A PR expert on the Goldstone report, Haiti and what Israel should learn about controlling its message.
In October of 1982, seven people in Chicago died under what at first seemed mysterious circumstances but quickly became linked to cyanide-laced Tylenol that had been placed on drugstore shelves. At the time Tylenol had a whopping 37 percent share of the painkiller market.
I mention it now, in the context of public relations for Israel, because the Tylenol Crisis, as it is called in the industry, is universally considered a benchmark case to study in terms of response to the kind of negative public relations that could have forced the company to fold.
Simply put, it is time for the Israel and the Jewish community here to study best practices in the industry to combat what many believe is the negative, dangerous and one-sided coverage Israel often receives in the world press, and the negative public relations it often garners at public forums, in private conversation and on college campuses. (Israelis know that their country’s image suffers overseas. A poll earlier this month revealed that nine in 10 Israeli believe the country has a “severe” or “very severe” image problem in the diaspora. Eight in 10 believe Israel is looked upon as an “aggressive country.”)
A quick review of the Tylenol case.
Quoting its mission statement of protecting people first, Johnson & Johnson, Tylenol’s parent company, pulled its product off the shelves of every store in the U.S. That was more than 31 million bottles, at a cost of more than $100 million. It stopped all advertising and aggressively urged everyone who had a bottle already to throw it away. It did not re-introduce Tylenol until a few months later when it was able to bring it back to market with a triple tamper-proof seal and then it offered special pricing to re-engage its users. The rest, as they say, is history. Tylenol is still a powerful presence in the market.
Its competitors never had a chance to attack it. The press never had an opportunity to criticize it. Johnson & Johnson owned the agenda: it drove the story, and even though the core event was tragic and out of its control, through a combination of action and communications they were able to “seize the day.”
Indulge my cynical side a moment.
Imagine Israel as a corporate entity and Tylenol one of its products. Here is the new scenario. At first silence — no official response — but various senior executives would be quoted as saying “31 million bottles and only seven people died — an acceptable ratio,” or “we had nothing to do with it, our products are safe; it’s the stores’ fault. They need better monitoring.” Or even “Read our mission statement: we are dedicated to being the best, we protect our consumers. Leave it to us to determine how.”
You get my point.
I cannot count how many meetings I have attended regarding the poor performance of Israel in the PR arena. And yet most end up in one camp or another — we need to tell our story to more people, or we need to change Israeli policy.
Changing policy is the easiest way, but there’s little the Jewish community here can do on that score. Johnson & Johnson had to deal with the reality; it could not change the facts. Its goal was to act quickly, ethically and morally within the confines of possibility and take the wind out of the sails of potential critics.
Israel and its supporters, on the other hand, continue to make the same arguments — only louder. They label all their critics anti-Israel or anti-Semitic and ignore that many of them are good Jewish kids on college campuses who simply find Israel irrelevant to their lives today.
They preach about how moral and ethical Israel is, while scandal after petty scandal removes key players from the country’s ruling parties.
They discuss how religious extremism is dangerous to the world, and yet religious extremists within the Jewish state attack Israeli police.
They chest-pound about how smart Jews are and how many Nobel prizes they win, but Israeli leaders cheapen the Holocaust by “defending” its very veracity to a lunatic like Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In short, Israel and those who support it can be tiresome, holier than thou and sometimes obnoxious.
What Israel and it supporters don’t do is mount the bold PR moves that take the winds out of the sails of the Jewish state’s opponents, that force them into corners.
What if, during his fall speech at the UN, Prime Minister Netanyahu, instead of trying to document the truth of the Holocaust, ripped up his speech and said, “We will freeze all settlements for 90 days — but we need a partner. You have 90 days to respond.” And then sat down. He would have sent shock waves around the world with little to lose.
If the point of the Tylenol lesson is how to boldly pre-empt negative and potentially destructive press by taking the initiative — and linking your actions to your core attributes — then two occurrences in the last week alone point to Israel’s and its supporters’ sad inability to manage the country’s public relations. And the answer cannot always be, “Why bother, they hate us anyway,” because the truth is we do bother — but in the wrong way.
After all the posturing and the “we’ll show those anti-Israel/anti-Semites a thing or two” around the Goldstone report — which Israel originally dismissed as not worth its time and attention — Netanyahu has now determined that after Iran and rocket attacks on civilians there is nothing more important on his agenda than providing a convincing defense to the report’s devastating content. (The UN report, authored by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, found that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes in the Gaza war, and concluded that Israel was deliberately trying to terrorize the civilian population of Gaza.)
What makes this particularly poignant is that many of the critics of Israel’s behavior during the war reject the Goldstone conclusions while still criticizing Israel (as do many in Israel, including some army officials). If Israel had cooperated, made all of its input public and launched it own independent inquiry into the few occurrences that might have warranted it, the end result might still have been the same. But if so, what harm? Seems to me that the opportunity to be inside and preempt the message by bold action was worth the effort.
The second recent occurrence is Israel’s amazing and not surprising desire and ability to help others in need, this time in Haiti. The Israeli medical and rescue teams have stood out in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake as a model of competence and caring.
To be fair, the story has been carried by many news sources globally, but Israel supporters don’t believe the country is getting enough credit. And once again they feel berated, belittled and besieged. They seem to think that Israel’s “disproportionate” response to help should outweigh the perception of the country’s disproportionate response to terror.
Once again, Israel and its supporters seem to be caught in the wrong paradigm. If anything, Israel’s compassion and quick response in Haiti only heightens behavior that others don’t understand. Whatever good Israel does in Haiti is negated, for instance, by the country’s not allowing access to civilians in Gaza — whatever the security reasoning. And all politics aside, we need to understand that.
No one is interested in Israel’s pointing out that the Gulf States have done nothing to help in Haiti; frankly, no one expects them to. But people do expect Israel to. What makes it so difficult is the dichotomy between the actions. Which is Israel’s true core? Israel’s supporters know, but it’s not so apparent to others.
Another example. Israel still dithers around the idea of a two-state solution, a concept that has been accepted and assimilated into the world’s language and consciousness. Use the language — what difference does it make? Time to take it off the table.
Other examples abound. A security fence that cuts through houses and streets and orchards, when a few feet one way or the other could have changed the route and denied Israel’s enemies the ability to appeal to the Supreme Court. Or evicting Arab families from homes — “legally,” because they didn’t have the proper building permits — and then moving Jewish families in.
Yes, I know the rationales, but it is time to lose that attitude and be bold. That means that Israel should be bold in its application of policy, by thinking out the consequences and adjusting as necessary without compromising principles.
Instead of blocking the delivery of food and medical equipment into Gaza because of bureaucratic issues, what if Israel offered to allow unlimited food and medicine in, but put the onus on the Arab world to provide it?
Finally, we in America need to embrace this effort and retool our own behavior. No more tired rallies and vigils where the same faces pontificate to the same ever-shrinking audience; no more initiatives to prove that we are the most moral, intelligent and wonderful people on the earth.
We have wasted enough time in telling and retelling our story, and our greatness to ourselves. It is time to be bold. Time to take the Tylenol off the shelves. n
David Sable is vice chair and CEO of Wunderman, a New York-based network of advertising, marketing and consulting companies.
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