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Keep It Simple, Israel: P.r. Effort Aims to Help Israel Get on Message

December 5, 2003
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Georgette Gelbard admits that her passion sometimes gets in the way of her efforts to defend Israel.

“When I am passionate about a topic, I need to learn to calm down and breathe. I have to keep the excitement out,” says Gelbard, chairwoman of the International Counterterrorism Committee at the American Jewish Congress.

Gelbard is not the only one who has trouble keeping calm.

“Israelis lack the P.R. gene,” said Marco Greenberg, a veteran of the public-relations field who ran a three-day AJCongress seminar for Israeli spokespersons last month.

With Israeli-Palestinian violence raging, representatives of the Israeli government and pro-Israel organizations have waged war on the virtual battlefield, working to get Israel’s message out in the media.

Those engaged in hasbarah — a Hebrew term that translates, roughly, as public relations but comes from the root “to explain” — should focus on Palestinian terrorism, Greenberg said.

“Stop the terror, stop the terror, stop the terror,” repeated Greenberg to 15 Israeli Foreign Ministry spokespersons based in Israel, Canada and the United States.

The meeting was part of a hasbarah workshop in New York, the 20th annual one run by the AJCongress.

Over the years, the program has distinguished itself from other hasbarah training courses with its hands-on approach, Israeli officials say.

In the past, there was a reluctance to concede the need for a concerted effort in training Israeli spokespersons, said Neil Goldstein, AJCongress’ executive director.

But that has changed as Israel’s enemies have grown increasingly sophisticated and successful in promoting their message in opposition to the interests of the Jewish state.

“Our primary goal is to equip Israeli spokespeople to be prepared to respond truthfully and openly to the media in a way that the public will listen, hear and understand the Israeli point of view,” Goldstein said.

Ido Aharoni, consul for media and public affairs at the Israeli Consulate in New York, agreed. “It’s part of an aggressive effort to improve ourselves, as speakers, to address audiences,” he said.

“We are on the right track in that the level of support for Israel in America is strong,” Aharoni said. But “there are troubling spots to tackle,” he added, including tensions on college campuses and overexposure to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict in American media, which he says are not good either for Israel or the Palestinians.

Greenberg, who ran the training sessions along with Cindy Hoffman, of Hoffman Communications, describes Israel’s relationship with the media as a “public opinion battle” — one that Israel isn’t winning.

In conversations with journalists in the United States and Israel, Greenberg found that they believe Israeli representatives often treat reporters as the enemy and are seen as inaccessible or late in responding.

The workshop addressed those issues through sessions that included corporate-style roundtable discussions and mock interviews with spokespersons, which were videotaped and critiqued.

Indeed, it seemed that Israeli officials are not as media savvy as they could be.

Given 10 seconds — a typical television sound bite — to respond to criticism of Israel’s “occupation” of Palestinian areas, many of the spokespersons had trouble formulating strong responses.

In addition to emotions, lack of experience may be part of the problem.

The AJCongress program is geared toward novice spokespersons, with an eye to grooming them for the future, Goldstein said.

“Contact with the media makes you nervous, and it’s natural,” said a representative of the Israel Defense Forces who took part in the training. The names of IDF participants were withheld for security reasons.

For others, trouble responding to aggressive questions is simply a matter of not knowing what to say.

“There is a built-in problem: There isn’t one word to use all the time,” another trainee said. “I’d pay someone a lot of money to come up with one thing.”

But they all appeared to agree with the anti-terrorism message, which Greenberg drilled into his students like an army sergeant.

Among other tools, Greenberg imparted traditional lessons in public relations, ranging from a general warning that journalists are not your friends to the more specific tip that, when doing a remote interview where you can’t see the interviewer, you should ask the producer what to expect.

Greenberg also harped on what he calls the “ATM” method of responding to media queries: Address the question, Transition, and convey your Message.

“We believe in message-driven interviews,” he said.

According to Danny Grossman, the AJCongress’ Israel director and a reserve lieutenant colonel in the Israel Air Force, the Jewish state can’t afford not to invest time and money in hasbarah, given the stakes in influencing world opinion.

“In today’s world, the punch you can deliver through the media is no less effective than an F-16,” Grossman said.

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