To judge from public discourse in Israel, it would seem that our public diplomacy efforts are judged by their ability to convince the world that we are right in times of crisis. This region doesn't lack crises, and if you were to ask the average Israeli, they might recite the mantra: “The whole world is against us” and bemoan the fact that the Israeli public relations effort keeps losing the global public opinion war. Reality, explains David Saranga, who recently completed four years of service as Consul for Media and Public Affairs at the Israeli Consulate General in New York, the world's communications capital, isn’t so clear cut.
“In war, Israel spends image credit”, he says. “Don’t misunderstand me - the army needs to do what the army needs to do, first and foremost because of security considerations; public relations considerations come after that and need be taken into account only as one of a variety of wide ranging considerations. Credit is spent in these instances and Israelis are seen as very tough, rough, even violent. For that reason, during normal times, we need to put credit in the bank and save it for more difficult days. The fact that the average American hears about Israel in other areas, the fact that we enrich their world of concepts about Israel, gives us more “breathing room” in times of need.
“If there is a war in Gaza, I want there to be more time before global public opinion persuades leaders to make Israel stop its actions. In war, we all rally to back the campaign, and then you’re not dealing with the beauty of Israel, with culture, or anything else. But when there is no conflict, my goal is to reach those who are interested in politics and provide them with a political message, and for those who are not interested in politics, to provide them with a message that I’m interested in - to ensure that our public opinion ‘credit’ grows in quiet days so that we have more available in times of war.”
For people waiting for a magic solution for dealing with groups which regularly criticize Israel, Saranga suggests being realistic on one hand and smart on the other. “Research and ongoing work shows we face challenges with liberal audiences in America and Europe," he says. "They perceive Israel as an occupying state that does not respect human rights or share their values. In my arsenal of arguments, I can dispute all these claims. However, even the most gifted spokesperson will never succeed in convincing these audiences that they are wrong."
So what is the solution?
“Instead of wasting time attempting to persuade them that I am right , in contradiction of their worldview, it is better to try to speak to them through the concepts and values that they understand and appreciate. For instance, presenting the attitude towards the gay community in Israel and the equality it enjoys often cracks the blind wall of criticism which liberal audiences in the United States may present.
“For example, after the horrific murders at the gay youth center in Tel Aviv, in which two young people were killed, the “Huffington Post”, considered a stronghold of liberalism in America, published an article I wrote about the treatment the gay community in Israel receives, with facts that few people are aware of. The responses to that article were amazing, and it was quoted in other media outlets as well.”
David Saranga: 45, single, returning to Tel Aviv after a four year posting in New York
Education: BA in Sociology and Business Administration, MA in Business Administration with a specialty in marketing and business entrepreneurship both from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem
Positions in the private sector: Head of direct marketing at C.A.L., National Director of Sales at Kidum Preparation for Psychometric exams, Managing an independent direct marketing business
Positions in the Foreign Service: Deputy Ambassador of Israel to Romania, Media and Public Affairs Advisor at the Israeli Embassy in Spain, Deputy Spokesperson of the Israel Foreign Ministry, Consul for Media and Public Affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York
Motto: “The key is fusion, the aggregated effect, with one amplifying the other”
Country on watch
It's no coincidence that Saranga mentions an article he wrote for an online news website as a means of conveying a message. Saranga, 45, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative for the last 15 years, and a sales and marketing executive before that, is ending his New York term, which was notable for a series of creative projects, some of them controversial. He has emerged as the arch proponent of Israel’s “new public diplomacy” (hasbara), which does not settle for traditional methods of reaching target audiences.
He and his staff at the Media and Public Affairs Department in New York can claim some international precedents, among them: the first official government blog, the first facebook page of a country’s representation, and first press conference ever to take place on Twitter. All this is part of what he calls “The Public Diplomacy Revolution 2.0” which took place this year, and in which new media channels were added to the diplomatic toolbox.
“The war in Gaza erupted,” Saranga recalls the moment he was exposed to the wonders of Twitter, “I receive a phone call from the head of the public diplomacy division in Jerusalem, wanting to consult on what can be done with new media ‘because we have a problem with Twitter’. I must admit, at that point I was not on Twitter and asked him to explain what the problem was. I was told that different sources were posting inaccurate and distorted messages on Twitter.”
Saranga gathered his department staff and after a day of debate, the winning formula was proposed: “announce an online press conference open to the public. We opened a Twitter account and posted the first message: ‘we are calling a press conference which the Consul tomorrow’. Within 24 hours, we had 4,000 followers. Within 24 hours, all the leading blogs in the field were reporting on what was about to happen.”
Saranga says hundreds of people actively participated online, asking questions, and many more people, who were not online in real time, saw the content and messages later. “Suddenly, the traditional media, instead of talking about the war in Gaza and what was happening there, started inviting me to talk about Twitter and about the first time a government was holding such a press conference.”
Does that help public diplomacy during a military operation?
“There were a few interesting developments here. First, the media which had been dealing with public diplomacy on Twitter from a political angle, brought the message of Israeli innovation in adopting social networking and technology which doesn’t harm our image. On the other hand, people who were interested in social networks, in technology and innovation, were suddenly getting our political message; because everyone who wrote about our press conference also quoted one of our messages and linked to our blog.”
“A new culture has suddenly developed that we are not used to in the public diplomacy world. Suddenly, we have a way of conveying our message without a third party, the media, as a middleman. Now we can know what people are interested in and that helps us make decisions.”
Today, the Israeli consulate in New York has 7,250 followers. “As someone who checked each of our followers individually” says Saranga, “I can say that around 20% are bloggers, reporters or social networking leaders who have thousands of followers on Twitter, which means I have a mouthpiece through opinion formers, people who spread the word and multiply the message to thousands more people.”
Jerusalem doesn’t understand
The public diplomacy new media activity does not end with Twitter. Saranga’s staff at the consulate operate a facebook page, two blogs one political and one which covers material unrelated to the conflict, and regularly post YouTube videos which they link to on other platforms. One of those is a video clip of New York children reading the story “When the Shark and the Fish First Met”, written by Gilad Shalit when he was 11 years old. The clip has been watched by more than 121,000 people (search “Children Reading for Gilad Shalit”).
“In the past year, I have invested a lot of time in an effort to learn Google’s algorithm through literature and experts” adds Saranga, who seems to attribute to the popular search engine’s results as much significance for Israel’s image in the world as votes in the United Nations. “Can I say I cracked the algorithm completely? Of course not. But everyone knows that one of the main variables which influences the ranking of a site or article in a Google search is the links number of links, where they’re coming from, etc. and that is where we need help. The consulate in New York, as much as it invests in Google, on Twitter or on creating blogs is just a drop in the ocean. There need to be coalitions promoting internet content through links and website references that will boost the number of links and raise the Google ranking.”
What kind of coalitions?
“We need to concentrate coalitions of groups that agree on a certain topic or issue. They can be Israeli government offices, civil society, Jewish organizations, Christian organizations, private people and someone needs to coordinate these efforts and make sure they are all synchronized.”
You are talking about the need for an online media and public diplomacy strategy for the State of Israel?
“Yes, and it’s vital to us. We need to understand that online popularity is measured through traffic. While the Arab world has hundreds of millions of people, the entire Jewish world only has 13 million people so we are starting at a disadvantage, which is why we need to be efficient in how we work with this medium.”
And does Jerusalem understand this?
“No. Or to be more precise, not everyone.”
“I remember when we started our activity over three years ago, people asked me, ‘Does the fact that you create blogs and content for those blogs not mean you invest less in the “New York Times”?’ Even today there are those who think it is a mistake to invest in Twitter. My answer has been and remains - one does not contradict the other. When television was invented, we did not stop investing in newspapers and radio. The same applies to social media networks, they don’t mean you stop dealing with the other formats.
"We need to be present and active in new media and at the same time continue to invest in our relations with traditional media. Only the combination of the two can lead to change. The key is fusion, the combined effect with one being an amplifier for the other. The innovation is that if in the past we needed a mediator, that is, the reporter or medium to relay the message, now we have direct access to public opinion.
"I felt immense satisfaction a few weeks ago when I read that Foreign Minister Lieberman gathered top Foreign Ministry officials and one of the messages was the need to invest in new media, social networks, etc."
A National Information Directorate is being created. Will this be part of it?
“From conversations I’ve had with the department’s director, Yarden Vatikai, I know it’s definitely on the agenda.“
Bikini and the City
Public relations through new media is a good example of one of the key elements Saranga recognizes after his US experience with 21st century public relations: think differently but stay relevant. “The old PR and propaganda are over” he explains, “The world is much more sophisticated, operates at a different pace, and is interested in different things.” The need to be relevant is obvious, but according to Saranga it is an insight that is not yet apparent to everyone. “We became accustomed through the socialization process of the Israeli Foreign Service to talk about the conflict. We talk about the conflict because we live it, because it is in our blood, because it interests us, because we are familiar with the material - which is why it is easy for us to go to this topic. I want to be perfectly clear: it is important to continue to convey our message about the conflict, but at the same time, there are people who are not interested in the conflict, so why keep talking to them about it? If you want to be relevant for them, talk to them about things they are interested in.”
The importance of dealing with issues which are not related to the conflict points to another of Saranga’s PR beliefs: go where there is no competition. “Today, in addition to the media attention on the political front, we are trying to bring Israel to different pages: culture, fashion and food columns. “The New York Times” would gladly cover Israel in these fields. They come from a different angle, they are an interesting story and in the last few years the creativity in Israel has supplied inspiration for articles. In these columns we have no competition. In addition, none of the writers in these fields comes with set preconceptions, with a bias or a desire to promote the Palestinian narrative.”
One project which Saranga promoted during his term that received a lot of media coverage was the cooperation with the popular American men’s magazine “Maxim” in the summer of 2007. The project, in which Israeli models who had served in the army were photographed wearing bikinis at different locations in Israel, provided a career breakthrough for former Israeli beauty queen Gal Gadot, but resulted in a stormy debate in the Knesset, which called the article “a pornographic campaign”, with some calling for the consul to be fired. Saranga sums up the project as a huge success, and points to a survey in which readers saw Israel as more liberal, modern, cool and fun.
"Even before I arrived in New York I remember that the feeling at the Foreign Ministry was that we had nothing to worry about over our image in the United States that our situation was good and that our problem was Europe” Saranga says. “But then came results of a study about Israel’s image done with focus groups and we were left partly uncomfortable and partly surprised over the way the average American perceived Israel. The study showed that Israel was seen in one of two ways: either through the prism of the conflict or through the prism of religion. Worse, Israel was seen as irrelevant in public opinion and outside the interests of the average American. That is a marketing problem, because when you are not relevant, no one wants to hear about you, and when no one wants to hear about you how can you improve your image?
“From the focus groups, we understood that we had a problem with two main groups: liberal Americans who are very critical of Israel, and young people, aged 18-29 who just see us as less relevant. One of the most meaningful moments in the focus group videos was when the participants were asked to describe what an Israeli looks like. One of the participants stood and said women in Israel wear burkas. Suddenly you understand that to her, there is no difference between Israel and the countries that surround us. If the women wear burkas and Israel is seen as an extremist religious country, the conclusion is that we are not like Americans, which has implications for our support, since when someone is different, you care less about them.
“Once we understood that, I looked for projects which spoke to those audiences in their language. I approached “Maxim” and suggested a photo shoot in Israel. I wanted them to see what an Israeli looks like. An image is not built with modesty, and Israel can be proud of the beauty of its people.”
Why did you choose “Maxim” specifically?
“I turned to them the same way we approach any other media outlet. Maxim is a serious magazine which deals with various issues relevant to that age group. Their readers were exactly the age range we were looking for, highly educated and from a high socio-economic background they were our target audience. If Angelina Jolie decided it was respectable to grace the cover we are in good company.”
Olmert? Gal Gadot!
The original target audience for the project was the 2.5 million young “Maxim” readers. Saranga did not imagine that the photo of the beauty queen in a bikini against a Tel Aviv background would end up on the covers of leading newspapers world wide, and did not expect the international impact the project made. He’s also not the one who started the media buzz which followed the critical remarks made by then Knesset members Colette Avital and Esterina Tartman, who claimed that inappropriate use was being made of women’s bodies to promote tourism to Israel. “It’s an absurd claim” responds Saranga, “I think any reasonable person would understand that not every photograph of a woman in a bathing suit is offensive, as when a man is photographed in a bathing suit it’s not an inappropriate use of his body.”
After the article was published, Saranga recalls: “I left my home on 86th street, walked to my office on 42nd street, as I did every morning, and suddenly noticed that someone at a store entrance was reading “The New York Post” and that the cover displayed Gal Gadot’s Maxim picture. I’d like to remind you that the former Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, was in New York that weekend but they chose to put Gal Gadot with the Tel Aviv beach and skyscrapers on the cover.”
“She was here for the launch party and was hounded by the media for an interview. When was the last time CNN’s Wolf Blitzer had a show about Israel which was not about the conflict? (The article is available on YouTube and has had more than 200,000 hits, look under “Maxim Israel”, U.L.) All of a sudden, he is interviewing not only Consul General Arye Mekel but also Gal Gadot speaking excellent English, with a coherent message, looking great what could be better?
The cooperation with the well known magazine illustrates another key to his concept of the future of hasbara: attach yourself to known brands. “We are faced with a challenge” he explains, “We have a limited budget, there are hundreds of events in New York daily, and yet we want the conventional media to cover us. Many times the solution was to attach ourselves to leading brands. By doing so, you benefit twice. First, people associate you with a positive image, because you are attached to brand with a positive image, and secondly, the brand markets itself and if you are attached to it you are able to relay your message through it. “
“All the New York success stories were through attaching to brands, by identifying the relevant hook to promote Israel and that also benefited the brand. Some examples of this are: Twitter, which was a trend getting a lot of attention at the time; Pilobolus, a New York Dance Troupe which had a photo shoot in Israel for its calendar, and a special exhibit in Chelsea; Central Park, where we recreated a Tel Aviv beach in honor of Tel Aviv’s centenary; Times Square, where celebrities like Tom Cruise and Ben Stiller were projected on huge screens, congratulating Israel on its 60th Independence Day; the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.”
Television as a way of life:
Saranga landed in Israel the other week. He went straight from the airport to speak at the “140 Characters Conference” at the Tel Aviv beach. This was a Twitter related event taking place in Israel in October, organized by Jeff Pulvor, an American investor and entrepreneur. Saranga, who spoke at the first “140 Characters Conference” which took place in New York last June, is the one who persuaded Pulver to hold the second conference in Israel. “It’s further proof that the world recognizes Israel’s importance in the social networking and new technology fields”, he says. “I hope we see one of Twitter’s founders there, who was invited by the Consulate.”
And beyond the Twitter conference, where are you headed?
“In the last 15 years, since I joined the Foreign Ministry, I’ve been happy and satisfied with the direction and believe I will continue in this field in the future.”
Do you feel that the Israeli public diplomacy has the most suitable and best people at its service?
“President Peres would have answered this question better with a ‘yes and no’. The Foreign Ministry recruits people to be diplomats, and indeed succeeds in attracting the cream of Israeli society to its service. At the same time, we live in a world of specialties, and in my case, we live in a world of specialization in communication, public diplomacy, public relations, social networks and new media. To deal with media, you have to love it. You need to see a camera and want to stand in front of it. You need to see a television interview and think how you would have answered that question instead of the person being interviewed. It’s a thought process and a way of life. Unfortunately, not everyone doing the work today originally wanted to deal with media.
"Today, even a medium sized company would hire an experienced marketing director or someone who understand the field. Not every position in the Israeli global hasbara effort is filled by someone like that. That’s why I say yes, because those people exist and also no, because we do not have people like that in every location."
How can that be changed?
"Quite possibly the Foreign Ministry needs to go in the direction of providing a group of diplomats with very specific training in the field of public diplomacy, because, as opposed to other areas a diplomat handles, this field requires particular skills. Someone can be a talented diplomat, who does his work well in one on one conversation behind closed doors which is how conversations usually take place in the foreign service but he won’t necessarily feel comfortable standing in front of a camera. It’s true that the foreign service makes sure that people who appear on camera today are able to go over well, but when I talk about a public diplomacy/communications outlook, it’s more than that, it’s a matter of concepts and understanding new media."
Your work in New York gives the impression that we have a successful public diplomacy effort, yet there are still many Israeli who think the public diplomacy efforts are a failure.
“Firstly, I am not sure so many people still say that. Secondly, those who criticize in that way need to base their claims on facts. In surveys conducted in the United States, in response to the question ‘Whom do you support, Israel or the Palestinians?’ 70% support Israel while only 9% support the Palestinians. Is that public diplomacy failure? Of course not.
“After the war in Gaza, those percentages did not change. The majority support of Israel remained, which is no small feat. At the end of the day, the Israeli public needs to understand that that the public diplomacy work that we, the diplomats, do abroad, is not intended for Israeli audiences but rather for the local audience we are working with. There are cultural differences and nuances which are not always evident from Israel." Israel Online: The Consulate General of Israel in New York, Public Diplomacy Through New Media, 2008: Two active blogs: www.isrealli.org - 234 culture and society posts in the last year www.israelpolitik.org - 204 political posts 209 websites linked to the culture blog 176 websites linked to the political blog Youtube videos: 59 videos were produced and uploaded to youtube by the Consulate (48 under the Consulate’s name, 11 under other names) 121,000 views of the most watched video produced by the Consulate “New York Children Reading Gilad Shalit’s Story ‘When the Shark and the Fish First Met’” Twitter Activity: 9 accounts held by Israeli diplomats and Consulates/Embassies 7,257 followers for the Israeli Consulate in New York 1,456 David Saranga followers 931 number of tweets by the Israeli Consulate in New York
How do you explain Lieberman to the Americans? “No problem.”
As if Saranga were not facing enough public diplomacy challenges, he now has to deal with questions about the ministry he belongs to. “What’s the problem with Lieberman?” Saranga asks sarcastically, and continues “I have no problem. Israel is a democracy, and the citizens of Israel elect their leaders through democratic elections. The fact that “The New York Times” isn’t pleased with the choice of Israeli citizens, that’s a problem that needs to be dealt with.
“Our role is to promote the interests of the State of Israel, and that is what we are doing. If there are differences of opinion between countries, that isn’t the end of the world; there can be disagreements, and there are mechanisms by which they are discussed and resolved.”
How did the episode of the critical cable sent by Nadav Tamir, Israel’s Consul General in Boston, influence Israeli public diplomacy in the United States?
“Because it was the consul in Boston, the story was covered by the local Boston press more than in New York or the rest of the country. The Boston audience tends to be more liberal and critical of Israel.”
And what do you think of the letter?
“As diplomats, we get paid to not only be the voice of Israel abroad but also its eyes. So I think Nadav was doing his job well by writing that cable. I can tell you an anecdote about Nadav Tamir: When he returned from a year of studies at Harvard, he initiated a gathering at the Foreign Ministry to discuss Israel’s image on the Harvard campus, so he was always very active and personally involved. In hindsight, it’s possible he should have paid more attention to the names of the people the cable was distributed to ensure it was reaching the right people. By the way, the opinions voiced in that cable were more applicable to public opinion in Boston than elsewhere.”
And what about the content of the letter, the unprecedented tension with the US government?
“One would have to be blind to not notice the tension between the two countries, but as I said earlier, that is completely legitimate. The Israeli public will determine Israeli policy through the government it votes for in democratic elections; that decision is not made by the American government. Currently, there is a point of contention between the governments, but I believe it is far from threatening the strong bond at the core of the relationship between the two countries. "
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on October 14, 2009
© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2009