Game-Changing Israeli PR: Making Things Personal

Expert tells Arutz Sheva how Scarlett Johansson's BDS flap teaches how Israel can market itself so much better.

Gedalyah Reback ,

Scarlett Johansson (file)
Scarlett Johansson (file)

Marketing consultant and former Israel engagement director Liran Kapoano tells Arutz Sheva that the conversation about Israel is too focused on answering questions about the Jewish state.

In the wake of last year’s Super Bowl ad for the Israeli company SodaStream, Jewish starlet Scarlett Johansson was under pressure from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) to abandon her corporate partner for their operations in Judea and Samaria. Her reply endeared her to Israel’s supporters, calling SodaStream a bridge of peace between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs.

Kapoano, founder of CTC Media and at the time of the Super Bowl ad the Director of the Center for Israel Engagement at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, started a simple Facebook page to express support for Johansson.

“I support Scarlett Johansson against the haters” garnered 25,000 likes in a week. While the fervor has died down and SodaStream has seen better days, Kapoano knows that his page actually had an impact.

“I noticed someone write something about it on She said Scarlett Johansson had experienced bullying. It’s unbelievable to know your message came from such a quick idea," Kapoano said.

Before moving on last year from the Federation world to found CTC Media, which focuses on Jewish and pro-Israel marketing, Kapoano tried to create other pages along the same theme. He admitted that even if more popular stars get involved with an Israeli company or come to perform here, the Johansson saga was different. Her actually being Jewish contributed to it.

“Scarlett Johansson plus Israel plus the Super Bowl plus explicitly coming out against BDS created a perfect storm," he remarked.

While noting that those sorts of pages would probably far less successful in the future on account of Facebook’s changes to how people see page updates in their newsfeeds, he went on to describe how Israeli social media strategy is lacking.

“Israel and the IDF’s social media promotion has really improved since the Flotilla,” said Kapoano, referring to the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident that he sees as a bit of a watershed moment. “Since then they’ve been doing a much better job. They’re doing better with the younger generation in general and in crafting an appropriate message.”

“However, and this is big ‘however,' at its heart, it is still hasbara (traditional Israeli public relations). Meaning, it’s still as ‘If we just tell them our story that will be enough.”

Kapoano references the constant use of the state’s creation narrative as a reason to sell the country in public relations. 

“That strategy is never going to work on anyone who doesn’t already buy Israel’s story. They are reaching out but not in a way that works for people that aren’t already in that mold. I think they’ve got better talking about the ‘Israeli narrative,’ but you need to accept the premise of Israel’s argument in order for that to work," he argues.

But according to him, Israel’s biggest mistake in its public relations strategy is that it does not incorporate the lessons of corporate brand management, by which companies confronted with bad press try not to respond to the charges.

He notes that "in the end you are still having the conversation that the other side wants you to have. If all you ever talk about is ‘this is not apartheid,' ‘this is not genocide,’ ‘this is not ethnic cleansing,’ guess what? You are still talking about apartheid, genocide and ethnic cleansing.”

The focus of any new public relations strategy must focus on changing the terms of the debate. There is a balance between acknowledging fair points and actually being able to bring up other issues that either redefine the debate’s framework or focuses it on other subjects.

“Just approaching Israel in the same way you would any company that has bad press would deal with it. They’re missing a very important aspect of it," he said. "We need to look at it from a position of marketing. It’s not about ‘defend, defend, defend.'”

In essence, Israel does not take the fight to the other team in terms of reputation management. Along the lines of what Professor Eytan Gilboa told Arutz Sheva earlier this week, Israel needs to be on offense as much if not more so than it is on defense when it comes to its public image.

Kapoano gives some hypothetical examples on the issue of the Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria, though he does not intend to say these are necessarily the best pivot points for the debate.

He wonders why Israel does not attack Palestinian Authority (PA) laws that prohibit land and property sales to Jewish Israelis, framing that to someone living in the United States to leave them wondering, “wouldn’t that be terrible to not be able to move there because of your religion?"

Mr. Kapoano has tried to instill a lot of these points as the founder and CEO of CTC Media, which specializes in digital brand and reputation management for non-profit causes. They focus on a number of platforms, including social media, as conduits for “changing the conversation.”

The biggest point of importance for Kapoano is that Israel needs to understand that when you frame your debate as one of a government against individuals, the government will never have the upper hand in terms of public opinion.

It’s critical to remind people this is a dispute between two communities; two groups of individuals, he says. Even more importantly, foreign audiences have to be informed that Israelis have their grievances, too.

“My list of grievances doesn’t have to revolve around Palestinians’ list of grievances," he notes.