It has been nearly three years since the Israeli foreign ministry decided to “rebrand” the country’s image through a silly campaign that included pictures of beautiful sabrinas with little clothing profiled in Maxim magazine. Oddly enough, the campaign didn’t work. In the meantime, we’ve had the Goldstone Report, Swedish accusations of IDF soldiers ripping apart the bodies of Palestinians, some still alive, and selling their organs, and so on. The diplomats scratch their heads, wondering why Madison Avenue wasn’t the answer.
In the past few weeks, however, three major events have propelled Israel to the forefront of the public debate in a much more positive light. Following the unsuccessful undie-bomber attack on a Detroit-bound airliner, Americans effluviated about the need for improved airport security, and suddenly everyone was aware that Ben-Gurion airport has not had a security breach in a generation, despite the fact that its passengers never have to part with their favorite nail clippers or the 6-oz. bottles of perfume they picked up in Tel Aviv. The difference, it seems, is not that Israelis indulge in racial profiling, but that their security personnel are intensely trained to recognize the fact that people who know they are about to die behave differently than ordinary airline passengers (who knew!). Although that’s oversimplifying things, the fact is that Israeli airline security really does put a far greater emphasis on the human components of terror prevention: recognizing behaviors, building a network of informants, and so on.
The second event was the earthquake in Haiti. Within hours, Israel had dispatched more than 200 personnel, including rescue teams and high-level medical staff. They set up a full-fledged field hospital, the only one of its kind, complete with digital imaging, an ICU, and more. For the past couple of days, both this CNN report and this MSNBC one have been passed around the Internet, highlighting Israel’s hospital. In addition, today we learn that the Israelis also set up a global communications center, enabling journalists to use the Internet and phones via Israel’s Amos satellite. One American observer has described this as a “home run” for Israeli PR.
The third was the publication of Saul Singer and Dan Senor’s Start-Up Nation, which hit the New York Times bestseller list. Of all the pro-Israel books to come out in the past year, this one probably made the biggest splash: by highlighting what Israel is indisputably good at (business innovation), Singer and Senor succeeded in changing the subject and constructing a positive image of Israel that is not all war.
How come these recent events have been so successful at helping Israel’s image, while the “rebranding” stunt didn’t? I’m no PR pro, but it seems like the first rule in boosting your image is to not throw money at the problem but instead correctly identify what it is you want to sell. The Western public is deeply inured to vacuous PR. Just think of how many political candidates have been utterly devastated at the polls despite vastly outspending their opponents on ads, or how President Obama’s media-saturation assault over the past year has failed to prevent his slide in approval ratings. It really does come down to the product, doesn’t it?
So let’s take a simple test, involving three key statements Israel has made to the world in recent years. Which of the following do you think does the best service to the country?
1. Israelis have a fascinating, powerful, human-friendly, and human-sensitive instinct that makes them take care of Haitians, identify terrorists by their behavior rather than a TSA-approved checklist, and encourage creativity and entrepreneurship.
2. Israel has the Most Moral Army in the World, and when we blow things up, we do it with the fewest civilian casualties possible, given how ruthless our enemy is.
3. Israel has lots of attractive women.
The fact is that (1) is true and proved by events; (2) is true but only helpful as a rearguard maneuver when war is forced upon us; (3) is true but irrelevant. Israel has succeeded in Haiti for the simple reason that Israelis really wanted to help; took swift, creative, and effective action without letting bureaucracy get in the way; and only then made sure CNN and MSNBC crews had access. As for (2), it is true that the IDF did a reasonable job of using YouTube to show how bad the Hamas guys really were, but wartime is always bad for PR in most of the world, and all Israel could do was make the best of a rotten situation. And as for Maxim, it is very hard to avoid the conclusion that “rebranding” was anything but a waste of money and energy.
So I suggest a radical new approach to Israel’s PR woes: Be good. Do things that express your best side. And make sure everybody knows about it.