Israel has faced a public relations crisis for decades, battling negative press and other harmful messaging from adversaries seeking to delegitimize the democratic Jewish state. While traditional efforts to counter the criticism often have focused on defensive tactics — justifying Israel’s actions to a skeptical or uninformed general population — those with corporate marketing expertise argue that the better way to promote Israel is with positive and proactive campaigns in the Diaspora.
The many high-tech, social and medical accomplishments of Israel, they say, effectively should be “advertised,” thereby winning over a public audience before that audience is asked by Israel’s opponents to condemn it for political or military motives.
“The bottom line is, how effectively do we advocate for Israel, and how effectively do we communicate to the non-Jewish community in the media?” posed former Pittsburgher Avy Ashery, a retired visual communications/media adviser to the United States Congress and a public relations consultant to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., where he now lives.
Ashery has been lecturing about hasbara (efforts to explain Israel’s policies and promote Israel in the face of negative press) at Jewish organizations for several years. American Jewish institutions, he argued, should be buying advertising space on billboards and city buses, airports, radio and television, to get the word out about Israel’s contributions to the world.
“People don’t know there is a need to be fulfilled,” he said. “When I say to them, ‘Well, if we don’t do this kind of hasbara and get together to come up with some common, creative, short impactful messages, then what we’re doing is missing the multimillions of Americans who already use the accomplishments of Israel, who don’t know they come from Israel, but who could potentially be big supporters of Israel.’ In American culture, people love to hear about accomplishments.”
One of the examples Ashery uses to drive home his point is the Israeli-made exoskeleton, a wearable robotic prosthetic device that provides powered hip and knee motion to enable people with spinal cord injury to walk, turn and climb stairs.
“The old prosthetic limbs had no ability to function,” he explained. “Then here comes the Technion of Israel with their exoskeleton, giving people a new lease on life from Israel and providing that to our Wounded Warriors. If we ever got together to send that message to the American public, they would probably go out and grab the first Israeli and hug them.”
American Jews, he argued, are missing an opportunity.
“[Promoting Israel] is never discussed, it’s never well-defined and we’re missing [getting the word out to] multimillions, especially in these days of BDS,” he said.
Longtime Israel advocate Harvey Kaplan, of Rockville, Md., agrees.
“We don’t engage in that kind of thing; everyone thinks it’s someone else’s job,” said Kaplan, who has been engaging in lobbying efforts to urge more states to pass anti-BDS legislation.
“I think the American Jewish community needs to invest the dollars to do this,” said Kaplan, 75. “And they haven’t in my lifetime.”
Even synagogues should be taking responsibility for advertising Israel, said Kaplan, who is at the helm of a new Israel affairs committee launched at Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville. Through that committee, he is working with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington to help get the word out about Israel’s many accomplishments, including trying to promote a new Forever stamp that would celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary.
Others are using the Internet to get the word out about Israel, and in a big way.
Gerald Ostrov knows a thing or two about marketing. As company group chairman, he was responsible for Johnson & Johnson’s worldwide vision care and then served as CEO of Bausch and Lomb. For 40 years, he has been running marketing campaigns for brands such as Pringles, Duncan Hines and Johnson’s Baby Shampoo.
And now he is focusing on Israel through the nonprofit ReThink Israel initiative, which created From the Grapevine, an engaged social media community with “a fresh perspective on Israel.”
Surveys have shown, he said, that 15 percent of the general population has a positive impression of Israel, while 10 percent has a negative impression. That leaves 75 percent of the population “who don’t know and who don’t care about Israel.”
That is the market he is trying to reach.
“In most cases, when we in the community do hasbara, we are explaining ourselves,” said Ostrov, adding that the term hasbara has a defensive connotation.
“What we’re trying to do here is kesher (connection),” he said. “Most hasbara is reactionary and destructive. We’re engaging people before they have any context to make a decision. We’re trying to create awareness of Israel and reach out to this 75 to 80 percent of the population and create some kind of connection. The best way to do that is to have people find you through the things you care about.”
ReThink Israel employs a professional team headquartered in Atlanta to run its campaign, which produces 200 to 250 items of content a month that then get repurposed on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
ReThink Israel “buys media,” Ostrov said, meaning that it pays for links to appear on people’s social media feeds that drive them to positive stories about Israel based on their online preferences with an “if you like this, you may like that,” prompt.
“It’s not ‘in your face,’ but it’s cool, positive stuff,” Ostrov said. “People find us and get a picture of Israel that is relevant to their lives. Then, when they get an awareness, they are much more likely to engage further with Israel and less likely to be influenced by propaganda that they hear from the other side.”
The stories on From the Grapevine include those featuring Jewish Israelis working side by side with Arabs, and Israel coming to the aid of other countries dealing with disasters.
When it comes to Israel — like any other brand — a person is unlikely to be persuaded by “negative terms,” Ostrov said. Data collected from focus groups, in fact, shows that once people see the types of material advanced by ReThink Israel, their “net positivity” toward the country increases threefold.
ReThink Israel has a multimillion-dollar budget supported by philanthropists, said Ostrov, who along with his wife, Aimee, volunteers his time to manage the effort. Currently, the organization reaches 25 million people a year, but the goal is to reach 100 million. Ostrov hopes to increase his reach to the young college-age population, “raising the tide so they are positively engaged with Israel before they are targeted” by those putting forth a negative image.
“We are not political or religious,” he stressed. “We are just trying to engage people. We want to be a safe entry point so they can engage and send their friends to our site just to get cool stuff.”
Many leaders in the Jewish community don’t understand Ostrov’s approach, he said, and insist instead on a defensive strategy.
“Lots of institutions are angry, and they want to fight,” he explained. “We’re trying to reach people through emotion. If you want to fight, you’re not going to win this argument. You have to be strategic long term. If we do this for the long term and continue to grow, we can have a tremendous impact. It’s a matter of money and a matter of time. But we’re making progress.”
Ambassador Ido Aharoni, a 25-year veteran of Israel’s Foreign Service and founder of the Brand Israel program, which was created to improve Israel’s positioning in the world by highlighting its advantages and increasing its relevance, also hopes to change people’s perceptions about Israel over time. The best way to do so, he said, is to send “influencers” to the Jewish state to see for themselves what Israel is all about.
“Brand Israel was conceived after 9/11, when the image of Israel was dominated by media images of conflict and strife,” Aharoni said. “Now look at it 16 years later, after we sent thousands of influencers to Israel and started messaging campaigns all over the world. It’s true we are far from closing the gap. But today there’s a wide recognition of Israel’s strengths and not just its weaknesses.”
Traditional hasbara, Aharoni noted, “defied the basic tenets of marketing.”
“It highlighted Israel’s problems,” he said. “No place wants to be defined by its problems. Israel’s adversaries work hard to delegitimize Israel, but the most harm is done by ourselves, we who choose to communicate our amazing, beautiful country through its weaknesses rather than its strengths.”
Public relations campaigns are just one tool of many, he said.
“The most important thing communities can do is bring their own influencers to Israel, Jews and non-Jews from all walks of life — politics, art, academics. If given the chance, Israel can sell itself.
“The number of Jews and non-Jews that truly care about who’s right in any given conflict is insignificant,” he continued. “Most Americans don’t care. But Israel could be relevant to them when it comes to their health, their intellectual life, technology. It’s our job to make them aware of the opportunity to build relationships with this place.”
Locally, some Jewish institutions are making the effort to get the word out about Israel’s positive contributions as well.
“The way we present Israel is through its diversity, focusing on the positivity and vibrancy of Israel,” said Dan Marcus, executive director and CEO of Pittsburgh’s Hillel Jewish University Center. Programs scheduled for this semester include a Middle East kitchen, to be held at the student union building at the University of Pittsburgh, to benefit and educate the entire campus community. Hillel also has a partnership with the David Project, which is geared to relationship building around Israel. Through the David Project, the Hillel JUC takes non-Jewish student leaders to Israel to gain an understanding of the country.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh has a “three-pronged strategy” when it comes to promoting Israel, said Adam Hertzman, director of marketing for the Federation. One strategy is to combat delegitimization, and another is to promote Pittsburgh’s connection to the Jewish state. But the “first and most important” strategy is to provide information to people who have a limited knowledge about Israel.
That includes “highlighting the fact that it is a very industrialized nation, very high-tech, and that a lot of services they use every day come from Israel,” Hertzman said. Efforts to that end include the annual Jewish Film Festival, and this year, bringing Israel Story — a multimedia program with long-form nonfiction content about Israeli lives — to the Steel City.
“We are explicitly marketing this event to Jews who don’t know that much about Israel, and non-Jews,” he said. The program will be presented at the New Hazlett Theater on April 27.
“I would love to sit down with each person in Pittsburgh and tell them about Israel, but no one will sit still for that,” Adam said. “We need to bring things they’re interested in and present Israel through that lens.
“The most important thing is to put a face on Israel,” he continued. “Israel is not a concept, it’s a place with millions of people of all stripes and colors and viewpoints. I can do all the advertising I want, but there is nothing like presenting the human side of Israel.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.