How not to Conduct Digital Diplomacy: @IDFSpokesperson and IDF Blog

As a ‘scholar-in-training’, I try to focus my writing (and even thinking) on my dissertation topic and do my best to stay away from ‘distractions’ mainly due to two reasons. Firstly, I want to get my PhD sooner rather than later. Secondly, I want to brand myself through my dissertation research and related writings. Middle Eastern politics, for instance, is a subject I would not touch with a ten foot pole. Yet, after witnessing Pillar of Defense (or #pillarofdefense for the purposes of this blog post), I decided to write on how not to conduct digital diplomacy and underline IDF’s mistakes in message formation and medium selection.

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SDM Campaign – A Story of ‘Sex Sells’ Marketing

As the competition gets tougher, I guess people started to run out of new ideas to promote places. Recently, I ran into this very interesting campaign from Israel – Size Doesn’t Matter (SDM). I believe this video is only a viral advertisement product (it is ‘too hot’ for the TV maybe, who knows?).

I don’t know where to start. Now, the idea is interesting because this particular marketing understanding is not widely used in place branding. But at the end of the say, ‘sex sells’ is one of the oldest advertising pseudo-strategies. Several products, from toilet paper to underwear, were advertised with sexual imagery. SDM campaign most probably used these suggestive scenes and dialogues to attract young people’s attention. Yet, is it the right way to go in place marketing? If you look at the images in SDM’s website intro, you will see many more nice looking men and women. Though once you are in the website, the campaign starts telling you about how Israel has big ideas, how the country is big on the environment, and on diversity. In fact, there is information on the website – once you pass the photos.

As far as I can see, SDM is a global PR campaign. I would love to hear Israeli people’s reactions. I won’t be very happy if a PR agency decides to promote my country in a similar way.

I understand that Israel is trying to diversify the news coverage and arguments on the country, but there are so many other things that could and should be introduced. I am not sure why such a suggestive and a little bit disturbing way is chosen. Some of the slogans and lines even don’t make sense unless you constantly think about the sex analogy. Why don’t you go to a small country for vacation? (Several exotic travel destinations are small countries). Why are you surprised when someone tells you Israel is small? (It is less than 0.01% of the world’s total area) What is wrong about going south in winter? Why small size big appetite for peace? (Who says small countries don’t like peace?) Last but not the least, who said anything about size and countries?

Israeli branding attempts and public diplomacy understanding taught me a lot of things. SDM, the newest piece, taught me how not to use bad marketing/advertising moves in place/nation branding.

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Public Diplomacy 2.0: David Saranga at Kennedy School of Government

Last Wednesday, I had the opportunity to (finally) listen to David Saranga, former Consul for Media and Public Affairs of Israel’s NY Consulate. He came to Harvard to give a presentation on public diplomacy. After a heated discussion for around 45 minutes about the academic integrity of his focus group approach, the audience finally allowed him to talk about more substantive issues. I don’t want to undermine the importance of research methods here, but when the speaker is one of the most prominent experts on Public Diplomacy 2.0, you really don’t need to force him to talk about off-topic questions.

Israel started its rebranding campaign by doing focus group studies in the US, but they excluded East and West coasts in this study – which was a fatal mistake according to the many people in the audience. As the sample didn’t represent the population, the results couldn’t be academically sound. Though I support the logic beyond Israel’s purposive sampling. At the end of the day, the aim was to frame Israeli image for ‘average’ American. You really don’t need to interview people where your embassies/consulates are actively working, where you have an active diaspora, or where there are 15 universities per person.

After the focus groups, they realized that Israel was practically know for the Palestinian conflict and religious conservatism. I believe no one was shocked by this outcome. A more important result was that Israel wasn’t able to reach liberals and youngsters (- It was difficult not to laugh when David Saranga admitted this at Harvard KSG.).

There have been many discussions about the definition of PD, and how to use social media. Thus, I’ll try to do my best to summarize his ‘original’ ideas from my point of view. First of all, Saranga wasn’t only a social media expert, he knew how to analyze the audience and how to find the best medium to reach the public. One of the projects he presented was, Maxim’s special issue.

Maxim - Women of the Israeli Defense Forces

Maxim - Women of the Israeli Defense Forces

Israel was irrelevant to the young people. If your target audience doesn’t see you as relevant, as a subject to learn more about, you really cannot explain yourself. So, Saranga invited Maxim to Israel for a special photo shoot and made Israel more relevant (for a specific audience for a short period of time).

Social media should not be seen as a substitute for traditional media, rather it should be used to amplify your communication endeavors. We are all very excited about Web 2.0, and 3.0, but still, it is wise for especially foreign diplomats to keep in touch with traditional media.

During his presentation, Saranga gave a great PD definition. The scholars get lost in details: should PD be executed by government? is it grassroots? which media can be used? how can you measure its effectiveness? He defined the PD understanding as “bringing your narrative in a sophisticated way, not in a propagandist way”. All PD-related terms in fact, such as nation branding, place branding, cultural diplomacy etc., carry this main understanding. The fundamental aim is to present a narrative. You are not very likely to be asked your perspective on every issue, therefore it is up to you to go public and present your narrative, and subsequently to ensure that your narrative is more credible and persuasive than competing narratives.

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