Here are my initial reactions to the debacle at sea yesterday - and yes, it WAS a debacle: I'm not talking right or wrong here, I'm talking from a straightforward, professional PR standpoint it was more than a debacle, it was a train smash waiting to happen, and we didn't see the loco bearing down on us.
People will say - just look at the footage we have. Yeah, great - but unfortunately our stuff was released far too late – after the world had already heard the hysterical screams and indignation from somewhat untrustworthy sources: but who cares about veracity these days – the bigger the noise, the bigger the headline and the more you will be believed. This material should have been out in cyberspace almost in real time...
But there is a much bigger and more fundamental issue at stake, and that is the fact (like it or not) that Israel now faces a massive uphill PR battle.
To address this, we need to go back to the original decisions made by the cabinet that insisted that the ships be stopped from entering Gaza. Now, I’m not saying that they should have been allowed; in fact I’m not looking at this from an operational or political point of view at all – I reiterate, strictly from PR viewpoint.
PR-wise, perhaps the smartest thing to do would have been to allow the ships in; let Hamas have its jollies for a day and that would have been that....or so some people would think. However, that beggars the question – what about the next flotilla, and the next and the next???? This could have led to a de facto breaking of the embargo, and that, from Israeli’s political standpoint, would be unacceptable. So what was Israel supposed to do? Let it happen and deal with the next flotilla when it comes around? Hardly a sound solution.
But to block the flotilla with force was clearly not an option – BTW I’m pretty sure the US Coast Guard (and the Royal Navy for that matter) would have fired one warning shot across the bows and emptied the rest of its ordinance directly below the waterline. Other methods should have been considered: fouling the propeller for example; tear gas, water cannon...these all sound pretty glib and simple and I’m sure they are not: but here’s the rub:
Israel was totally unprepared both for the attack on its marines, and for the media bombshell that was just waiting to happen. The Israel Foreign Ministry and those in the cabinet, just do not understand (or so it seems) the thinking behind the flotilla right from the start. Only a twisted PR mind like mine could have seen right through the ploy from Day 1: the use of emotional trigger key words - “humanitarian”, “peace-loving”, “starving people of Gaza”, “aid”, “Nobel Laureates and peace lovers...”, “international aid workers” – c’mon; these are all “heartstring tuggers” and before they even sailed, anybody, anywhere with an ounce of compassion was already supporting the flotilla. We were being set up from the start.
Israel knew from early on who were the real organizers behind the flotilla : IHH – and we should have come out strongly, there and then and condemned Turkey for allowing them to be involved; for Turkey allowing itself to be manipulated by them, and for allowing its ports to be used. Israel should have fired the first PR shot – “We call on the Government of Turkey to dissociate itself from this farce immediately, otherwise we will be forced to withdraw our diplomats from your country.” Israel should then have advised Turkey that continuation of their support for this flotilla would constitute an act of aggression and that it would be issuing a travel advisory to the hundreds of thousands of Israeli tourists planning their forthcoming summer holidays, NOT to go to Turkey. THAT would cause huge damage to their economy and create its own dynamic. Too simple? I think not - Turkey is only just beginning to recover from the Israeli boycott of its holiday destinations brought about by Erdogan's treatment and snub of President Peres after Operation Cast Lead...
Thereafter, Israel should have widely publicized the nature of IHH, called on people who had joined the flotilla to examine for themselves the provenance of this group and even called in help of the US (and others) to prevent the flotilla from leaving Turkey. Incidentally, when it tried to dock to Cyprus, the Greek Cypriot authorities were none too keen to grant it entry...
And here’s the biggest problem of all: all of the above may or may not have worked by disseminating the information through the world media. But Israel’s own PR apparatus is appalling. There is very little international media presence and almost no channel through which to broadcast our message. There is a very weak (and frankly quite amateurish) IBA English TV News Service, which broadcasts once a day on a local channel. It is actually an embarrassment to watch...
What Israel needs to do – and to hell with the cost – is to establish a highly professional, dynamic and aggressive 24-hour-a-day satellite TV channel; staffed by some of the best reporters recruited from around the world and this channel should be available first in English and then French, German and Russian and most of all, Arabic. Israel's version of Al Jazeera's English service if you like.
Israel needs a highly photogenic, tele-genic media star to be its spokesman/woman (and I think here a woman would be the smart choice) to appear in interviews and to carry Israel’s message. There are a whole host of criteria this person would have to fill, and it won't be an easy job: but I believe she is out there somewhere, and she should be paid a fortune.
The Treasury would have to vote a huge budget to this program but it should be seen as being as important as military weaponry – in fact it IS a weapon: perhaps one of the most powerful we can arm ourselves with right now. ...and this needs to be tackled immediately.
Those are my thoughts at this point: the ideas may or may not solve all the problems, but they go a helluva long way towards that goal...certainly further than anybody in Government is thinking at this point.