At a recent four-day training session here in hasbara (public relations/advocacy/spin) for 17 high-level Israeli spokespersons, a young woman who deals with the media for the Israel Defense Forces described one of her most difficult encounters with the press during last summer’s war with Hezbollah.
She recounted that she had stressed how unfortunate the situation was, but noted that Israel was forced to respond to Hezbollah rocket attacks against its citizens, and this was one of the regrettable results. But the reporter kept asking her the same question, over and over.
“After awhile I felt foolish giving the same response,” she recalled. “I felt I had no answer.”
The chief trainer at the session, Elias Buchwald, a legendary public relations expert who has been leading these intensive programs for Israeli officials through the American Jewish Congress for 24 years, pro bono, explained that the reporter was trying to break her down to the point where she would become exasperated and respond emotionally, perhaps angrily.
“You did the right thing,” he reassured the woman from the IDF. “You just repeat your answer and say, ‘of course it’s terrible, but when they do X, we have to do Y.’”
Buchwald, known to everyone as “Buck,” noted that if the interview had been live, the reporter would have had to move on to other questions. But since it was taped and could be edited, he could keep pushing, hoping for a slip-up. In the end, the clip of the IDF woman’s response on the ABC report ran for five seconds.
Welcome to the real world of hasbara. While criticism of Israel’s efforts at defending or presenting its image to the world has become a perennial pastime for many supporters of the Jewish state, the fact is that government officials spend a great deal of time and thought on hasbara, and always face an uphill battle.
While the Palestinians have a simple message — we are suffering from occupation and want a state of our own — Israel’s is far more complex, seeing itself as the Mideast underdog (outnumbered 100 million Arabs to five million Jews) while maintaining one of the most powerful armies in the world; championing democracy while being portrayed as occupier; proud of a free and open society, but one that allows agonizingly close scrutiny of its every move by its own as well as the foreign press.)
Each year Israel sends to New York a group of its most promising young officials — from government ministries, consulates and national institutions — to be trained by Buchwald and other savvy Americans who deal with the media and public relations. (5W, a local public relations firm, helped the American Jewish Congress and the Israeli Foreign Ministry organize this year’s program.) It’s part of a larger effort Israel is mounting, pushed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, to rebrand itself and recast its image from what some see as an overly militaristic country to one with a sophisticated cultural outlook.
Buchwald, a benign drill sergeant, kept driving home the need for participants to offer pithy, positive and personal images of Israel that Americans can identify with readily. “Don’t say Israel is just like America. That’s too abstract. Say ‘if you love skiing, we have Mt. Hermon in the north; if you love nightlife, nothing beats Tel Aviv.’”
Keep it short, make it direct, and no matter what the question, know beforehand what message you want to get across and stick with it, Buchwald tells his charges. “We want Americans to relate to Israel emotionally, not just impersonally,” he says.
A major part of the conference was devoted to taping the participants responding to impromptu questions that became increasingly pointed, and then reviewing and critiquing the two-minute interviews.
It’s not easy to keep focused, and smiling, while being grilled with rapid-fire questions critical of Israel. Buchwald himself was blunt in his comments. “Nice job” or “great smile,” he told some participants. But he also lost his patience at times, most notably when a woman blew what he called a “silver platter” question (“how are Israel and Canada alike?”) by rambling on about cultural similarities without offering any specific examples.
During a break one afternoon, Buchwald, a founder of Burson-Marsteller, a major New York public relations firm, said he has seen “remarkable improvement” over the years in the caliber of Israeli spokespersons he helps train.
Most of hasbara is “reactive, damage control,” he says, but it is also important to present positive images whenever possible. “You have to understand your message,” he says, and the problem is that “not enough effort” is made by the Israeli government “in deciding what message they want and getting all the spokespeople together on that message.”
At present the government is framing the political picture by stressing that the world can be divided between black and white, between extremists and reasonable people, and that Israel is in the reasonable camp.
David Saranga, the media consul at the Israeli Consulate here who came to observe the training, said that when discussing the Mideast region, Israel is associating itself with countries like Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which are seen as moderates. (There seems to be a reluctance to identify too directly with the U.S. for fear that Israel will be connected to, and blamed for, the unpopular war in Iraq.)
“Americans miss the human face of Israel, they perceive of us as militaristic and very religious,” Saranga said, “but they miss the lens of culture, education” and the other qualities that make up the essence of daily life.
Israel has launched an effort to focus on new media, including the Internet and blogs. Targeting the market of 18- to 30-year-olds, the New York consulate has started its own blog, IsREALii.org, to portray “a multifaceted society that welcomes creativity, passion and drive,” according to the site, administered by Saranga and his team. It deals with culture, not politics.