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Jewish World Review June 18, 2002 / 8 Tamuz, 5762

Eric Dezenhall

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How Arafat Wags the Dog -- At the high-stakes poker games in Atlantic City of the 1970s, where small crowds would sometimes gather to soak in the action, there was one kind of player that would elicit that rarest of gambling emotions, sympathy. We called him "The Grinder" and with only a tiny stack of chips, a meek demeanor and silent ruthlessness he would stay in the bankroll game interminably. His docile appearance and penchant for wheezing made it look like he was getting picked on by the big dogs, while invisibly he was killing his opponents with a thousand cuts.

Poker analogies usually apply to nuclear conflict but that's only one kind of showdown. Israel is in a high-stakes contest, too, and there's a Grinder at the table who's got the Western media crossing their fingers for him.

In the simple narrative that guides almost all journalism storylines, the weaker character is by definition the protagonist. You can't have a big comeback, after all, if you are winning in the first place. The press loves an underdog and Yasser Arafat has absorbed that central fact of American PR and has made it his gospel. He is right. And it is working.

Consider first just the visuals. Whomever owns the visuals of victimhood wins the PR war. Enormous, steel-plated tanks rumbling up residential streets. Uniformed soldiers surrounding plain-dressed snipers. Barbed-wire checkpoints. By military standards, that's effective. In public relations, it's a disaster. In the PR war, it is the symbols of victimhood that count and those being shot at - whatever they did to provoke it - are automatically victims in the eyes of the western press.

The recent Israeli operation in Jenin, for example, was characterized by Arafat and his spokespeople not as a battle nor incursion nor even invasion. They referred to it as a "massacre." And, as if on cue, the leading British newspaper, the Guardian, ran this front-page headline over their story: "Israel faces rage over massacre."

It turned out later that casualties among Palestinian combatants were actually small for size of the battle - about 50 in all - but by that time Arafat had already chalked up a PR victory. The Guardian never corrected the record and the Israelis might as well have said, "Hey, those chips the dealer just grabbed used to belong to me."

And there's more to it than just pictures. In the PR war, words are like small-arms fire and the highest caliber is the finger-waving allegation. Arafat has made this so much a part of his repertoire it has almost become like a mantra. There's been a massacre, he will announce to a gathering of reporters. Or, they are destroying homes. Or, they are firing at children. Take your pick, the point is that it forces reporters to quote him, follow up and ask the Israelis for a response. Make the allegation in a burned-out bunker and, well, it just seems true.

Place a hand on your head, point a finger and say "He hit me," and you are making what is surely the oldest accusation known to man. Sure it's simplistic. Yes, it's obvious. But as any kid on a playground can tell you, it works. For paint-by-numbers journalists, it's perfect. There's a famous, unwritten maxim among journalists: If Jesus came back tomorrow I would ask the Devil for a comment.

The large companies I represent as a media consultant have learned all these lessons, mostly the hard way. Big equals bad. Strength is always immoral. Accusation requires investigation. In their marketplace battles, environmental radicals, consumer activists and trial lawyers are the darlings of the press. But my clients have learned how to hit back, strike the attackers first and sometimes even position themselves as the victims in the media melodrama.

But for the aging generals of the Israeli military, hardened by survival and expert at gunfighting, those lessons haven't come so naturally. It is understandable - when you're in a death struggle with fanatics, helping Geraldo stage-manage is the last thing on your mind. And while there is no clever PR strategy that will make mankind cheer the Jewish state, the emotionless poker-face that has constituted the public persona of Israel doesn't help its survival.

After all, if military war are won fully by might, PR wars are won fully on emotion.

JWR contributor Eric Dezenhall is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and damage control consultant. He is president of Nichols-Dezenhall Communications Management Group, a crisis management firm with offices in Washington, Los Angeles and London. A frequent lecturer in academic and business circles who regularly appears as a damage control expert in the international media, he is the author, most recently, of Money Wanders, a novel about media manipulation and organized crime. Comment by clicking here.


© 2002, Eric Dezenhall