U.S. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was kidnapped by the Taliban exactly one week before the third anniversary of Gilad Shalit's abduction by Hamas. Both Bergdahl and Shalit are the same age, but the similarities between them end there. While Shalit has returned home, the U.S. soldier is still in captivity in Afghanistan and nobody seems to care, not even after the Taliban has released five video clips of the soldier, the last one being in May. "It is no accident that most Israelis do not know this story and even that most Americans do not know this prisoner exists. And this is despite the fact that in the video clips released of him, he appeals, at the height of emotion, to his family and the U.S. government to release him in exchange for the release of prisoners from Afghanistan," says Prof. Gabriel Weimann from the Department of Communications at the University of Haifa.
"Here enter the differences between the 'people's army' which exists in Israel and is loyal to the doctrine of never leaving a soldier behind, and the U.S. Army which is certainly not what we would refer to as the 'people's army.' In the U.S., serving in the army is a profession, people earn a salary and volunteer for army service as professionals, and therefore it makes sense that the Americans are less willing to intervene emotionally in the fate of a captured soldier. This is very unique to Israel, especially when you take into account that, rationally, the prisoner swap deal was not a good one. A deal in which 1,000 terrorists are released in exchange for a single man cannot be good, no matter how you choose to view it. Therefore, it becomes clear to us that it is impossible to take the rational approach here, and that the campaign for Shalit's return appealed to the emotions of Israeli citizens."
The family's decision to turn to the media
About four years ago, after year and a half of silence in the media and the sense that Gilad Shalit was beginning to be forgotten, Shalit's father, Noam, enlisted the help of a public relations firm. Until that moment, the Shalit family had operated without the close help of media consulting. Noam was determined to change the public discourse and offered to pay Tammy Shinkman, of the public relations firm Rimon-Cohen-Shinkman, as much as it took. "At first, they [the Shalit family] offered to pay us, and we of course, without second thoughts, said 'no chance.' We insisted that we would do it voluntarily," says Benny Cohen, a partner of the firm who ran the operational strategy and work behind the scenes of the Shalit campaign.
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Immediately after the firm began working for the Shalit family, the media was flooded with countless messages and news items calling for Shalit's release. Meetings were held with newspapers and broadcast media in attempts to convince them to cover the soldier's struggle on their front pages and in their top headlines; politicians were asked to join the campaign; and celebrities decided to lock themselves in a makeshift jail cell, believed to be similar to what Shalit was kept in under Hamas captivity, in solidarity with the soldier.
The country was filled with billboards, flags and stickers, and pictures of the kidnapped soldier printed in the nation's colors - blue and white - became an iconic symbol. The Shalit family's struggle made headlines and brought crowds of supporters out into the streets. The change marked an unprecedented and historic shift.
"It is connected to the empowerment of emotions. The strategy was to make everyone empathize with the terrible fear that his or her child could leave and never return," Shinkman once said in an interview with the Globes newspaper. "The codes of communication are clear: You get a response when you reveal a personal side. The Shalit family had a hard time exposing itself to the public. They were an introverted family, and Noam himself is a bereaved sibling. And yet it was important to facilitate emotional involvement, to highlight the fact that every parent would expect this kind of public solidarity if it happened to them, and this was done by massively amplifying the dose of the family's exposure to the public."
"You have to remember that mutual responsibility for one another is part of the Israeli ethos and this does not exist in other cultures," Cohen adds. "It means that when we speak of one child, we are talking about everyone's child, not just some distant soldier fighting in Afghanistan. As soon as we realized this would be our strategy, we did a lot of work to keep the Shalit story alive, for example, during Purim, releasing photos of Gilad dressed as a clown when he was a child.
"There were many periods of quiet, so every few months we had to find some other idea that would push the media to give us coverage. There were two other sources that played a big role - the advertising agency Shalmor Avnon Amichai voluntarily produced movies, designs and slogans for us, for example the ad showing the word "help" written in handwriting; and also Kobi Gamliel who was able to get 800,000 people to change their profile pictures on Facebook."
What they did worked.
"When they came up with the idea of holding a march, there were a lot of fears over it. No one knew how many people would turn out and what its effect would be. I remember on the first day, 10,000 people came, which was a very big surprise, and only then were we able to calm down a bit. To maintain coverage of something on television and on the front pages of the newspapers for three weeks is very, very difficult, but the march was able to do it."
Facebook served the campaign
"What worked was perseverance," said publicist Motti Morel of Morel-Zur Media. "This campaign was stronger and more persistent than any other we have known, thus it also succeeded more than those in the past. It had its ups and downs but it never went away. Gilad's parents did not go home. They continued on and on and did not tire. Usually when we see things like this, we say, 'It will pass in a bit, they will go home and end it,' but the Shalit family did not stop until their son came home. The strength of this family was what connected them to the public."
The question of the media's involvement in the campaign to release Shalit reminds us of questions we heard in the context of the summer's tent protests as well. The fact that associations with the name "Gilad" connect us all to only one person essentially says it all.
Publicist Rani Rahav thinks that, "There is not a single person among the people of Israel who did not feel the pain of this incredible family, who suffered for so many years, in their goal of trying to bring their son home. So there was no problem to bring it back into the media every few minutes. The media cooperated with the Shalit family in a rare way. On the program '6 p.m. with Oded Ben Ami' on Channel 2, there was a daily reminder that this soldier was still in captivity. There was no way that the public would forget him even for a moment."
Ayala Chason, of Channel 1, said this week, "Even in the choice of words such as 'the son of all of us' or 'the child' and not 'the soldier that fell into captivity' testifies to the media's position. This did not stem from considerations for ratings, but it was clear to all that there was definitely an effort to elicit juicier emotions."
"The media is comprised of people, and as we saw in the polls, the decisive majority of people in this country support the deal," Cohen claims. "The last thing that interested the family was publicity. They were sucked into it in their struggle to save Gilad. They had no choice. This is not 'Big Brother,' where people are specifically looking to advertise themselves. Gilad's family now has a long and difficult path ahead of them and it is impossible to stick to the general rules at this point, according to which the media gives coverage and expects other things in return."
Advertising executive Hadar Goldman said, "There was fantastic recruiting to this lofty cause that laid intense pressure on the prime ministers, the latter of which went with the timing that seemed most appropriate for him. The country's priorities were set according to the public's agenda and opinion. The Shalit family identified the power of the media and its importance and acted correctly."
"Facebook came into the world in 2006, the same year Gilad was abducted. It was an important tool for the campaign, a media conduit that created a massive pool of supporters. For good reason there is a connection between the two," Goldman said.
Cohen added that "Facebook gives one the option to join actively and not just complain in front of the television. Many ideas came from Facebook and from the public and there was no organized hierarchy. Everyone offered ideas and it gave people the sense that they were partners in the whole thing. Our role was essentially to run and manage those who offered ideas."
Tami Arad lends a hand
The involvement of Tami Arad, wife of MIA air navigator Ron Arad, and her connection with the Shalit family, was also the result of work done by public relations firms. "Tami Arad's involvement, and her statement that if we don't do something about it, Gilad's fate will be the same as Ron's, were critical to the Shalit campaign," Professor Weimann said. "Through this comparison, people understood that there is a real problem concerning Gilad's mental health and his survival."
"Ron Arad is a huge open wound that will never heal," Rahav said. "Every Israeli citizen will carry this wound with them all their lives. That is why no one wants Gilad to be the second Ron Arad case. Israelis hold Ron's wife and daughter in high esteem, and this is the successful campaign of a people who once again proved that in times of need, we are all one nation, with one heart."
Although the Shalit family's prolonged campaign was deemed a success on Tuesday, they were not the only ones who fought over the public's opinion. "There was also an effective campaign by Hamas," Weimann said. "They too used Gilad's video, messages, photos, and all the leaks to the media about him. And there were also campaigns by others. The Prime Minister's Office ran its own public campaign to achieve its own aims in the negotiations. Families of terror victims campaigned for their interests as well.
"In the media arena, competition between several groups lead to a slew of events. A few memorable moments were in fact created by the enemy for the purpose of psychological warfare, such as a video released by Hamas of Shalit speaking to his family from his place of captivity. That was the only time the public had a glimpse of Shalit during his captivity. Despite the fact that it was staged by Hamas, those moments will always be remembered.
"When a campaign succeeds in swaying public opinion, the question should be what role did the product itself play? Or, in this case, the primary figure, an Israeli soldier held by Hamas. Would this campaign have succeeded four years ago? I'm not sure. The Israeli public has endured so much pressure concerning Shalit and his well-being, and that has taken its toll."
Can we say that the nation of Israel has never become so attached to an abducted soldier as much as it has with Shalit?
"After the Yom Kippur War, hundreds of prisoners were returned, and waves of joy spread throughout the country as well, even though their time in captivity was shorter than Shalit's. I remember the planes returning from Entebbe, and the joy that rang out when the hostages disembarked from them. This case was different due to the longer period of time, which inevitably led to increased expectations and emotion.
"Someone will surely ask, 'So we need to hire public relations experts for every problem that arises now? They will solve our security problems?' Well, we have already been in that position for some time now. Crime families hire public relations experts. Many crime bosses pick up the phone and call their public relations people before they call their attorneys. IDF officers are in contact with their public relations people, as we saw in the Galant-Harpaz affair. And, of course, politicians make use of them as well.
"Whoever is surprised by the struggle for Shalit being in the hands of professionals has to understand that this is already an integral part of lives," Weimann said.
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