Meir Shlomo (Strategic Advisor for the Public Diplomacy Division, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel) and Ilan Sztulman (Deputy Director of Public Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel)

06.11.2009 - Interview conducted by Max Marioni & Izelle Wagner.

Meir Shlomo is the Strategic Advisor for the Public Diplomacy Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel, and Ilan Sztulman is the Deputy Director of Public Affairs, also in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They took part in the 'World Without Walls' congress, presenting an engaging speech on their roles and their strategies in improving Israelís image abroad. They discussed the challenges they face in trying to 'brand' Israel positively, despite a lot of adverse media, and showed how the internet has helped them get good results with a relatively low budget. Both Mr. Shlomo and Mr. Sztulman were kind enough to take part in an interview with members of the ICD news team.

Could you please tell us how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs become interested in public diplomacy and how did you personally become interested in this area?

(Shlomo) It has always been an issue for Israel to make sure that people know what Israel is all about and to gather as much support as we can, because we have always been in a dire situation. Public diplomacy for us was something that we had to do, even if we didnít want to, because we were in a situation that required us to explain to the world what is happening in the Middle East, so it was something natural for us to do. Personally, I did it because I did my masters in Mass Communication and then I joined the Ministry, so it was natural.

(Sztulman) I was actually a businessman and just by chance, Meir told me to join. Iím in the public division, because that is where my knowledge lies. I studied art and used to be a photographer.

I know you use the internet as a tool for public diplomacy. Have you noticed any improvement of Israelís image abroad using this tool? How successful do you rate the public diplomacy effort of Israel to have been?

(Sztulman) Doubtless, thatís one of the advantages of using the internet - we can measure the effectiveness of our work. If we go and do a conference and hope that we will be able to improve peopleís attitudes about Israel, we canít really measure our success, itís very difficult to do that. Of course we can do focus groups but on a day-to-day basis, you cannot measure success. With the internet, you can measure everything, how people got into your website, how long they stayed, and you can read their comments too if itís a blog. I can definitely say that since we started working on the web there has been an improvement in the image of Israel. If you take into consideration that Israel has only existed for 60 years, that it is a poor country, and that we have a very low budget to work with. I think we have managed to produce a useful tool that's actually used by our government. There is a lot to improve, but we are getting there. We also engage in projects where we go to different countries wanting to exchange ideas, so weíre learning all the time. We're not doing badly.

(Shlomo) I think it has gone pretty well, but we could have done it a bit better frankly speaking. I also think that it is a learning process, and you simply learn from your experiences. For the shear reason that for us it was a necessity, I think that we may be a bit ahead of the kerb, compared to other ministries that didnít have to tackle issues that we had to.

Do you think that public diplomacy will be used more extensively in the future, especially with the increasing use of the internet?

(Shlomo) I wouldnít say public diplomacy is becoming more important than traditional diplomacy, but as our society and the worldís society is becoming more and more influenced by mass media, it is becoming a vital tool and is being utilised extensively. Therefore, I feel the work of public diplomacy is going to become more critical for countries to further their agenda, whatever that may be, whether it is an economic or a political agenda. Public and cultural diplomacy are going to be very important backbones of diplomacy in the future. In an interdependent world, nations still think that it is a better idea to talk to each other, rather than to kill each other, and hopefully that trend will carry on. As long as that is the major trend, then what tool is better than public diplomacy for countries to speak to each other? So I think the importance of this tool will go exponentially.

(Sztulman) People-to-people exchange efforts are very useful. I ask kids, please go out and talk to your counterparts for example in Germany and Holland and show them that you like the same music and movie stars. This will prove that the distance between them is actually very little and when they develop this sort of engagement between them, the walls will fall and exchange will go on. There is a very good future ahead for public diplomacy.

In previous forums, we discussed the difference between propaganda, advertisement and cultural diplomacy. What would you say if someone said that the work you do is propaganda?

(Shlomo) First of all, I would say this person has no clue what public diplomacy is actually all about. One of the messages I tried to convey today is that public diplomacy is all about persuasion. You use it in the commercial world, the diplomatic world and the interpersonal world. Itís up to you how you use this vehicle, you can do bad things with it or you can use it wisely, so I mean you can call it propaganda or cultural diplomacy, itís the same vehicle, but you have to decide whether you put something good into the baggage compartment or something bad.†

(Sztulman) If you try and sell a bad product with nice looking packaging and have spent lots of money on a campaign - do you think people will still buy it? Probably not, because if the product is bad, people wonít take it, therefore, if people tell me that my work is propagandist, I tell them Iím using techniques to present the state of Israel, itís culture and itís people. Itís up to you to decide, you either like it and engage with us and have diplomatic relations or you donít. If you donít like it, you donít have to do it. I donít see that as a negative, on the contrary, I see this as an opportunity to get people together and to make a better world out of it.

Meir Shlomo and Ilan Sztulman, thank you so much for your time and giving a great interview.