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Israel: Why Crisis Messaging Matters

By Ben Rosner

Israel's public relations battle revolves around how to reclaim the narrative. As a result of inadequate crisis strategy, Israel has suffered by often having the right answers, but no willing ears to listen. Its message is drowned by the sea of dissenters.

For a problem as complex as the Israeli-Arab conflict, which has incessantly raged on since the end of the Ottoman rule, Israel finds itself as the punching bag of blame in international headlines, the United Nations, and academic institutions.

How can a conflict with nuanced shades of grey be splashed in broad brushstrokes of black and white by international media?

Political scholars are quick to point to certain dynamics of the conflict itself that yield to particular coverage, such as the asymmetric nature of the relationship between Israel, and the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. They often use the image of David and Goliath, ironically finding its roots in Jewish theological writing.

Others attempt to delegitimize Israel by superimposing the historical obscenity of the South African apartheid regime as a direct comparison to the current political landscape in Israel. Such statements lack merit when compared to facts on the ground. Black South Africans were systematically and legally excluded from participating in social and political spheres. In contrast, Israeli-Arabs have their own democratically elected officials in parliament and an Israeli-Arab judge serves in the Supreme Court.

While both associations are riddled with faults, the greater importance to Israel in this case is how such associations have become the norm. Sensationalist writings for attention have turned into uncontested accusations.

This problem of misinformation demonstrates the harms that can befall communications without the proper strategic messaging platform. Not addressing such problems in their nascence can impair a nation, or organization, that finds itself immersed in a crisis.

Israel has not been complacent in its attempts to assuage the bad public relations. Among its most articulate spokespeople are Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor who provide strong, well-crafted messages that expertly tread the line between factually relevant and emotionally stirring.

The crux of the issue returns to the lack of an initial crisis strategy for a coordinated approach between government ministries, Knesset members, and diplomats. Without the proper avenues to express and publicize their message, the damaging press by international media has been allowed to fester. Now, the poor image is a wound difficult to heal.

In contrast, Palestinian representatives, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, have a unique ability to garner support and sympathy. The Palestinian Authority is the internationally recognized governing authority in the West Bank and Hamas is recognized as a militant terrorist organization by Western nations, based in the Gaza strip. Following any skirmish by Israel, the Palestinian representatives ensure that international media outlets have iconic photographs.

Images of a dust-covered Gazan child with tears streaming down her face standing next to the rubble that used to be her house deafens even the most expertly crafted speech. Given the generational shift towards a short attention span for the overwhelming information available, the ability of nations and firms to convey a message in an image will trump any other coverage. 

Images cement the argument by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas that Israel is the oppressor and they the oppressed. To any reasonable individual, that homeless Gazan child can only elicit sympathy and anger. There is no mention in the coverage that the second floor of that house was used as a lab to manufacture suicide belts to be used against Israeli civilians. Any inquiry into why the house was leveled fades into irrelevance.

The international attitude towards Israel has led nations to question the authenticity of the recently halted weapons-grade missiles shipped from Iran to Hamas-controlled Gaza, and others still refuse to condemn the act. Prime Minister Netanyahu aptly captured this sentiment, “At most I heard a few faint condemnations of Iran from the international community. In contrast, if we build a balcony in Jerusalem we hear harsh condemnation.”

Yair Lapid, Israel’s minister of finance and centrist head of Yesh Atid party, joined Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing coalition on the condition that legitimate peace talks with the Palestinians would take place. Voted in as a populist, he ran on a platform stating that the Palestinian Authority is a true partner for peace. Only a few short months after negotiations began, he critiqued Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority for bad faith negotiations given their side-talks and agreement to merge with Hamas.

This is the first step in overcoming the seemingly insurmountable wave of anti-Israel sentiment. Lapid’s insider perspective, centrist political affiliation, and use of a renowned media outlet lended credibility to his message. Yet, the journey will remain difficult given the solidified international perception of Israel.

For nations and organizations facing crisis situations, whether through reputational risk or issues management, the necessary response is the same: strategic planning.

Crisis strategy must be queued up and ready to be implemented at a moment’s notice. Standby “playbooks” and tight message coordination must be in place to address a spectrum of issues. In this manner, nations and organizations can face strategic and reputational risk before those threats become uncontrollable, avoiding the issues that plague Israel.

At present, the majority of Israel’s crisis strategy falls under the short-term reactive category. In other words, Israel responds immediately to risks it faces and moves on to the next issue as it arises. The daily threats of terrorism, rocket fire, and spilling over of a destabilized greater Levant demand such action.

Long-term reactive responses to issues that have already taken place are missing from the equation, as is strategy for proactive responses for issues that have a high probability of occurring.  

The United Nations is an arena where Israel can benefit from long-term reactive crisis response. A Security Council session named the “Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestine Question” takes place every few months, where nations are meant to debate the issues in the Middle East, but ultimately focus on the tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In these sessions, even strong allies of Israel state critiques that take the form of rehearsed talking points that frequently provide incorrect statistics and misinformation.

In such cases, a potential long-term reactive response would be to gather the correct information, coordinate with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, and follow-up directly with the representatives of the country at the U.N., and the relevant country’s foreign ministry through the Israeli embassy in that country. In this manner, individual response allows for follow-up with those nations and addresses the concerns in a coordinated and strategic fashion. Ensuring the harmony of the language used, talking points addressed, and statistics presented, sends a powerful message that can abate any potential escalation before it begins.

The issues in this particular case are time and resources. Being able to set aside a dedicated team to note the misinformation, draft crisis responses, coordinate with the Permanent Mission to the U.N., Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in-country diplomats, is both very time consuming and costly in terms of human resources. The amount of crises that Israel faces forces it to address them all on a short-term basis, thereby making it difficult to allocate dedicated resources for a long-term response. That being said, nations and organizations have a reputational and national security responsibility to have such dedicated teams in place and strategy prepared.

A single instance of misinformation regarding a military skirmish, negotiations, or legislation can inflict irreparable reputational harm. The scourge of misinformation can even terrorize nations or organizations that have not undertaken any malicious actions or been materially involved in anything duplicitous. There is a lesson to be learned from international relations: be prepared, be coordinated, and be strategic. Misinformation must be stopped in its nascence, before it grows into an uncontrollable force. By pursuing such tactics, nations and organizations can confidently sail through, rather than drown in, the sea of dissenters.

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Ben Rosner is a strategic communications and crisis management consultant. An Israeli native, he received his M.A. in International Security Policy and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He was a policy adviser and speechwriter at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem. 

[Photo courtesy of Compfight]

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