A delegation of 11 European public relations experts visited Israel recently, at the request of the Foreign Ministry.
They were hired by the ministry to oversee Israel's public relations campaign throughout Europe, with the aim of using their specific expertise to boost Israel's image across the continent and worldwide.
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David Saranga, who serves as Israel's consul to the European Union, is the man behind the initiative. As the former consul for media and public affairs at the Israeli Consulate in New York, Saranga is familiar with the inner workings of the PR world, and spent six months putting together just the right team.
"We're used to thinking of Europe as a single entity, but the reality is very different," he said. "Local PR professionals know how to push the right agenda with the right media outlets, which social networks to be present on, and how much media presence is needed in their country.
"Each publicist will work with the embassy in their country and will manage the Israeli portfolio in collaboration with Foreign Ministry personnel," Saranga said.
But why hire PR experts when the Foreign Ministry has so many diplomats at its disposal?
"The Foreign Ministry's diplomats are trained to address political issues," Saranga said. "Over the past few years, we've come to understand that we need people with greater professional expertise… to leverage our advantage in fields such as science, medicine or the environment. Seeking the assistance of PR professionals was the natural thing to do."
The Foreign Ministry has always worked closely with PR experts, he said, "but there are certain content worlds that require specific savvy, and PR firms know exactly how to utilize them."
"The point here goes beyond boosting tourism," Saranga stressed. "It's about changing Israel's image among leaders of public opinion."
'Ignorance is main problem'
Israel is hardly the first nation to seek the help of professional publicists – on the contrary: The US, as well as European nations the likes of Italy, Spain, Turkey and Poland, in addition to many Arab countries, spend millions on crafting their global image – which top PR professionals toil over.
The mission was treated to three days of intense activities, meant to give them a crash course in "all things Israel": They traveled all across the country and met with key figures in the fields of finance, science, technology, medicine and agriculture; as well as with leaders of the Israeli design, art, wine and culinary worlds.
"A big part of the problem is 'selling' Israel's image in the media - which has to do with ignorance," Nathalie Biderman, a French PR expert, told Yedioth Ahronoth.
"I'm not really sure how familiar the French are with Israel. We can put aside everything that has to do with the (Israeli-Palestinian) conflict and address the other interesting aspects here to change the perception of Israel.
"In 72 hours, we've been exposed to so many innovations," she said. "For me, talking to journalists about politics is a waste of time. I want to teach our journalists that the reality in Israel is completely different than what they think it is."
Yigal Caspi, deputy director general of media and public affairs at the Foreign Ministry, knows exactly how to measure the project's future success: "We'll see how many reporters arrive here to cover events that have nothing to do with the conflict, how much advertising space we were given, and what kind of media exposure we received.
"This move doesn't have a down-side… For a year we've been explaining our political policies and virtually ignoring everything else. I'm not sure that the first thing Europeans want to see when they open their morning newspaper is news about the conflict with the Arab world.
"If we tell them about all the other interesting things here – about culinary and fashion, agriculture, innovations and high-tech – they'll see us differently," he concluded.
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