Winning the Public Relations War for Israel

If Israel wants to sustain US support for its efforts to defend its homeland from terrorists (which is what this current battle in the Middle East is all about), it needs to paint a word—picture that will cut through left/right politics and reach individual Americans.  As a public relations professional and military historian, I have a few simple suggestions.

Find a spokesman (as Israel did more than a decade ago, with the cultured, American English—inflected Benjamin Netanyahu) who looks as if he could easily be American.  In PR, you want your target audience to identify with you — and if you want Americans to identify with you, you must put an "American—looking" face on the story.

In framing the debate, use words that do not beat around the bush.  For example, these are "vicious terrorists" firing "high—explosive war rockets" into "peaceful, innocent neighborhoods."  Calling them anything but vicious terrorists gives them a measure of credibility they don't deserve.  However, refrain from calling them "Muslim" terrorists, as this reframes the issue — and the issue isn't that they're Muslims, but that they're vicious terrorists who are murdering civilians by raining thousands of deadly war rockets on peaceful neighborhoods. 

Another example: calling the high—explosive war rockets fired by Hezbollah "Katyusha" rockets hides their real meaning and awful destructive use. Ask yourself: how many Americans really know what Katyusha rockets are?  The answer: not many.  However, anybody can visualize "high—explosive war rockets," and only a dullard could fail to grasp the horrific impact of 2,000 such war rockets on a peaceful neighborhood.

Put the debate in terms Americans can viscerally understand. Ask them, "How would America react if cross—border terrorists had fired more than 2,000 high—explosive war rockets into Atlanta, or Kansas City?"  Make it personal — make it American (we are, if nothing else, a fairly self—centered nation — even while showering the world with unprecedented charity, we still see things through our own perspective, and expect others to do the same).

Tell the story as it happened (from Israel's perspective) — cutting through the media clutter that has so far succeeded in painting Hezbollah as victimized freedom fighters instead of vicious terrorists attacking civilian targets in Israel.  Define the terms of the debate, rather than letting others (the New York Times, Time Magazine and MSNBC, among others) define the debate for them.  President Reagan was successful in large part because he "went over the heads" of the media and talked directly to the American people. Israel needs to do this as well.

Begin reshaping the debate with a statement something like this:

"As of July 23rd, Hezbollah has fired more than 2,000 high—explosive war rockets at peaceful, innocent civilian neighborhoods in Israel.  How would America feel — how would America respond — if cross—border terrorists (hiding among civilians in a neighboring country) had fired 2,000 high—explosive war rockets into San Diego, or El Paso?  How would America react if Atlanta or Kansas City or Denver came under such a sustained, murderous attack?  In the face of such horrific provocation — a cycle that was started when Hezbollah terrorists crossed the border and kidnapped two soldiers — would America be exercising near—miraculous self—restraint? Or would America seek out these terrorists — giving them no safe haven — if only to make sure that no more high—explosive war rockets were fired into the neighborhoods of peaceful American cities?  The answer is clear — Americans would fight to defend their homeland and destroy the terrorists, the terrorists' bases of operations, and those who support or shelter those terrorists."

Following this approach, Israel would have at least a fighting chance of winning the PR war. As it stands now, by playing word—games with the anti—Israeli, left—leaning mainstream media, and by putting what seems to be a very foreign face on the news by using heavily—accented spokesmen who just don't "look" American, Israel may be winning the war against Hezbollah, but they are increasingly losing the war for American support.  The major US media are no friends of Israel. If that plucky country is to overcome this built—in deficit, they've got to fight back using tools and techniques that work, even in the face of opposition by the American media.

Ned Barnett has been a public relations specialist for 35 years, and has published nine books on the subject. He has also appeared on the History Channel seven times as a military historian.

If Israel wants to sustain US support for its efforts to defend its homeland from terrorists (which is what this current battle in the Middle East is all about), it needs to paint a word—picture that will cut through left/right politics and reach individual Americans.  As a public relations professional and military historian, I have a few simple suggestions.

Find a spokesman (as Israel did more than a decade ago, with the cultured, American English—inflected Benjamin Netanyahu) who looks as if he could easily be American.  In PR, you want your target audience to identify with you — and if you want Americans to identify with you, you must put an "American—looking" face on the story.

In framing the debate, use words that do not beat around the bush.  For example, these are "vicious terrorists" firing "high—explosive war rockets" into "peaceful, innocent neighborhoods."  Calling them anything but vicious terrorists gives them a measure of credibility they don't deserve.  However, refrain from calling them "Muslim" terrorists, as this reframes the issue — and the issue isn't that they're Muslims, but that they're vicious terrorists who are murdering civilians by raining thousands of deadly war rockets on peaceful neighborhoods. 

Another example: calling the high—explosive war rockets fired by Hezbollah "Katyusha" rockets hides their real meaning and awful destructive use. Ask yourself: how many Americans really know what Katyusha rockets are?  The answer: not many.  However, anybody can visualize "high—explosive war rockets," and only a dullard could fail to grasp the horrific impact of 2,000 such war rockets on a peaceful neighborhood.

Put the debate in terms Americans can viscerally understand. Ask them, "How would America react if cross—border terrorists had fired more than 2,000 high—explosive war rockets into Atlanta, or Kansas City?"  Make it personal — make it American (we are, if nothing else, a fairly self—centered nation — even while showering the world with unprecedented charity, we still see things through our own perspective, and expect others to do the same).

Tell the story as it happened (from Israel's perspective) — cutting through the media clutter that has so far succeeded in painting Hezbollah as victimized freedom fighters instead of vicious terrorists attacking civilian targets in Israel.  Define the terms of the debate, rather than letting others (the New York Times, Time Magazine and MSNBC, among others) define the debate for them.  President Reagan was successful in large part because he "went over the heads" of the media and talked directly to the American people. Israel needs to do this as well.

Begin reshaping the debate with a statement something like this:

"As of July 23rd, Hezbollah has fired more than 2,000 high—explosive war rockets at peaceful, innocent civilian neighborhoods in Israel.  How would America feel — how would America respond — if cross—border terrorists (hiding among civilians in a neighboring country) had fired 2,000 high—explosive war rockets into San Diego, or El Paso?  How would America react if Atlanta or Kansas City or Denver came under such a sustained, murderous attack?  In the face of such horrific provocation — a cycle that was started when Hezbollah terrorists crossed the border and kidnapped two soldiers — would America be exercising near—miraculous self—restraint? Or would America seek out these terrorists — giving them no safe haven — if only to make sure that no more high—explosive war rockets were fired into the neighborhoods of peaceful American cities?  The answer is clear — Americans would fight to defend their homeland and destroy the terrorists, the terrorists' bases of operations, and those who support or shelter those terrorists."

Following this approach, Israel would have at least a fighting chance of winning the PR war. As it stands now, by playing word—games with the anti—Israeli, left—leaning mainstream media, and by putting what seems to be a very foreign face on the news by using heavily—accented spokesmen who just don't "look" American, Israel may be winning the war against Hezbollah, but they are increasingly losing the war for American support.  The major US media are no friends of Israel. If that plucky country is to overcome this built—in deficit, they've got to fight back using tools and techniques that work, even in the face of opposition by the American media.

Ned Barnett has been a public relations specialist for 35 years, and has published nine books on the subject. He has also appeared on the History Channel seven times as a military historian.