Terrorism, anti-Semitism damage Israel’s brand: What can be done?

Carnegie Mellon’s student newspaper, The Tartan reports (November 12) on a brand talk given to students by Ido Aharoni, Israel’s assistant foreign minister and brand team manager. In his talk, Aharoni said that Israel’s brand could be improved. “Israel’s brand image does not serve its interests right now; I believe we can do much better.”

Israel’s Foreign Ministry has been trying for several years to re-brand Israel in terms of more positive qualities than “solely in terms of war and religion,” and in particular is trying to move Israel’s brand out of its association with the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, until the Palestinians “curb terrorism,” said Aharoni, the process for Israel of growing beyond the association with the Israel-Palestine conflict cannot start.

A survey released last year, in November 2006, and reported on in Israel Today supports Aharoni’s contention that Israel’s brand is damaged. The National Brands Index, conducted together by nation-branding consultant Simon Anholt and Global Market Insite surveyed about 26,000 online consumers in 35 countries about their perceptions of those countries in six areas: Investment and Immigration, Exports, Culture and Heritage, People, Governance, and Tourism. Israel came out on the bottom on every measure, and Israel’s citizens were called “the most unwelcoming in the world.”

(American’s weren’t very friendly to Israel either. In the survey, Americans “ranked Israel just slightly above China in terms of its conduct in the areas of international peace and security.”)

In reporting on the survey, Anholt blamed Israel—without mentioning the possibility of anti-Semitism—for the survey’s negative findings, commenting that “to succeed in permanently changing the country's image, the country has to be prepared to change its behavior.” He stated that people’s negative opinion of Israel was influenced by the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, implying that it is Israel’s response to that conflict that is causing negative perceptions of the country.

Anholt also stated, accurately, that “most people did not bother to form a balanced opinion about other countries, preferring to find a simple shorthand for every country…(and) the most persuasive and memorable facts (about Israel) were about the conflict, so the image of Israel as a bully as more likely to stick in people’s minds.”

(In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, Anholt minimized the negative impact of the fact that the study was conducted during Israel’s war with Hezbollah in Lebanon during the summer, but said he planned to include Israel in the survey again during a “quiet period.”)

Anholt also told the Jerusalem Post that it could take decades for Israel to rebuild its brand image.

Thus far, Israel’s strategy has apparently been to try to divert international public attention away from the Israel-Palestinian conflict and toward “more positive images such as the country's technical innovations as well as musical, cultural and historical attractions.”

However, Israel’s approach, to me, is wrongheaded. The nation is in the midst of a longstanding public relations crisis caused by terrorists and exacerbated by anti-Semitism. It therefore needs to respond proactively and aggressively—head-on—to the negative elements that are staining its brand image. That means launching a proactive, aggressive foreign diplomatic campaign to educate the public about its stance with respect to the Palestinians, including its history and future strategies for creating peace in the region. While Aharoni states that Israel can re-brand itself by “revising its policies,” “initiating greater tourism efforts,” and “increasing exports and foreign investment,” Israel has to do its basic PR homework of explaining its existing policies to the public in a way that will satisfy its critics once and for all. Israel should take every opportunity to emphasize that it is a peace-loving nation and that it is the victim of terrorism, not a bullying cause of it.

An effective public relations push is especially important in light of the upcoming Annapolis meeting (November 25-27) between Israel and the Palestinians to discuss prospects for peace. Already, Israeli President Shimon Peres has let it be known that “Israel has decided to make Annapolis a success, to bring an end to the conflict, to finally make peace between the Palestinians and ourselves….All parties concerned are decided... not to let this chance pass away.” And Israel is warning that Hamas may carry out terror attacks to stop the peace process from going through. Continually educating the world about the fact that Israel wants peace while the terrorists want to stop peace from going forward is a good step. Israel may think that it has been shouting that message from the rooftops, but unfortunately it is drowned out by an equally loud Arab PR machine that states Palestinians are innocent victims of the Israelis. The way forward here is for Israel to flood the airwaves, the Internet, and public speaking opportunities in America, Europe, and elsewhere with an elucidation of the situation from Israel’s perspective. Further, Israel should embed the media, as America has, with its soldiers on a day to day basis so that they can report on the challenges that Israel faces in trying to keep peace. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism will always complicate these efforts, but Israel can do a better job of them nevertheless.

This discussion points up the difference between a public relations campaign and a branding campaign. As I have stated elsewhere, “the role of PR was never really to build a brand…rather, it is to do no harm to it. PR is inherently a tool for building a great reputation.” Israel’s PR is sorely lacking—it has failed to build its credibility and reputation in the world through effective communication via the media—and as a result it is hampered in its ability to build a brand image that reflects the peaceful, high-tech image it seeks. I say, forget about changing policies now. The policies are not the problem. The distorted perceptions of Israel are the problem. Work with PR first, then brand. Despite the efforts of terrorists to destroy the nation, Israel has a good story to tell…it needs to tell it. Otherwise the terrorists have accomplished their goal of destroying the nation—impairing its ability to function economically and politically.