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A Lapid Guide to Engaging the Public: Personalize and Exaggerate

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When I studied business administration, I asked my finance professor, Aharon “Roni” Ofer, the secret of a successful presentation. Ofer excelled at explaining complex financial models to laymen, and he had good advice in this case too: "Very simple," he told me, "personalize and exaggerate."

New Finance Minister Yair Lapid is doing just that in presenting his views and policy. He talks about himself, exaggerates a bit and packages complex situations in a short and catchy message. This is how Lapid has been leading the public discourse in Israel for the past year and a half in his weekly column in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, his appearances during the election campaign and now the ministerial messages he posts on Facebook and YouTube. Following "My fellow slaves," "Where's the money?" and "Sharing the burden," on Passover, we got his comparison of himself to Moses and his introduction of the new heroine of economic policy, "Mrs. Cohen from Hadera."

Lapid is not Israel's first politician-copywriter. He was preceded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose unforgettable messages include, "If they give, they'll get," regarding the Oslo process and the Palestinians, "The fat and the thin," explaining cutbacks to the public sector in the 2003 economic plan, and the cartoon bomb with the red line to illustrate the Iranian nuclear threat at the United Nations.

Like Netanyahu, Lapid brings his media savvy to politics. The prime minister's strong point is speeches in English and television interviews in a dark blue suit and light blue tie. The finance minister excels at writing personal columns and making statements to the camera in his jacket and black tee shirt.

Politicians have to communicate with the public, and Lapid's Facebook columns are worthy channels that also enable his readers to share with their friends and publish reactions. Less charismatic politicians prefer to do their briefings quietly in background talks, allowing journalists to package and present their messages. That is also a legitimate method, which allows the politician to later beat a retreat if necessary. When Lapid talks to the camera or writes on Facebook, he doesn't disguise himself as a "senior economic source" but stands behind his views.

But in the column he posted on Facebook Sunday, the eve of the last day of Passover, Lapid surpassed even himself in filling two roles: the minister and the journalist who reports on the doings of the minister and his staff. In the post, he described how he tripped up leading treasury officials when he asked them how the government can help the fictitious Riki Cohen from Hadera make ends meet and benefit from improved social services. "They fell silent in surprise," reported the minister-columnist, continuing to describe the discussion about Mrs. Cohen that he had initiated instead of the long meetings with Excel tables of budget cuts.

Lapid managed to enforce media discipline on his staff, and the media cited his version in full without questioning or doubting it. So far we haven't heard from any other source whether the discussions among the treasury leadership really took place as Lapid describes and, more importantly, whether the meeting about Mrs. Cohen will have any influence on the state budget or whether it's just a story that will become a part of political folklore. Those are the relevant questions.

The story about Mrs. Cohen reveals the finance minister's economic philosophy. Lapid sees the state as an insurance company. According to him, those who pay a high premium – the "middle class" that serves in the army and pays taxes – deserve high insurance coverage and good public service. Those who don't pay – in other words, the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox – will have to work harder or stand in line and wait for poor service.

Lapid's model is like health insurance in Israel. On the lower floor is the government service that is granted free of charge to the poor. On the middle floor is the complementary insurance acquired by the "middle class." And at the top is the private service purchased by the wealthy. The new finance minister wants to reinforce the middle floor so that Mrs. Cohen and her ilk will enjoy a better return on their investment. And if the poor want to improve their situation, let them work harder and enter the circle of "those who bear the burden." Here you have Lapid's version of "If they give, they'll get."

Yair Lapid gestures as he delivers a speech at his "Yesh Atid" party in Tel Aviv, January 23, 2013. Credit: AP

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