“I really don't know whether we'll be printing The Times in five years, and you know what? I don't care, either. The Internet is a wonderful place to be, and we're leading there.” This comment from Arthur Sulzberger, owner, chairman, and publisher of The New York Times, is a profound reflection on the state of affairs in the media world. The shift to online media - in particular, social media such as Facebook and Twitter - as a source of information for news and world events, is an opportunity for Israel’s public diplomacy to directly reach global public opinion.
For years, those of us who work in public diplomacy alongside our supporters around the world have complained about the negative coverage of Israel in the media. That industry, we said, looks at everything that happens in Israel through the lens of conflict while ignoring anything positive or “normal” about the country. Meanwhile, the stories about politics are frequently slanted against Israel, not to mention fabricated or misleading.
More recently, the social networks that have now penetrated large segments of our society have become tools that allow us to spread Israel’s message directly - unmediated by the press. This can be achieved by Israel’s official governmental bodies, as well as the Israeli public, who is very much concerned about Israel’s image in the world.
Over the past several years, Israeli government officials have achieved media success by taking the initiative to use new media as tools for dialogue with the international public. For example, the Israel Foreign Ministry launched the country’s official blog three years ago. Then it branched out to different initiatives, such as MySpace, Facebook, and more recently, the Citizens Press Conference on Twitter held during the 2008-09 war in Gaza.
The initiative to use Twitter as a platform for a question-and-answer forum with the public was widely covered by major news outlets around the world, particularly because it was innovative. Here we had, for the first time, an official government holding a press conference online to answer the public’s questions personally and directly.
Conventional media outlets around the world, such as The New York Times, Le Figaro, The Guardian in London, and the Washington Post, among others, discussed the topic in news and opinion pieces, thereby helping us spread Israel’s messages. We benefited not only from the news coverage, but also from links to our blogs and Twitter account, which steered thousands of people to our content. The platform we have been given on Twitter allows us to maintain a dialogue with the public – a dialogue that started at Operation Cast Lead last December, and continues today. Now we’ve increased our scope of topics from politics to culture, lifestyle, and society, to name a few.
The government, for all its innovation, cannot fight effectively by itself on all fronts in the era of the Internet. The fact that Israeli society is so technologically advanced can certainly help in spreading our message to different audiences. Israelis who are active in social networks, participate in international forums, and speak English - which is so widely spoken in Israel - can play an integral role in strengthening the country’s public diplomacy.
World isn't against usUnlike the Muslim world, which has hundreds of millions of supporters who have adopted the Palestinian narrative in order to slam Israel, the Jewish world numbers only 13 million. Therefore, it is vital that every person who aligns himself with Israel be a part of the effort to change public perception of Israel.
The idea that the “world is against us” is simply not true. In many parts of the globe, public opinion is not hard-and-fast regarding Israel. People are willing to hear the different sides and arrive at conclusions based on their own reasoning - free of any preconceived notions or stances. The more people spread the message, reflect their opinions, and share their thoughts with others using Web 2.0 platforms, the greater our chances are of improving Israel’s image.
In meetings we have held with colleagues from other Western countries, a similar picture has emerged, whereby the “official government message” is perceived as propaganda, and thus unreliable. It seemed people would trust news from an average person before they would an official government source. As absurd as this logic sounds, it is a reality we need to accept. However, it is important to remember that the messages coming from official spokespeople are still vital and this is not a call for Israeli spokespeople to fold away their suits and ties. At the same time, it’s important to diversify the arsenal of tools we’re using in bringing Israel’s narrative to the world. And here, we need each and every one of our supporters worldwide and in particular, Israel.
It’s time for the Israeli public to understand that instead of criticizing Israel’s public diplomacy, they have an opportunity to influence and improve it. We can leverage the talents of our creative citizens, who are incredibly news savvy and technologically skilled, by encouraging them to help shape Israel’s image by posting articles on different blogs, uploading videos to YouTube, and participating in discussions on social networks. Right now, the tools for change are literally at our fingertips. All we have to do is move them.
David Saranga is Consul for Media and Public Affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York.