OP-ED: PR's necessary wartime resolve is epitomized in Israel

My role at Ruder Finn has provided me the opportunity to work in many parts of the world, and view how PR is approached around the globe. For the past few years, I have used our Israel office as home base for my global work. Some of the most fascinating opportunities for observations and insights have resulted from my experiences in Israel, a nation that is now, as it is so often, "under the gun."

My role at Ruder Finn has provided me the opportunity to work in many parts of the world, and view how PR is approached around the globe. For the past few years, I have used our Israel office as home base for my global work. Some of the most fascinating opportunities for observations and insights have resulted from my experiences in Israel, a nation that is now, as it is so often, "under the gun."

As I write this column, our team members are working with government-issued gas masks under their desks, in addition to the more routine pressures facing all PR executives on top of their desks. Yesterday evening, Homefront Command of the Israel Defense Forces instructed the Israeli public that it was time to assemble and try on the masks - sort of a homegrown pre-war rite of passage - yet encouraged everyone to continue their normal routines. We were admonished to keep the gas masks at our sides 24 hours a day until further notice. Children were sent home from school if they arrived without their new companion in a carton. The instruction to complete the "sealed room" in one's home had also been issued, along with preparing children for the possibility of spending protracted periods in these rooms, bedecked with globs of plastic and tape. This caused internal debate among our management concerning the need to do the same in the office, should an attack take place during working hours. The real challenge, simply stated, is how do we interpret the government statement to "continue with your normal routines" while we are carrying gas masks and atropine injections to be jabbed into one's thigh in case of biological warhead attack. I'll never forget the time when one of my employees asked me to hire a psychologist to speak to the staff. When I asked why, he responded, "All day long, I find myself being asked by clients to get them into the media. They present their stories to me as if I have to be mentally challenged not to be able to get them front-page coverage. I then have 30 seconds to persuade the media that this is indeed interesting. They often hang up on me. Occasionally they accept the pitch. All in all, I find it damaging to my well-being to constantly try and please everyone." It was then that I realized just how difficult it was to be a PR executive. (I ended up inviting a psychologist to speak to the staff.) In wartime, the stress level literally goes through the roof, as everybody worries about something - safety of family, spouses called into reserve duty, stepped- up client demands - and the pressure to stand and deliver results is increased tenfold. A routine workday in Jerusalem in 2003 has in many ways adopted a very unusual stature, that of working under a constant state of threat and impending doom. Impressively, however, it has also become the norm to be surrounded by people who refuse to give in to fear and try to live life as normally as possible. Today, several members of our staff have been called to reserve duty for an indefinite period. Yet we continue to service clients as if everything is in order. Unfortunately, there have been a few occasions over the past two years when we needed to locate a staff member after a terror attack, hoping to find them unscathed. I will never forget being called to assist the manager of a large hotel in Jerusalem, one of our clients, who had just witnessed a suicide bomber exploding himself outside the facility. Arriving at the hotel to counsel the client on dealing with the media, I inadvertently walked through the remains of the terrorist who luckily harmed only the hotel's image, not any human being. Very few people in Israel have not been personally affected by the struggle for survival of this small but determined country. Israel, unlike many other markets, moved into the Iraq war timeframe within an existing context of intense terrorism. Whereas war generally assumes the look and feel of an isolated event that will soon pass, terrorism forces countries to seriously consider the possibilities that life will have to change for the foreseeable future in order to deal with the realities of the threat. As a result, PR in Israel has proven increasingly difficult, as the Intifada has changed the face of the optimistic Israeli economy that was competing worldwide for its day in the sun. The current war in Iraq represents a difference in degree, but not in kind. The attitude of Israelis has always been that when presented with lemons, it is time to make lemonade. In this light, our agency has redefined itself several times over the past two years to keep up with the shifting sands of the Israeli market. Staff members once chiefly preoccupied with handling hi-tech accounts when that sector was booming, quickly found themselves working on accounts like One Family, a new organization founded to assist victims of terror attacks. PR's role in Israel has assumed more urgency. The need to underscore the still bright future of Israeli technology or communicate the challenges of global terrorism are issues that should concern everyone, not only Israelis. The skill required to help clients define and deliver their message to the world has never felt more important then in recent months. When the hour is late, clients are harder than usual to satisfy, and the day-to-day challenges of "normal life" for a PR executive seem unbearable, count your blessings and remind yourself that even greater challenges face colleagues in distant lands. -----
  • Jeff Kahn is chief strategic officer of Ruder Finn and chairman of Ruder Finn Israel, which he founded in 1997.

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