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Torossian: Israel’s PR Is Out of Spin

Recently, in a synagogue along with millions of Jews worldwide, I commemorated the destruction of the temple, the saddest Jewish day of the year. On days of lamentation, I often think of scary things, and I believe that the state of Israel is in real danger because of its lack of a forward-thinking public relations and communications plan.

[IMGCAP(1)]As a proud Zionist who owns one of the 15 largest independent PR firms in the United States, I can find no other way to spin this: Israel’s communications are lacking and poorly managed. Even two months after the terrible mismanagement of the events surrounding the flotilla, there’s no wake-up call in sight, and there’s no sign the next flotilla will be managed any differently in the media.

Israel is a young country. Unfortunately, it learns things quickly and painfully. The recent flotilla events with Turkey provided the quickest crash course on social media to date. It spread through YouTube quickly, and people were responsive, enraged; it damaged Israel’s image. It took Israeli leaders three or four days just to come up with their visual angle of the incident, and when it did come out, there were Hebrew subtitles in the video. There is no reason for PR in Israel to be neglected this way.

And yet, the annual report on Israel’s advertising and PR industry released earlier this week shows that the top 20 agencies grew in the first half of 2010 by 20 percent after a small decline in 2009. Clearly, Israel is maturing in this industry but isn’t capturing those minds for its statesmanship. Instead, diplomats come and go, and English is clearly not a first language. The state of Israel does not employ a public relations agency anywhere else in the world, send timely media briefing statements to its consulates worldwide, or handle PR during conflict as it should — and must.

Israel must recognize how in-person, on-the-ground news differs from that on the television screen. The flotilla case is the perfect example. It will take awhile to recover from what the world perceived as aid ships being halted by a sea blockade that was stopping them from assisting an under-siege people. If that’s not enough, the YouTube, Facebook and Twitter inputs in real time coming from various sources across the globe were not something Israel was prepared to confront, and not something people are going to forget.

Israel believed its justified cause would uphold its image in the public eye. While that may be true in some cases, a justified cause is not enough to be “right” these days. You need to be promoted. It’s not enough to just display a message — you need to be listened to.

“It turns out Israel Tourism may be coming on as clients. I’m having a hard time getting a handle on it.” Although this is a line from a scene in “Mad Men,” it certainly isn’t irrelevant. I’ve done Israel tourism’s PR in the real world, too. Israel has so many great perspectives to be pitched on, from the Bible to the beaches, and from its democratic state to its gorgeous people, but it needs to put them to use; it needs to employ a comprehensive, well-oiled and systematic PR machine that generates regular output. What Don Draper on “Mad Men” tried to do with pitching Israel’s tourism is nothing compared with the 21st century PR pace. Promptness and responsiveness are crucial.

What I learned from the 20 percent growth in advertising and local PR firms is that Israel has the orientation and appreciation for media and PR, but it’s not being aimed correctly. Its No. 1 client — the country’s brand — deserves a “premium service” that will provide the needed time and resources required to produce results that represent Israel properly.

Thoughts for Israel’s PR:

1. Framing: Framing that harms you can be handled effectively only with counter-framing, and not by debating the negative frame or trying to justify it. If Israel constantly deals with the framing of being the occupier, it need not explain the process historically, but rather make use of counter-framing and hit the media with multiple stories discussing its innovations in technology.

2. United PR: There is nothing more counterproductive and irritating to a professional PR person than having to compete with a colleague. You will never find the media having to compare two or three different sources within a private company in order to discover the firm’s stance on an issue or policy. So why does Israel have multiple voices all stating different approaches but claiming the role of officially representing the country? It’s simply unprofessional.

3. The Message: I’m well aware of how tactical and dynamic Israel is. If we imagine the U.S. as a boat the size of the Titanic, which takes awhile to shift and redirect itself, then, in comparison, we can imagine Israel as a small lifeboat that can maneuver quickly and easily in the sea of world affairs. In PR terms, Israel can change key messages every now and then, and quickly. Still, it is vital to have a strategy. Sound bites, for example, can be used long term.

4. Frequency: Social media are important. They should not be used only as an emergency channel, like the ones Israel uses on TV and radio during times of war. Social media can and should be used on a daily basis, and in a positive way. In the long run, it is the daily actions of a brand that determine its overall image.

5. The Messenger: For crying out loud, get professionals! None of the top 20 firms in Israel’s advertising and PR industry would use even half of the people that are thrown in front of camera crews or who pitch the media. Get rid of them. Hire professionals, offer incentives and provide a challenge.

Ronn Torossian is CEO of New York-based 5WPR, one of the 15 largest independent PR firms in the U.S. He has lived in Israel.

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