Public relations battle is a marathon,
not a sprint

By DANNY AYALON
Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister
June 4, 2010

There is not one credible member of the international media that still parrots the stated motives of the flotilla’s organizers.

This has been a difficult week for Israel. Faced with an armada of hate and violence, our soldiers, whose sole task was to control the boats and bring them peacefully to Ashdod, were faced with machete-wielding jihadists.

This Hamas-backed flotilla was a premeditated provocation that sought to either open up a corridor for weapons smuggling and terror that would have resulted in the loss of countless innocent lives, or to embarrass Israel and gain sympathy for their cause.

When weighing these two very difficult outcomes against each other, it is abundantly clear that Israel, like any other nation, has a responsibility first and foremost to the security and well-being of its citizens.

Although few could have foreseen the eventual outcome, the Foreign Ministry and many other governmental agencies had been working furiously to prepare for the worst, while hoping for the best. In fact the level of coordination before, during and after these events was unprecedented.

Senior Foreign Ministry officials held countless meetings with the leadership and ambassadors around the world, especially from those countries whose citizens were involved in the flotilla, reiterating the dangers and true nature of the flotilla organizers’ strategy. The international media was briefed and many press releases and information packs on the true intentions of the flotilla were distributed well in advance.

While some have criticized Israel’s public relations readiness for the ghastly events that took place on Monday morning, far more have expressed increasing satisfaction with the vast improvement in Israel’s official crisis management. The Foreign Ministry had prepared a situation room in advance to coordinate between the different agencies and to send responses out to the public and relevant governments as soon as possible.

Before many in Europe had arrived at work, I held a press conference clearly enunciating the government position on the flotilla and the necessity of our operation to prevent the flotilla from achieving its aims. We had already put in place a live streaming video feed so every foreign journalist had access to the press conference without leaving his or her office. This is vital in an age where many in the international media are facing budgetary cutbacks, meaning they have far fewer correspondents and camera crews. This also made it easier for major international networks to screen it live, including CNN.

Before North America had awoken, the international media were consistently showing images from the IDF Spokesman’s Office of the attempted lynching of our forces. Many government ministers were working tirelessly, moving from one international media bureau to another for the next couple of days explaining Israel’s case. We tweeted, sent messages through Facebook and created YouTube videos in vast numbers. Just following my own tweets, I was astonished to see the ripple and multiplying effect of these messages.

Israel learnt lessons from previous crises and improved accordingly. No one can argue the system worked perfectly, but we will endeavor to learn even more lessons from this crisis to further improve for the future.

HOWEVER, NO ONE should be fooled into thinking that this is an easy battle. Just as when an army is involved in asymmetric warfare, in asymmetric public relations, there are structural disadvantages for any fully functioning democratic government.

Whereas non-governmental organizations are not held accountable to abide by facts and the truth, our government needs to keep to higher standards. We are proud that we thoroughly check all information before dissemination and unlike the “Pallywood” antics of the other side, you won’t see Israel stage or fake events or blatantly and intentionally lie about the facts.

To be able to disseminate pictures from the operation to apprehend the ships, the IDF had to ensure that no soldier’s faces could be identified and that no operational procedures were broadcast to our enemies. As stated above, our first priority is the safety of our citizens, especially when they are on the front lines defending us in increasingly difficult situations.

As much as we released information about the sordid nature of the flotilla and the terror background of its main organizer in advance, there was little interest. As the saying goes: “Only when the tanks are moving do the cameras start rolling.”

It should also be borne in mind that while public relations is vitally important, it was only one of the very many tasks that we had to attend to in light of the events surrounding the flotilla. At the Foreign Ministry, we were in constant contact with our ambassadors to spread Israel’s message and keep them updated, and speaking to the foreign diplomatic corps based in Israel, especially coordinating with those whose citizens were aboard the flotilla. We coordinated our message with thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, NGOs, bloggers and volunteers. We kept foreign heads of government abreast of the situation and pressed Israel’s case while working with multilateral bodies, like the United Nations.

As witnessed by recent hostile resolutions, it is precisely within organizations like the United Nations that our structural disadvantages are most apparent. The Arab League has 22 members, the Islamic Conference has 57 and is part of the Non-Aligned group of 118 nations out of a total 192 UN members. This automatic majority is the main reason why so much disproportionate time is wasted on Israel when nations like Saudi Arabia are never reprimanded for their abject human rights abuses.

Israel’s public diplomacy has become the new battlefield and if one gauges the results, it is clear that there are many positives. There is not one credible member of the international media that still parrots the stated motives of the organizers of the flotilla. Every major international network reported the flotilla story using IDF Spokesman’s videos within hours of the events. More and more correspondents, many who were previously very critical of Israeli policy, have placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the flotilla organizers. These are very real successes.

Of course, there are criticisms and we listen to them intently while recognizing that there were still flaws in our strategy, and we will need to ensure we work harder in the future to learn those lessons. It should be kept in mind that this is not about the first five minutes, but about the next five months and beyond. The public relations battle is a marathon and not a sprint. However, this government is using all the means at its disposal to ensure that our enemies do not win on any battlefield, regardless of the restrictions or the limitations.

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