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PR Campaign Brought an Israeli Soldier Home
By: Shawn Paul Wood
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Finally! Now, when I hear PR jokes and people comparing flacks with used car salesmen, I'll bring up this story from FOX News about a public relations and social media campaign that freed a captive soldier held in captivity by Hamas for more than five years.

That's Hamas
as in professional thugs who, when asked in class as kids what they want to be when they grow up, reply "Martyr." By the way, they are releasing not just a cat they don't like, but also national enemy no. 1 an Israeli solider. Fascinating.

PR firms and communications experts working for Shalit's parents drove a sophisticated campaign that also enlisted celebrities, musicians and an army of thousands of volunteers. It was aimed at pressuring two Israeli prime ministers to negotiate the release of Shalit, captured in a daring cross-border raid by Gaza militants in 2006.

You see, in Israel, military service is not a choice. There is no draft, just a finger pointing you in the direction of the closest armed forces office. So, some kid no one knew getting captured by Hamas was terrible, but not uncommon. At the time of his capture, Shalit was 19 years old, serving in a tank unit along the Gaza border and destined to be just some dude serving his country (if there is such a thing, regardless of the free country). This PR campaign made Shalit a living hero, a brand for patriotism, and the face of the Israeli army.

"What we did was to strategically identify the main message that was needed to guide the campaign. That message was that Gilad is everyone's son," said Benny Cohen, a partner in Rimon Cohen Sheinkman PR, the Tel Aviv-based public relations firm approached by Shalit's parents in 2007.

The campaign made an isolated incident into a national cause and a banner under which anyone in the country with a voice walked under. Imagine the Occupy Wall Street, only with a clear finish line and well-bathed people. Shalit's parents even erected a "protest tent" outside the prime minister's house in Jerusalem. This tent eventually became a pilgrimage site for activists. You think the average code enforcement officer had any clout to pull rank and ask the tent to be moved?

Uh, no.

Cohen, the PR man, said one reason the Shalit campaign drew higher levels of engagement than those for other captive soldiers was the changed media age — online social networks, for example, played a central role in helping to organize and spread messages.

In fact, many Facebook pages were created, the largest with more than 200,000 members. The campaign was kept afloat by donations but no one really knows publicly how much money was spent over the years. My favorite part is that Cohen's PR firm and several others worked pro bono with the family, its campaign headquarters and a legion of volunteers to keep Shalit in the headlines.

Noted anthropologist Margaret Mead once penned, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has." I suppose she was on to something. Ah, PR. How I loves this drug so.


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About the Author
Shawn Paul Wood is a hack-turned-flack with more than 20 years of collective journalism, copywriting and marketing communications experience. Shawn Paul is founder of Woodworks Communications in Dallas, Texas. If you need him, ping him here or follow him on Twitter @ShawnPaulWood
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