Social Media Insights – Israel Consulate in NYC

During the 140 Character Conference I had the chance to meet David Saranga. I am happy he agreed upon this interview!

According to Wikipedia David Saranga is an Israeli diplomat, who serves as the Consul for Media and Public Affairs of Israel in the United States. Saranga is responsible for Israel’s image in the United States and is the liaison person of Israel to the American media. The Jewish Chronicle described him as “The man whose campaigns are rebranding Israel.”

Which are the core values for the Israelian government when it is using social media tools? Is there anything written?

Social media gives us the opportunity to interact directly with a
diverse set of people from around the world. While we never forget
that we are representing the State of Israel online, social media
allows us to shed the business suits and to be more approachable by
the average person. We hope that people will take advantage of our
presence on these social networks to learn more about us through
Consulate events or through online conversation. These tools also help in measuring public opinion on different issues that are important to us.

This is a very “diplomatic” answer and very general. Could you please be more specific (are there any values? if yes, what are they? ….)

When it comes to social media, there are two main issues that we focus on. First, we think it’s vital to address the political issues. This includes all stories related to the conflict in the Middle East. It is important for us to address these issues by presenting the facts about a situation, and allowing people to make informed and discerning opinions on their own. Second, we aim to show the human face of Israel. While most people perceive Israel through two lenses – conflict and religion – we want to add a third lens: the human face of Israeli culture and society. We want our audiences to understand that Israel is a diverse, multicultural, and vibrant society, with world-class restaurants, hot Mediterranean beaches, and haute fashion just to name a few.

What tools does the government use and with what purposes?

The government uses a number of new media tools as an additional
platform for its messages and to allow the general public to
understand and interact with the government. For example, we have
opened two blogs, IsRealli and IsraelPolitik, that discuss Israel beyond the conflict and political issues, respectively. We also produce videos on YouTube to provide users with video footage from our events and from government spokespeople. Finally, we belong to both Facebook and MySpace, through which we can
interact with our fans and invite them to events that we host.

Is there something like e-partizipation? Or is social media just another channel?

Social media is another platform we use to leverage the power of our message. We can, for example, take a plain news story and feature it on our social media channels to an audience that is more engaged and relevant. This broadens the reach of our message, and allows us to interact with a wider range of audiences than conventional media outlets do.

What about the “back channel” – is the back channel open, meaning who is answering the feedback that is flooding in?

We take constructive feedback into consideration and we pass it along to those who need to hear it. People rely on us to give them accurate information and all answers to feedback and questions are checked before they are sent out. The people who answer questions work for me in the Department of Media and Public Affairs in New York and are in close contact with me and other officials. In addition, I am very involved personally regarding the content of our social media outlets.

What do you mean exactly when you say you do take „constructive feedback into consideration”?

When the people talk, we listen! We take into consideration all comments that are sent to us. For example, during the war in Gaza last December, we found out that people were very concerned with the humanitarian situation in Gaza. Thankfully, we passed this information along to our headquarters in Jerusalem, and later we received information that proved that there was no humanitarian crisis. Yes, the situation was difficult. But trucks with food and medical supplies were entering the Gaza strip. We were provided with photos and videos documenting this humanitarian aid, which we shared with viewers on our social media channels.

Does Israel has a CTO like the Obama government? Anything planned in this direction?

While the government has increasingly realized the importance of its
online presence and of social media, the work has mostly been on an agency-by-agency basis.

Why is it so? It seems to be important but not important enough to claim a CTO?

I believe this article from Haaretz will best explain the direction the Israeli Foreign Ministry is heading:
http://haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1098887.html

Are the Israelian politicians aware of what s going on in the field of social media (in Germany most of them aren’t ) and are they ready to let the people participate? Do they want them to participate?

Several significant Israeli politicians have embraced social media
services themselves. For example, Prime Minister Netanyahu
and opposition leader Tzipi Livni both have accounts on Twitter
(both currently in Hebrew). At this stage, we are all exploring the
best ways to utilize these services most effectively in the political
sphere.

Are they writing the accounts by themselves? Again, is this just another channel or how to they handle the back channel?

What I have noticed in following their posts, I don’t think many Israeli politicians are writing the entries by themselves. It seems to be more a platform to share information, rather than interact with the public.

What kind of participation can you imagine within the next 3-5 years? Do you think e.g. an acclamation about a solution for Israel/ Palestine is realistic?

Current trends show that participation in social media will continue
to grow, which will create a number of opportunities. For example, we recently discussed the idea of Tweet4Peace to allow people from around the Middle East to talk through Twitter. Even outside a formal structure, we’ve seen a number of collaborations and conversations between people of different backgrounds using social media. Learning to appreciate and value each other as people can only bring positive results, if not in the short term, then certainly over longer periods of time.

What we are seeing right now in Iran – do you think this has an impact of how governments are dealing with social media?

We have definitely thought about and discussed the impact of social
media on this specific situation. If nothing else, it shows us that
social media can be an important force in the political realm. It also
shows us that our investment in Twitter and other social media is
really worth the time and effort.

Why is it worth?

With Twitter, we found that approximately 20% of followers are either journalists, bloggers, or social media leaders. By using Twitter, we succeed to direct our message to people that can magnify the situation in Israel. Once again, it’s another platform in our social media efforts.

The Obama adminstration seems to fully embrace the internet. What are in your opinion the major risks/chances in doing so?

We have to admit the fact that people are increasingly turning to
online sources for information. So there is no downside to embracing
the new technology. That said, we are working on how to embrace it
correctly. In other words, we need to use these tools effectively. We
have a great opportunity to allow people to get information directly
from us through blogs, Twitter, and other new media tools. But we
can’t forget that we need to make that information attractive and
effective if we want to be relevant. We also need to engage people who genuinely want to engage us, even if that means we don’t agree with them entirely. Lastly, even though much has been made of social media, we can’t neglect the traditional, mainstream media, which is and will remain an extremely important source of information.

Governments aren’t necessarily transparent, authentic and open. But these are core values in the online world. Who is learning from whom?

Part of the responsibility that comes with being a part of the
democratic forum that is the online world is a certain measure of
transparency and accountability. We have a responsibility to the
online community to share information as best we can, and we have
certainly been challenged (positively) in this respect. This gentle
prodding is quite useful in promoting open dialogue with government and private individuals alike.

What does this mean “information as best we can”? And it is not only about sharing, it is also about participation, isn’t it?

We can’t compare the Israeli Consulate that’s based in New York to a news agency or media outlet reporting from the ground in Israel. Reporters are there to tell the story. We’re not attempting to compete with them. We’re simply highlighting and bringing attention to the stories we think our viewers will find engaging and relevant.

Talking about the online world. Is the world of politics online
different from the offline world? If so, what are the differences?

There are a few differences that we’ve noticed between working online and offline. Because the online community is open to everyone, the information posted does not necessarily have to be accurate. We have seen quite a bit of mistaken information posted; in fact, we joined Twitter to provide a reliable voice in a sea of mistakes. Secondly, information online is disseminated instantaneously; since a response is always best when provided as rapidly as possible, we always need to be on alert. Lastly, social media allows us to connect directly with people all around the world. We have had fascinating encounters with individuals from many different countries that were made possible through online media technologies.

Will digital media chance the political landscape? What can we expect?

There is a lot of potential for online media to have an impact on the
political landscape. We’ve already seen how social media has united
people around political causes. The level playing field that social
media promote does help the democratic ideal spread, though its full
extent remains to be seen. At this point, it’s too early to tell what
the full impact of social media will be, but our limited experience
thus far has indicated that public diplomacy will undergo a revolution as it adjusts to these new, powerful tools.

How will this revolution look like?

The revolution is that we will create a dialogue with the public. The information we share will be more relevant to audiences because it will address their specific needs and interests. If people weren’t involved in social media, it would make the tools we created obsolete. But such is not the case. The world is hungry for social media interactions. And our revolution will be to feed into that.

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