To garner more positive media coverage for Israel as more than just a country at war, Israel21c works to generate articles that give Americans a look at what else the nation has to offer.
When US media write about Israel, the coverage usually revolves around the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. But in recent months, at least three stories have broken that trend - an Associated Press piece on IntelliGym, an Israeli-developed video game program being used to improve the skills of NCAA basketball players; a new X-Hawk rotorless helicopter that won coverage in Newsweek; and a Boston Globe article that mentions a new Israeli hi-tech method for combating bad breath.
Aside from giving American audiences a fresh take on Israeli news, the three articles share something else in common - they were all found and pitched to major media by nonprofit educational organization Israel21c.
"Our mission is to focus media and public attention on the 21st century Israel that exists beyond the conflict," says the group's EVP, Larry Weinberg.
The brain child of a group of Jewish Silicon Valley businessmen (including Zvi Alon, the founder of NetVision, Israel's largest internet provider, and 3Com chairman Eric Benhamou), the 5-year-old organization is on a mission to "brand" Israel as something beyond a country at war by highlighting its positive contributions to everyday American life. It's a strategy that Gail Hyman, SVP for communications of United Jewish Communities - the umbrella group for more than 200 local Jewish federations in major North American cities - calls a "gem of an idea."
"We've looked at some recent research that's been conducted about North Americans' perceptions of Israel," she says. "What we are seeing is that people are fed up with the whole thing. Americans have been so beaten down by reading these awful stories of terrorism and counterterrorism, and innocent people on all sides being hurt, that the public perception is, 'I'm sick of it and I don't want to hear about it anymore.'"
With an image tattered by years of violence, Israel is in a PR crisis, argue Israel21c's leaders. While numerous organizations already exist to combat inaccuracies in the media, changing American perceptions of the country requires more that stopping incorrect information. It requires giving audiences a reason to believe that Israel benefits the daily lives of Americans, which in turn will ideally make Americans more sympathetic to Israel.
To convey those benefits, Israel21c has molded itself into a news gathering agency that finds and builds stories from the ground up, then hands them over to US publications.
The organization's roots date back to "the beginning of the second infantada" in 2000, says Weinberg. Media coverage around that time made Israel21c's founders "very concerned that the images they were seeing night after night were very damaging to Israel's interests and its image here in the US, and were giving Americans a very one-dimensional image of Israel," he says. The group's founders wanted to create an organization that could do something because they knew that Israel was more than what Americans were seeing on television.
That first effort was called Truth For Peace and acted as a media watchdog. However, "they found that there were several organizations within the Jewish world that were doing that quite well," says Weinberg. "These are not entrepreneurs who spend the same nickel for the same function twice," so the group quickly rethought its goals.
"It really came back to the basic starting point, which is that they knew to exist an Israel that is the 21st century Israel," says Weinberg.
"The key is really to convey to the audience that from our perspective we are really trying to highlight the impact of innovation and technology and governmental issues that are emanating from Israel, how they are affecting our day-to-day life," adds Alon.
Israel21c began that work by creating a website - www.israel21c.com - in November 2001. The site was filled with content created by two journalists working in Cupertino, CA. But as anyone in PR can testify, convincing mainstream media to pick up such content is no easy task. The group decided to hire Weinberg, who had worked in politics, as well as ran his own PR shop, to help. Weinberg had previously worked with an Israel21c board member at Birthright Israel, which gives free trips to Israel to Jewish people.
"I was so thrilled by how Birthright Israel made me feel that I had a different feeling about doing commercial business after that," says Weinberg, explaining why he jumped at the offer.
"He brought us his executive management skills and personality and quite a bit of experience in general marketing communications," says Alon of Weinberg.
Retooling its focus
Weinberg made some immediate changes to help Israel21c gain more trust with both the media and the public. He took over shortly after the "Passover Massacre" in 2002, when a suicide bomber killed and wounded dozens of people at a popular hotel, prompting massive Israeli retaliation. Although Israel21c didn't want to cover this violence, Weinberg realized that it needed to at least address it for credibility reasons.
"If you were a person who was interested in finding out more about Israel after hearing about this horrible tragedy, you might have Googled and found our website," he says. "You would have found a story about kangaroos being happy on a kangaroo farm. There was not one indication that there was a war going on, and you would have looked at this website and gone, 'These people are nuts. Don't they know there is a war going on?'"
Weinberg quickly added the phrase "beyond the conflict" to the site's tagline, "providing the reader context," he says. He also quickly realized that while the concept was good, reporting on Israel from California was not. He moved the news-gathering function to Israel, hiring respected, American-trained journalists from publications such as The Jerusalem Post, and he tweaked the editorial mission to not just focus on positive stories about Israel, but to specifically zero in on stories that impacted Americans.
"Our editorial mission is to find stories about Israel that will show Americans either how Israel adds value to American life or shares the values that underpin American life," Weinberg explains of the new focus. "If it doesn't create a reason for Americans to care more abut Israel, then it wasn't an appropriate story for us."
The organization now has two full-time staffers, two part-time staffers, and a consultant working in Israel, as well as more than 20 freelancers.
Weinberg also made another important change. He convinced the board to hire a mainstream PR firm to pitch the stories. He says that in his experience, journalists are sidetracked when pitched by an unknown entity like Israel21c.
"I didn't want reporters to go, 'That sounds like an interesting story. What the hell is Israel21c?'" he says. "By using a brand name, I got away from that."
The organization hired Ruder Finn in 2002 and worked with the firm for 15 months before running into funding troubles. After a period of regrouping, Weinberg began working with New York-based KCSA PR Worldwide.
So far, Weinberg's changes have been successful, helping the organization win numerous broadcasts and print placements in outlets including The New York Times, Fox News, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, and Reuters.
"Media including major American newspapers and networks read our website to get ideas for stories, and people call us all the time to get help with those stories," says Weinberg.
Hyman agrees that Israel21c is becoming a trusted source.
"[The organization is] really highly regarded and being seen as ahead of the curve," she says.
Based on its success so far, Israel21c has now hired New York-based Rubenstein Associates to launch an effort targeting youth.
"If you are less than 30 years old and you are not Jewish, you will not have had a reason to think about Israel," points out Weinberg. "In our youth market program, we want to show them that [Israel is] hip, cool, and very much what their life looks like."
Executive vice president Larry Weinberg