Diana Marszalek 18 Oct 2023 // 1:15PM GMT
Around 1pm Tuesday, PRSA-NY president Carmella Glover sent members an email offering a “heartfelt apology” for the subject line on a previous email that read, "Statement and Pledge of Support for Israel, from PRSA-NY President Carmella Glover."
“We deeply regret the insensitivity in our subject line, which was thoughtless, partial, and irresponsible. I know this was especially disheartening coming from a professional association that advocates for ethical behaviors and messaging,” Glover wrote.
“Our intention was to convey a message of support and unity for all those who are affected by the violence in Israel and Gaza. However, I acknowledge that we missed the mark (to say the least), and for this, I take full responsibility,” she wrote.
Glover’s sole focus on Israel in the subject line caused “disappointment” and “hurt” to a relatively small number of people (PRSA-NY has roughly 400 members). But whatever backlash she did get shows the risks companies, including PR agencies, face taking a strong stand on the war between Israel and Hamas — a subject that for many triggers fervent and, in some cases, personal opinions on the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“While all tragedies are tough — George Floyd, Uvalde, Ukraine etc. — this one seems to scare people the most because of how complex the geopolitical situation is in the Middle East,” said Aaron Kwittken, founder and chairman of PRophet. There has been “tension” among brands and agencies about what to say and where to say it, he said.
The most activity we saw from companies occurred soon after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel — and before the humanitarian crisis in Gaza worsened.
More than 500 VC firms, for instance, signed a letter in support of Israel that included calling on investors to support the Israeli tech industry. Banks and tech firms have also stepped up against the attacks, some by way of donations to relief groups, as did Disney, Paramount and Salesforce.
After initially focusing on employees and security — and signing the ADL workplace pledge to fight antisemitism (which is making the comms industry rounds, too) — Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai on Tuesday pledged to donate $8 million to relief organizations in Israel and Gaza.
“Our Jewish Googlers around the world are reeling from these attacks — which bring painful reminders of the worst moments in history — and are experiencing a rise in antisemitic incidents that call for increased security at synagogues and schools,” Pichai wrote.
“Our Palestinian, Arab and Muslim Googlers are deeply affected by a concerning rise in Islamophobia, and are watching with dread as Palestinian civilians in Gaza have suffered significant loss and fear for their lives amid the escalating war and humanitarian crisis,” he said.
A rep for an Israeli tech company said her company, along with the larger Israeli tech industry, were uncertain how to best handle communications immediately following the Hamas assault, and continue to proceed cautiously given global politics and desire to keep the sector strong.
It's no secret that taking stands come with risks.
McDonald's, for instance, is facing a boycott after an Israeli restaurant posted on social media that it will be providing Israeli soldiers free food. The action led to Palestinian protesters reportedly attacking two McDonald's in Lebanon. In response, McDonald’s Oman donated $100,000 donation to help people in war-torn Gaza; McDonald’s Turkey pledged $1 million for humanitarian aid.
Closer to home, Glover’s apology email caused a rift with PRSA members who opposed her sending it.
Chris Deri, Weber Shandwick’s chief corporate affairs officer & president of the firm's C-suite advisory businesses, said that at this point most organizations are making internal communications and efforts their priorities.
“While we have seen our clients and many other companies denouncing terrorism in no uncertain terms, there is not a singular approach, response or set of actions that will be right for all organizations,” Deri said.
“One differentiating factor here is the anticipated breadth and duration of the humanitarian crisis — we don’t expect a typical incident-and-response cadence that often characterizes many crises. Tragically, we believe governments, companies and the general public will need to be prepared for a sustained conflict that will affect millions of lives,” he said.
WE Communications is recommending clients take a similarly cautious approach.
“We are counseling our clients to prioritize internal communication with employees before communicating externally, and expect many companies are following that guidance,” said Rebecca Wilson, executive VP, international. “As the situation continues to change and evolve, it will require close monitoring and ongoing care and consideration when it comes to communications.”
Within the PR industry, there are efforts, too. Finn Partners (one of the few global agencies that has offices in Israel) is matching donations to Israeli’s Sheba Medical Center, while continuing its work with Israeli and Palestinian clients and NGOs. Weber Shandwick will be donating to aid organizations.
MikeWorldWide founder and CEO Michael Kemper has been particularly vocal on where he stands on the Israel-Hamas war, urging people not to conflate issues facing Palestinians with the violence of Hamas.
“It is important to understand that Hamas has no interest in working towards peace with Israel. They are a terrorist organization, no different than ISIS or Al Qaeda, solely focused on the destruction of Israel and killing Jews,” he wrote in a LinkedIn post.
Kempner, however, doesn't buy into the PR industry taking a largely tepid approach to addressing the war and its impact on people and clients.
“Not shocking, but most of my competitors have said nothing or hidden behind some bland statement from their holding companies,” Kempner said. “It’s a disgrace.”