence of a bigger private sector and more competitive markets.
Growth has picked up pace in recent years. In the United States, according to the Pew Research Center, not only is the number of PR people increasing, but the ratio between them and journalists is only getting bigger. In 2004, 166,000 people were listed as working in PR (not including internal spokespeople or independent PR people). By 2013 the number had reached 203,000. Over the same period the number of journalists fell from 52,500 to 43,600, not including editors. The ratio rose from 3.2 PR people to every journalist, to 4.6 PR people to every journalist.
There are no exact figures of the number of PR people or journalists in Israel, but Ifat Media Analysis has something of an idea.
“In recent years two processes have stood out in the PR industry,” says Meni Avrahami, CEO of Ifat. “One, accelerated growth in the number employed in the sector. We have witnessed many firms established in recent years, many by journalists crossing the lines and turning into spokespeople and PR people. The second trend is the professional development of those working in the industry. Many firms deal not only with press relations, but are involved in the creation of the media and marketing strategy for the organizations and people they represent.”
Israel has 422 PR firms, according to Ifat’s latest figures, but it doesn’t know how many people these firms employ. Add to this some 60 government ministry and other official spokespeople, who recently organized as part of the Government Press Office’s activities; as well as dozens more working in municipalities, public institutions and statutory bodies. By comparison Ifat estimates there are only 2,336 journalists (including foreign correspondents in Israel, estimated at about 400 regulars) and 2,117 editors.
Ifat conducted a comparison for TheMarker in the lifestyle and high-tech sectors where the ratio between the number of PR firms and journalists is highest. The data show no less than 62 PR firms and only 65 journalists covering the beat, in other words one whole PR office per journalist. In high-tech the numbers are even more striking. There are 28 PR firms that say they specialize in tech, compared with only 14 journalists (though it seems there are more reporters, but many are new or listed in other areas such as science and technology).
The big change is in the rise of the super-consultants. If in the past every CEO and magnate had an adviser in attendance, names such as Moshe Teomim, Ilan Shiloah, Rami Shalmor or Yoram Bauman, just as they had a high-priced lawyer. Today there are more and more PR giants.
Some say the wave of social justice protests starting in the summer of 2011 caused companies to become more dependent on media advisers to cope with public protests targeting them. But it is a much broader phenomenon. The information explosion and the rise of digital media platforms, along with the abundance of channels, have loosened companies’ control over information. At the same time this has indirectly increased the need for a PR maven to help navigate this information jungle.
The PR person’s place in the chain of production has moved from being the very last link in the chain for distributing the information to the press to the beginning of the process, a place where the processes themselves are created.
Many see the expansion of the PR industry as something dangerous, and the growing involvement of PR in journalistic work as damaging the quality of the information the public receives. Reich says Marshall McLuhan’s comparison of a ventriloquist and his dummy is an apt one:.
“The ventriloquist moves the dummy’s lips, but the voice is that of the ventriloquist. The job of PR is very destructive and the minute PR enters the picture, mostly in commercial matters, the level of distortion of the information is great, because the level of their media sophistication is so great,” says Reich.