News Analysis: Can Israel escape 'war zone' image?

Last week, the Israeli government announced plans for a major international charm offensive. Dan Bloch asks media experts for their views on such a campaign and Israel's perception in the international media.

The Middle East conflict has long had a stranglehold on the image of Israel. But last week it emerged that the country's foreign affairs ministry is preparing to unleash a PR offensive to combat what it perceives as negative treatment in the Western media (PRWeek, 13 May).

Ministry deputy under-secretary for media and public affairs Gideon Meir says pending financial backing from the Israeli prime minister's office, the finance ministry and businesses, it will appoint international PR and advertising agencies - or Israeli ones with international ties - to conduct an 'Israel behind the headlines' campaign in Europe and North America.

'The problem lies especially in Europe - the difference between commentary and reporting has become vague,' argues Meir. 'There needs to be more honesty, credibility and accuracy. We want more balanced coverage.'

The campaign will target the 'top private and public sector opinion formers and decision makers'. It hopes that more favourable perceptions will bring inward investment, increased tourism and improved international relations.

Some brand experts say this is a worthwhile exercise. 'There are vibrant parts to Israeli society, life and business. If that could be demonstrated, it would contribute to a shift in the views of the media,' says Global Consulting Group senior MD Christopher Bunting.

Disparity in power

Others argue that the nation's image problem is largely of its own making - the result of the huge disparity in power between it and the Palestinian Authority, giving the media an excuse to 'support the underdog'.

PRWeek sought the views of Chime Communications chairman Lord Bell, who has worked on promoting democracy in Iraq, and three other senior media and marketing executives, who are Jewish.

LORD BELL, CHAIRMAN, CHIME COMMUNICATIONS

The Israeli government's PR would be more effective if it put itself about more and paid more attention to the way the media portray it.

It has a standoffish, mind-your-own-business attitude to the media. But there is also confusion between Jewish comment and Israeli views. If you are trying to deal with the way something is presented, you have to control who presents it. You have to manage the process like a political campaign.

That means asking 'where am I now?', 'where do I want to be?' and 'how do I get there?'.

I'm not sure that Israel knows how it wants to be seen. But there is a risk of the government getting into a situation where it surrounds itself with those who support it against the Palestinians and ignores the majority of people who just want peace.

The dispute will not be settled by PR, but by negotiations and treaties.

PR is about building a reputation, communicating true values. Israel needs to first decide what credible image it wants and should only then seek agency support.

KAREN HARRIS, MANAGING DIRECTOR, GERONIMO PR

The emotive issue of the conflict has clouded everything in news coverage about Israel. There isn't a major agenda among the media or a big conspiracy. It's about sensation, portraying the worst of both sides and siding with the underdog. Israel hasn't come off well, but the turning point has been Yasser Arafat's death.

It is very good that the government is now looking at whether it should have PR support. For peace to work, it needs to move away from the emotive, sensationalist coverage and stress the achievements that have been made; for example, how Arabs and Israelis have transformed the country by planting three million trees and how they can live perfectly peacefully together in places such as Haifa.

It would be better for Israel if the private sector took the lead in any campaign rather than the government because of how the media react to government. While those parties might have their own agendas, they don't have a political one.

AMIR MIZROCH, NEWS EDITOR, JERUSALEM POST

Since the US began its 'war on terror', Americans have been more attuned to messages coming from Israel about how it was fighting its own war on terror. In Europe, where there is more opposition to that US campaign, those messages have not resonated so much.

It is harder for the Israeli PR machine to make waves in Europe, partly because of the large Muslim population, but also for historical, political and cultural reasons.

Opinion polls now show that 62 to 64 per cent of Israelis want to pull out of the Gaza Strip. If PR firms, the government, consultants and people at grassroots level want to project a positive image overseas, they have to tap into that consensus for peace with the Arab world.

Because of political factors and the way the electoral system works, the people's will has not been fulfilled and the consensus for the last four years is that Israel has been under vicious attack. Now we have a hope for peace. The campaign needs to show that this is what Israelis want.

ROBERT PHILLIPS, FOUNDING PARTNER, JACKIE COOPER PR

Israel's poor image is partly its own making and partly the product of circumstance. A constant flow of violent and bloody images - from helicopter gunships to suicide bombers - makes for easy TV, but damages perceptions and creates a negative environment.

Israel's image suffers on three counts: it attracts a disproportionate amount of media attention (compare Israel's occupation of the West Bank with Syria's 25 years-plus in Lebanon); journalists take an unchallenged crusading stance against Israel; and too often, factual media reporting becomes peppered and blurred with opinionated bias.

My advice would be for Israel to reaffirm its founding principles as a pioneering, egalitarian state and to project a more positive, assertive and coherent world view - combining commerce and politics. Israel has long been as much a victim as an aggressor. But a better imaginative communications programme will only work against the backdrop of a more peaceful and stable political landscape.

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