One of the more tedious sidebars in the media coverage of the Gaza conflict has been the question, “Who’s winning the PR war?”
This obsession says a lot about western culture’s misguided belief in the power of public relations, as if one can just summon a winning persuasion campaign the way we place orders on Amazon.com. A further misassumption here is that PR strategies are equally available to all parties, and that all PR wars are winnable. They are not.
Hamas – and Israel’s other enemies – will usually have the PR advantage. The currency of modern western media is the optical imprint of victimhood. In short, if the visual narrative conveys emotionally resonant weakness, the “weakest” side will probably “win” the media front.
When news consumers see a grieving Palestinian mother juxtaposed with a more sophisticated Israeli military – with access, no less, to a high-tech missile defense system impressively named “Iron Dome” — the narrative “winner” in this battle will be whoever is crying.
While the public is not nearly as persuaded by rhetoric as political spin doctors would have us believe, we are easily entranced by stark optical displays of victims and villains. Hamas knows this, of course, which is why they place missile batteries in schools, homes and mosques to the detriment of the long-suffering souls they claim to lead. The news media, needing to cultivate characters for “good television,” instinctively traffic in the storyline of big bombs hitting little targets.
And the cycle of staging — and the broadcast of this staging — continues along with validation from social media, which is as animated by the victim-villain construct as the legacy press.
Israel’s true objective in the PR war is not to win it, but to lose it by less and to give cover to its natural allies. Overcoming the victim-villain template would require a cataclysm for Israel whereby it becomes the unequivocal victim. Needless to say, a catastrophe isn’t worth a short-lived PR bump.
On the immediate heels of 9/11, the U.S. had a short PR window by virtue of having been attacked. The minute the U.S. started dropping “daisy cutters” on the seemingly defenseless mountain people of Afghanistan this advantage receded.
In the wake of the Holocaust, tiny Israel’s battlefield strength against the backdrop of far greater Arab numbers engendered a media fist bump. Today, with the Holocaust fast becoming a historical footnote, the default question is, “How could those imperialistic Iron Dome people possibly have the moral high ground over those grieving people with the smashed homes?”
There is also a more disturbing variable at work here: Different principals in controversies start with different PR baselines. Just like a fun, futuristic tech company like Apple will always be treated better than a dirty old oil company, the Israelis begin PR battles in a narrative ditch. As I have told Jewish leaders that have raised this subject with me – to their horror – Jews are seen as powerful elites, not an oppressed minority. Hamas, on the other hand, has been treated as a viable political organization in news reporting, not as a terrorist organization. Part and parcel of a belief system associated with perceived elites is the assumption that they possess a magical way conflicts could be resolved peacefully, but that in their spite, they simply elected not to pursue this course.
This has been historically reinforced by the imagery of savvy Palestinian spokespersons, steeped in the Western rhetoric of victimhood, juxtaposed with gruff, argumentative Israeli leaders. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, smooth, attractive, and raised for a time in an affluent Philadelphia suburb, has accomplished all that a spokesperson can in such terrible circumstances during this conflict cycle. Interestingly, we’ve seen few, if any, television interviews with Hamas militants of late. Perhaps if the world heard directly what these people truly believe, news coverage may have gone in a different direction. Better to let the victim-villain imagery do the talking.
If the Israelis will be hard-pressed to “drive up their positives,” they may have middling success in showcasing Hamas’ negatives, especially among American and modern Arab audiences. Firing missiles at civilians, not to mention strapping bombs on, are repugnant modi operandi to Americans. Nor are these devices appealing to moderate Arabs who neither care for Hamas to begin with nor wish to promulgate the bigoted notion that all Arabs behave this way.
Israel has a long history of taking actions that earn bad, short-term PR demerits, but serve their best long-term self-interest. As the most brutal moments in the Gaza conflict appear to be in remission, Israel survives another Sabbath, which is the only realistic dividend of this unwinnable PR war.
Eric Dezenhall is the CEO of Dezenhall Resources, Ltd., a crisis management firm, and author of the forthcoming Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal.