Meet David Saranga, the man whose campaigns are rebranding Israel

By David Russell, May 22, 2008

Log on to the website of the Israeli consulate of New York at www.israelfm.org, and you will find more than just guidance on visa applications. Prominently displayed on the homepage are links to Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and isRealli, the “new blog of Israel”.

Diplomats’ websites tend to be staid, unexciting places, so to find these connections to social-networking sites comes as something of a surprise. These innovative web efforts are at the forefront of the consulate’s current hasbara (public information) campaign — whose aim is no less than to change Israel’s image. They are supplemented by creative offline initiatives, which are promoting the country in a new, more positive light to a global audience.

The campaign mastermind is David Saranga, the 43-year-old consul for media and public affairs. Formerly deputy spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he has an MBA in marketing — and it shows. His vocational degree, and experience, is important. “During my time as a spokesperson in Israel,” says Saranga, “it was not difficult to see that the 400 foreign correspondents we dealt with daily were there for one reason only — to cover the conflict. Their interest was only in the political issues of the country. They were not there to write on the many positive aspects of life in Israel, only on the negative.

“When I arrived in New York, I learnt from that experience. To have the greatest impact on perceptions of Israel, we must highlight the positive and focus public-relations efforts on the many fields outside of politics: such as architecture, green technology, sport. Not only targeting the major news channels, but the many new-media channels too.”

Extensive audience research laid the foundation upon which this new hasbara strategy has been built. Creative, inclusive thinking by the young team around Saranga has been vitally important too. 

The campaign made headlines last summer with the publication of a feature on female IDF soldiers baring nearly all in swimsuits in the American edition of leading lads’ magazine, Maxim. Although critics said that using scantily clad women to promote the Holy Land was inappropriate, research clearly demonstrated its impact. With the support of BIG, the Brand Israel Group — a coalition of young Jewish marketing professionals with expertise, contacts and financial resources made available to the consulate — focus groups were undertaken across America, recording perceptions of Israel, and then evaluating attitudinal shifts.

Before the Maxim article was published, the common perception among young males was that Israeli women wore burkas. Following publication in the magazine, which is bought by 2.5 million Americans, attitudes had shifted. “Readers thought the article made Israel seem more like the US,” the findings concluded.

It is research that is driving the strategy, and which marks it out from previous campaigns. “The research is vital,” says Saranga. “It is what has enabled us to identify which audiences are most important to us, what their current views are, and critically, what means of communication are most effective and which messages are most relevant to reach them. Relevance is key; then tracking impact.”

The strategy, seemingly simple, is working; most effectively in cyberspace due to the work of Moriel Schottlender, a self-confessed internet nerd and, in her official capacity, the consulate webmaster. Schottlender manages online projects, and analyses the results. “We are learning from the work of other countries, but most importantly from companies, in how we are developing Israel’s online brand,” she says.

“The work is open-source, and transparent — as it has to be, to engage a younger generation. We are experimenting with what works, and encouraging interaction.” With over 1,000 friends on Facebook, and 600 unique visitors a day to the isRealli blog, the numbers logging on are respectable, but not massive. However, what is happening on YouTube is noteworthy. Previously, if you searched for “Israel” on the video-sharing site, the vast majority of films found would be negative or anti-Zionist. Now you are just as likely to see positive depictions of the country. These are not “propaganda” films produced by the consulate, but are user-generated content.

Many of the films were submitted for a competition devised by Saranga. With a prize trip for two to New York or Israel, the online competition was open to all to create a 30-second film about Israel to be posted to YouTube. The winning films were voted on by the capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York during an basketball exhibition match between Maccabi Tel Aviv and the New York Knicks, and shown on the arena’s giant screens. The competition acted as a vehicle to generate free pro-Israeli content for YouTube — with no cost to the consulate. It was perceived to be impartial, as it was user-generated.

While the Maccabi Tel Aviv team was in town, its captain, Derek Sharp, gave a free masterclass to African-American students in Harlem, generating further positive media coverage. 

This “out-of-the-box” thinking has been put to use to highlight the situation in Sderot, too. Back in January, Saranga developed an idea to plant a field of 4,200 balloons across the street from the UN HQ, a number equal to the Qassam rockets that had fallen on the town at that time. With the support of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, it took only 24 hours from conception to implementation. The stunt resulted in a front-page lead in the New York Sun and a raft of spin-off stories on blogs across the internet. 

“Such creativity and partnership is vital in all our work,” Saranga says. “We have only a small budget and team. We do not employ an agency to develop and implement these ideas; we design and deliver them all ourselves.”

Two recent initiatives in Manhattan have been hard to miss. “Celebrity Salute to Israel” involves jumbo videoscreens in Times Square playing messages of support for Israel’s 60th anniversary from an array of Hollywood stars, Jewish and non-Jewish, from Kirk Douglas to Tom Cruise. “Faces of Israel” is a series of 10 billboards along Fifth Avenue, featuring images of individuals and families representing the breadth of Israel’s multi-ethnic society. Both initiatives strive to build positive perceptions of Israel by association. The celebrities highlight the youth of Israel, appealing to fans of those featured. The faces show Israel to be a melting pot like America — research has shown it is important to convey this image of Israel to win and influence friends in the US.

This broadcast strategy, appealing to a wide audience, is complemented by “narrowcasting” too, targeting specific audiences. Next week, Miri Ben-Ari, the Grammy award-winning Israeli hip-hop violinist, will be playing with a gospel choir at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, the heart of African-American New York. To engage the Latino community, the isRealli blog is published in Spanish. The consulate’s Independence Day celebration was staged in Washington Square Park, the heart of New York University, to involve students. Free bottles of water labelled with “cool facts about Israel” were distributed.

Saranga believes the real results of his campaign will not be seen for years. “Rebranding a country can take 20 years or more. It involves more than just generating more positive stories about Israel. The process has to be internalised and integrated, too. Israelis must share in and believe in what we promote, and all consulates must ultimately communicate one unified message.”

To this end, international focus groups co-ordinated by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tzipi Livni, are now being undertaken in 13 countries. Three potential messages, brainstormed by an elite group of international branding experts, Israeli diplomats and PR agencies, are being tested to determine one global message for Israel. The results of the research will focus hasbara efforts in countries considered of greatest strategic importance, and where negative views of Israel are most severe, in particular in Europe. Research is being undertaken on how it can be applied in the UK.

“Israel’s public perception overseas affects not only tourism, but investment, trade, cultural exchange — all vital to its future,” says Saranga. “New York is vital in Israel’s PR battle; it is the hub of the world’s media. What is covered in New York is picked up globally. That is why I believe our work is so important.”

David Russell is the New York correspondent for Jewish Renaissance Magazine

Last updated: 3:38pm, September 23 2009