The past couple of weeks have been remarkable; we’ve seen many across the world voice their opinion on events in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. What’s been marked is how support for Palestinian rights is growing, especially in the United States. We’ve had voices in Congress stand up and argue that how Palestinian citizens are treated is akin to apartheid. That would have been unthinkable even a decade back.
What’s also been fascinating to see is how local populations in the Gulf, most especially in the UAE and Saudi, have spoken with anger and emotion about what Israel has done, both in Gaza and in Jerusalem. Only last year, the UAE and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords with Israel, formally establishing ties between the three countries (they were followed by Sudan and Morocco).
At the time there was an outpouring of support in the UAE among nationals for the agreement, and little in the way of pushback (there was noticeable pushback in Bahrain). It’s rare for nationals to actively voice their own views online, if those views go against governmental policy. To quote a recent piece by the Associated Press, “No matter what your national priorities are at the moment or regional priorities are at the moment, when stuff like this happens, the Palestinian issue comes back and hits you,” Emirati political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla told the AP’s Aya Batrawy.
So, what can these two points teach us? Firstly, global events have never been more interrelated, thanks to the raw filter of social media. And second, raw emotions can still overcome national considerations, especially when it’s a religious issue.
As communicators, we’ve got to be able to understand the implications of these issues for our audiences. We keep talking about reading the room, and being the link between the outside and the inside. Which is true. But how many brands are proactive on these social issues, rather than reactive?
On that note, I did wonder about the timing of an award by the local public relations association last week. They gave out two fellowships, recognising people for their service to the industry. One is the head of communications for the UAE’s foreign ministry, who’s greatest success to date has been communicating the Abraham Accords.
While this person is a fine communicator, couldn’t the association have delayed giving this award? Would it have been more sensitive to do this, in light of people’s feelings about the conflict?
As always, am happy to hear your views. Let me know via the comments or on social media.
Now, what does this mean for PR practitioners in the UAE? You’re going to be opportunities to win new business, and that isn’t a bad thing given how bad 2020 has been for business. But it’s not going to be a walk in the park. I’m going to give a few pointers as to what to expect based on my own experiences living in Israel and the Palestinian Territories and dealing with media and PRs in Tel Aviv.
Let’s start with Israel’s society, which is incredibly diverse. The country’s mix is ostensibly majority Jewish, with a fifth to quarter of the country identifying as Arab (the Arab population is mainly Muslim, but there are large Christian and Druze groups). The Jewish population hails from all over the world, from Western and Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East (think Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Morocco and Yemen), Africa (mainly Ethiopia) and the United States. There are also smaller minorities, such as Armenians, Bahais and non-Arab Christian groups.
This cultural cocktail shapes the country’s language. Hebrew is the official language, but Arabic is also widely spoken (most Jewish Israelis don’t speak Arabic, but they should be able to understand the language due to their common roots). Russian is common on the coast too. English is widely understood.
When it comes to Israelis themselves, they’re often called “Sabras” after the prickly pear. Essentially, the stereotype is that Israelis are rude and direct to strangers, but kind to friends and family. This is how that stereotype looks like in the media (see below). I’ve always found the Israelis courteous and hospitable, even when talking about food (hummus and felafel are Arab), and politics (I can’t help it).
Israel is confusing when it comes to religion and secularism. The country is very western (Tel Aviv is has the largest open LGBTQ+ community in the Middle East), but it has become increasingly religious over the past two decades as the Orthodox communities have grown in population and political influence. Most of the country observes Shabbat, the Jewish holy day from Friday night to Saturday evening. It may be too simple an analogy to make, but generally Tel Aviv is the open, business-oriented city, whereas Jerusalem is the religious, political heartland.
The Israeli Media
This is where it gets fun. Israelis are news-obsessed, and this is reflected in their media. The Israeli media is the most open of any in the Middle East. Unlike the rest of the region, there is little censorship and no self-censorship (the exception is when writing on something that is considered harmful to public security, and there are even ways for the media to circumvent these rules). There’s a media outlet for whatever your beliefs may be, from the left wing/center Haaretz (my favorite by reporting) and Maariv to the centrist Yedioth Ahronoth and the right wing Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom. These labels can be unfair, as editors/journalists may give favorable coverage to a given subject one day and write a scathing article the next. The Hebrew language dominates, but there’s Arabic and English-language publications too. All of these publications have significant digital operations, where they compete with digital-only news sites such as +972 and the Times of Israel.
For a country with a population of about nine million people, Israel has a significant number of television stations (both public and privately-owned). Many of them have public affairs shows, which are widely watched. And they’re often scathing of the government. There’s less business-related coverage on television. Likewise, radio is very much current affairs-focused.
Dealing with Israeli PR/Clients
Business-wise, Israel is well known for its technology industry (it’s second only to Silicon Valley when it comes to start-ups) and its defense sector. Both will be of interest to the Gulf. What Israel isn’t well known for is public relations. The sector has come on in leaps and bounds over the past two decades (you can read about this here behind Haaretz’s paywall). Most of the agencies in Israel are small (have a look here); in contrast, there’s fewer big name, global agencies. What this does mean is that there’s an opportunity for Dubai-based agencies to partner up with firms in Israel. It’ll be fascinating to see if agencies here openly promote/announce any such partnerships.
You may need an Israeli agency when it comes to dealing with Israeli clients. From all the media reports flying around about the Israeli-Emirati agreement, much has focused on the potential for business. Expectations are already high, and Israeli clients will need to tread carefully when dealing with reputational issues in the Gulf. They may not listen to advice, and have over-inflated hopes of coverage. Having said that, isn’t that most clients?
I’m going to call it a day for now. I’m sure others will have lots to say on this issue. But one thing is clear – both sides will have to learn quickly how the other works. I’ve already seen a slew of articles in the open Israeli press which have taken apart carefully crafted public messaging. PRs in the UAE are going to have to learn quickly about what makes Israeli media tick if they hope to ensure that their messages are both understood and used by Israeli media. And Israeli clients will need to understand that while there’ll be fewer questions asked of them by the UAE’s media, a paid approach to publications here will be vital to secure coverage. It’s going to be fascinating to watch how this plays out.
Listen long enough to any communicator working for a multinational in an emerging market and they’ll touch on the issue of what is called ‘corporate’. The concept of centralized communications, of control being exerted from head office over global communications is understandable – corporations want to ensure that the message being disseminated is consistent with the aims of the company as a whole. Rather this than each country office doing as they wish, which may result in local messages which are not in alignment with the global communications.
Combine this with the reach and immediacy of social media, and the implications for going off-message can be explosive. Many brands have been implicated in the recent Israel-Gaza conflict, and issues such as this have the ability to polarize opinion, particularly online where millions have been expressing their support for and anger with one side or the other.
Halfway through the conflict Garnier Israel had donated 500 gift packs to StandWithUs, an Israeli advocacy group which promotes the country to the world through social media. During July and August StandWithUs also undertook a number of domestic initiatives such as providing gift packs to soldiers on the front line and in support functions.
First, StandWithUS donated the 500 gift packs from Garnier to a group of female Israeli soldiers. The organization then promoted the handout on its social media channels (most prominently on Facebook), with the following comments:
“We are honoured [sic] to be delivering these “girly” care packages for our lovely female IDF fighters!
Today’s delivery of care packages was stocked with thousands of products for our girls protecting Israel. They even received facial soaps and minerals, so they can still take care of themselves, eve while defending the country.
Shout out to the Garnier Israel|גרנייה for the amazing donation of facial soaps, minerals and deodorants!”
A week after the now-infamous post Garnier USA released a comment distancing itself from the donations by Garnier Israel (have a look below). But, is this too little, too late? In a globalized world of brands which are commonplace in every country on the planet and which need to appeal to as many consumers as possible, what can companies do to ensure that the action of local entities doesn’t harm their global image when it seems that nothing can be communicated to an external audience in private?
“Garnier values peace and harmony and has a strict policy of not getting involved in any conflict or political matter. The hand-out of about 500 products was part of a local retailer initiative. This was managed strictly at local market level and we are very sorry if anyone was offended,” Garnier’s Corporate Communications Director Ms Kerr said.
In the age of social media, the assumption has to be that if the message is going to alienate a specific stakeholder group, then just don’t put it out there, period. For corporations the size of Garnier, that’s easier said than done.
I love Eid, the name given to the two major Muslim festivals. Eid one of those times that reminds me of Christmas or Easter. It’s a time for family, for giving and for being with those that you love. But this year, I’ve not been feeling the same festive spirit. Maybe it’s due to the three-year-long conflict in Syria, which has claimed over 170,000 lives? Maybe it’s the news coming out of Iraq, where one of the world’s oldest civilizations, is on the bring of being torn apart by religious fanatics and sectarianism. Then there’s Libya, where the population has found itself at the mercy of the numerous militias who remained armed and in control after the fall of Gaddafi. And finally, there’s Gaza.
During Eid, it’s customary to wish others a wonderful year ahead; we say to one another, “may every year find you in good health.” This year, I feel the need to do more. In this region, we often feel the need to blame others for our troubles. However, we have to start rolling our sleeves up ourselves, and doing what we need to do to make our region better, for everyone in it.
We have to work towards opening ourselves up and not just tolerating but accepting and embracing those who are different. We should help to educate others, to pass on to them the skills that they will need to find a job and build a career. We need to raise our voices, and tell our governments to work together for the interests of the entire region rather than a select few.
There’s many things that need to be done, and the best people to act are us. For too long we’ve relied on others to help, be it governments at home or abroad. This Eid, I am going to act and volunteer more for the causes that I believe in. I will raise my voice as often and as loud as I can do for those that have been silenced. And, I will donate to charities and organizations that are on the ground and that I know are making a difference.
I hope that these actions, though not much, will make some difference to others. This Eid, what are you doing? Do you feel the same, and, if so, will you join me and turn your words into actions? Let me know.
As you’re on the internet reading this, I’m assuming that you’re aware of the events unfolding in Gaza and Israel. Social media has become part of the campaign on both sides to raise awareness for what is happening.
As of 11pm Gaza time, a campaign has begun on Twitter to talk about what is happening in Gaza and spread the word, using the hashtags #GazaUnderAttack and #PrayForGaza. What’s fascinating is that those behind the campaign have used Whatsapp to spread graphics on the campaign a couple of hours before it began. The tactic should have allowed the organizers to spread the awareness as quickly and as quietly as possible, to group their supporters and get them active on Twitter all at the same time. In essence, you’re creating a wave of support online, without anyone on the other side being forewarned.
I’ll be watching this intently, in the hope that that the two sides call a ceasefire as soon as possible. I for one hope that #GazaUnderAttack can be a force for good, to stop the suffering.
The #GazaUnderAttack image was spread via Whatsapp before the campaign was launched on Twitter
The launch of the @IsraelintheGCC twitter account is a cheap but potentially effective media channel for the Israeli government
No matter your political persuasion, you have to admit that the Israelis are an ingenious bunch. Their latest idea is a simple concept, a virtual embassy for a part of the world where there’s little/no Israeli State presence, the Gulf. Israel, which doesn’t enjoy official diplomatic relations with any of the Gulf states, has launched a ‘virtual embassy in the Gulf’ through Twitter. The account, which is named @IsraelintheGCC, aims to “open lines of dialogue” with people living in the Gulf according to a report by the UAE-based English-language daily Gulf News. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, the person behind the idea is Yoram Morad, Director of the Department of Digital Diplomacy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel.
Not unsurprisingly, Israel has always faced challenges when trying to communicate its point of view to its Arab neighbours. However, that hasn’t stopped the State from engaging various mediums to argue for its policies. Israel launched an Arabic-language television channel in 1994 following the announcement of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The establishment of the @IsraelintheGCC twitter account follows news of a potential re-engagement between the Israelis and Palestinians as well as mounting pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear enrichment programme.
The messaging employed by @IsraelintheGCC, which is being run by the Twitter account of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, would appear to be aimed at propagating a more diplomatic tone than that of Israel’s internal politics. The account, which has tweeted 21 times to date, has only quoted the country’s Prime Minister twice (its fair to say that Bibi Netanyahu wouldn’t win many popularity contests in the Gulf), but it has talked about social media in the Arab world, sustainability issues, and wished followers a Ramadan Kareem. The one time Netanyahu has been quoted was in relation to European sanctions on the Lebanese organization Hizbollah which isn’t well liked in the Gulf due to its pro-Iranian stance. There are tweets in Arabic too. Have a look at some of the posts below.
Over the past couple of years social media has allowed companies, politicians and celebrities to directly bypass the media and reach out directly to anyone that wants to listen. Now the same can be said of social media for States who, for diplomatic reasons, cannot establish a physical presence. I’ll be following the account, and am looking forward to seeing how long this project lasts, how much dialogue it generates and how successful it becomes for the Israeli government.