October 21, 2011
The price for success: Bad PR
“Never mind the collapse in confidence in Europe, the Palestinian proposal for United Nations recognition and heightened tensions with neighboring Egypt and longtime ally Turkey. The Israeli economy just keeps growing faster than the rest of the developed world.”
Those were the opening lines of a Sept. 26 report in Business Week titled “Israel Punches Above Weight as GDP Beats Developed World,” which detailed Israel’s economic accomplishments and included facts such as these:
“Israel’s gross domestic product will expand 4.8 percent this year, according to the Washington-based lender [the International Monetary Fund]. That’s up from an April forecast of 3.8 percent and triple the pace for the average of the 34 advanced economies.”
Triple the pace for the average of the 34 advanced economies! You can’t make this stuff up.
Of course, the picture in Israel is not all rosy. The tent revolution over the summer revealed many social ills, such as a growing disparity between rich and poor and a sharp rise in the cost of living and housing that is shrinking the middle class. But in the spirit of free societies, the wheels of change have been put in motion. Even at its worst, Israel has a built-in “corrective mechanism” that shows a robust democracy in action.
So, how do we explain this little democratic miracle in the Middle East? Here is a tiny nation under siege, surrounded by hostile neighbors, under assault by a boycott-happy world, condemned beyond all reasonable measure by the United Nations — and still, it finds a way to grow faster than most countries, make more than its fair share of contributions to the world, create an open, civil society and rank among the highest nations on the “happiness scale.”
How does Israel do it? I have a theory, but you might not like it.
Here’s what I think: Israel’s success is directly related to its failure at public relations.
Yes, all these complaints you’ve been hearing for years about Israel’s “terrible hasbarah” are directly related to its phenomenal success. Here’s why: PR is the creation of emptiness, the emptiness of promises. A PR mentality creates a society that cares more about its image than about delivering real things to its people. PR is like showing a menu and never serving the food.
Israel was built not by people who knew how to promise, but by people who knew how to deliver.
Israel wasn’t worried about PR as it built the strongest economy in the Middle East; it wasn’t worried about image-building as it built the strongest army; and it certainly didn’t create an open society — where brutal criticism of the state is the natural order of things — because it thought that would help its image.
In fact, Israel’s determination not to be a victim has been a key contributor to its bad PR. Let’s face it: Victims and underdogs get good PR. This is a major reason why the Palestinians have been winning the PR war — they have nurtured their image of victimhood. Weak people attract sympathy. Strong people don’t.
Of course, none of this means you can’t aim to have a strong, successful country and good PR. Israel has made moves in that direction over the years: the offers of peace under Prime Ministers Barak and Olmert were helpful. So have the country’s efforts to help disaster areas throughout the world, particularly after the Haiti earthquake, as well as Israel’s cultural exports and technological innovations, especially medical advances.
Sadly, though, Israel’s greatest PR boost in the last decade came when suicide bombers were murdering Israelis during the Second Intifada, and when rockets were falling on Sderot after the disengagement from Gaza. In other words, Israel got the most sympathy when it was a clear victim.
Is Israel doomed, then, to have to choose between success and good PR? Can it ever hope to have both?
Achieving both goals would surely be the biggest miracle yet for this little country of miracles. Can you imagine if Israel were celebrated around the world for its numerous and valuable contributions to humanity? Can you imagine if Israel became a democratic model for other countries in the Middle East?
But here is the impossible question: If peace is not in the cards with the Palestinians (and I don’t believe it is), can Israel still find a way to improve its image? The odds are not good. The world’s obsession with creating a Palestinian state — against all evidence that it is feasible at this point — is just too strong. As long as the Palestinians are seen as the victims, Israel will be fighting an uphill PR battle.
Perhaps if Israel were to make a dramatic move, like a specific peace proposal, that might help. More likely, only a dreaded renewal of terrorist attacks against Israel would generate sympathy — and even that sympathy would dissipate once Israel retaliates.
To have any chance at good PR, Israel must find a way to reclaim the emotional high ground — not by being victims of terror but by reclaiming the emotional idea of “justice.” The Palestinians should not “own” justice. Israel can make a strong case that its cause is just and that the treatment it gets at the United Nations is a gross injustice. Framing its narrative around justice is a lot more powerful than framing it around physical security.
But let’s not fool ourselves: As long as Israel is seen as the strong one, facing societies who revel in victimhood and have been taught to hate the Jews, Israel will not win the PR war. It might win a few battles, but not the war. That will only come when Arabs of the Middle East realize that their problems have nothing to do with Israel — and that Israel is really the cure, rather than the curse, of the Middle East.
In the meantime, Israel can live with the consolation, and it’s not a small one, that it has created the strongest and most successful country in the Middle East. And that, in itself, is a miracle.