I have been blogging about the war in Israel, as you may have read. It hits close to home, as I have family there, and Fusion PR works extensively with the Israeli tech sector.
But it is not my home. I live in NY. What do people who live there and work in the tech community have to say?
I wanted to find out. So, we invited guests to join a special PR, Done & Doner episode, a Fusion PR partner and a client:
- Yotam Gutman: cyber marketing and business development consultant
- Shai Alani, VP marketing, Aporia
We had an intense, wide ranging and sometimes emotional discussion that covered the following areas:
- Impact on lives, families and the tech community
- How to best respond and communicate
- What should the message be to employees, customers, investors and the world?
- Thoughts on the US reaction
You can listen to the full podcast here, or check out the video above. It was recorded one month after the attack by Hamas, so it does not include the latest developments, but is still relevant. I share below an edited transcript from our conversation.
Bob: How are you and your families doing?
Yotam: I’m in Herzlia, a couple of kilometers North of Tel Aviv. In general, central Israel is safe at the moment. We do get some some rockets, like once or twice a day, which are handled by Iron Dome and and other mechanisms.
So it’s relatively safe. Kids are back at school, they have shelters there.
It kind of feels like everything is normal, but it really isn’t. My daughters are are eight and eleven. We try to to shield them from the situation as much as we can, but when you’re walking in the street, you see signs with pictures of people being kidnapped. They ask you about it, you try to circumnavigate that as much as you can. You take them out of the room when you watch the news. So, we try to shelter them, and and hopefully things will improve.
Israel is fairly small. I mean, sometimes we sit here outside and we actually hear the the fighting going on in Gaza which is, I don’t know, 80 kilometers away. You can sometimes hear it at night.
Bob Have any missiles actually landed in that area, or has Iron Dome gotten them all?
Yotam Only small fragments. As long as people adhere to security instructions, e.g., you walk into the shelter whenever there’s a siren, you wait for 10 minutes. We even have a special application on the phone so, if you don’t hear the siren, you run to the shelter.
Sadly, we’re very well rehearsed in this very unnatural situation. So, we are trying to keep ourselves safe and endure.
Bob What about you and your family Shai? As I understand it, you are in the reserves, is that correct?
Shai: Yeah, so my mandatory service was as a combat soldier. Mandatory service was three years, now it’s a bit less. I got injured in the in the last quarter of the last year. So I volunteered for reserves during the first week of the war, serving in the IDF as a spokesman.
We’re mainly focused on global media and trying to get out the story to as many people as we can. So, we’ve connected a group of 50 CMOS and VPs of marketing that work for global companies, like us, and try to generate media pickups of of either families of hostages, families of people who were lost due to this tragedy, or people that were actually there.
Whenever there’s an opportunity from the global press we’re just introducing the right people… and telling the story of what happened. We are trying to make these connections because we know that the press is as important as the actual fighting.
When you look at it from a numbers perspective, it’s very easy to be to be numb to what actually happened. But when you hear the stories, when you hear the people tell about their friends or family who just woke up on a Saturday morning and wanted to eat with their closest and dearest and got massacred, it brings a different angle and we’re more than happy to do these connections.
I want to roll back to the to the question that you originally asked, about how are we, and I think this could be the the most complicated question to answer, because on one hand, we’re okay; we’re physically okay, mentally okay. My family is is also fine, but Israel is such a small country. I don’t think that there’s a single person that doesn’t know someone who was affected by this tragedy. So, it kind of makes you think about how to answer the most basic questions of how are we, how are we feeling?
This is the craziest thing in this situation.
Bob: It seems like important work, are you starting to have an effect?
Shai: Definitely, we’ve had around 300 interviews since the beginning of this scenario, with global press… from New Zealand to San Francisco. We’re very happy with what we’ve accomplished. Sadly, due to the fact that the Israeli military is currently in Gaza trying to clear out the terrorists, we’re seeing the global media kind of shift to things that are occurring now in Gaza, not not the situation that was the actual root of what’s happening.
Bob: It was the lead story on many networks; of course it has been for weeks. We just had an election yesterday, and the Republican debate’s tonight, so it quickly gets pushed off the front pages by many. How has business been impacted?
Shai: It was impacted. Every business in israel was impacted by the situation. Plenty of people got fired, mostly in the domestic businesses. Plenty of people just can’t wake up and go to work. There are employees in our company, their dearest one is either hurt or currently serving in the army just trying to protect the civilian lives here. So, they just can’t come to work knowing that their loved one could be hurt at any given time.
I have two brothers, one is serving in the northern border of Israel and one is serving in the southern border, and whenever something happens, you can’t think of anything else.
As a global company, we continue to do what we do because we need to push forward the economy and and we need to make sure that we’ll survive in the global domain that we’re taking an active part in.
Bob: We’ve been on calls with clients and heard the sirens in the background. We’ve been on media briefings and heard the same. Yotam, are you continuing your great work in cyber?
Yotam: I’m consulting to cyber companies and they have been impacted in very similar way, starting from employees who have been drafted and others who have relatives and friends who have been impacted; some killed some kidnapped, others just with families in the conflict areas. They’ve been evacuated towards more central, secure locations. So, they have to tend to their families.
I am very lucky, my family is safe; no one I know has been impacted. We’re very fortunate, but when you see the news, when you hear the sirens, something changes.
We thought we were immune to that. I mean, living here for the past 45 years, I’ve seen like the first rockets fired here; it was ’91, the first Iraq war. Then, we had numerous terrorist bombings. I’ve been in the IDF for six and a half years, then another 14 in reserve duties, three wars. You think you’re immune to that, but what we’ve seen and felt on that day and going forward was something completely different.
A lot of people here compared it to the Holocaust. It sure feels more like a genocide than an actual war. And the fact that it hasn’t been resolved, there are people who are absent. Some may never be located. There are over 200 people kidnapped. Having kids of your own and thinking about kids in captivity, or taken from their parents, or seeing their parents bleed to death. I mean it shakes you.
We’ve heard stories like that from 70 plus years ago. We never thought we’d live to see that happening here.
So, on one hand, yes, I’m sitting here it’s nice, I’m having air conditioning. I’m older than Shai, so my closest friends aren’t in the field at the moment, and the people I know are safe.
On the other hand, I always like to to look at other places and compare. We have a very recent example of a conflict on a much larger scale with massive human suffering going on in the Ukraine, over close to 18 months or so.
And, as you said, it catches the the headlines for the first week, the first month. Then, when something outragous happens…
There’s constant fighting there going on every day. Regardless of who you think is right, there’s a huge human tragedy going, on and people have learned to live with that. I have friends in Kiev who work with Israeli companies and in other places because Ukraine is a big tech hub… A lot of companies have outsourced entire teams to the Ukraine.
And the first couple of months, once this whole thing started, it was, you know, crazy. People didn’t know whether their employees were somewhere under Russian occupied territories. They couldn’t hook up to the Internet.
Luckily, Ukrainians are very technically proficient. They managed to circumnavigate all the blockings, connect through VPNs. And you talk to these guys, they say “yeah, I mean there are Russians outside but I’m in the basement, I have internet connectivity. I might as well just work, get some money flowing to my family.”
And the fact that they’ve been doing it for so long, under extremely difficult conditions. I mean, hundreds of thousands of people have died in that war and five million have fled the country. It gives me hope. I mean, I sincerely hope our situation will end sooner, but people can endure under very difficult conditions. And I think what you said, Bob, this is the key… I mean we have to keep on functioning as a society, we have to keep on doing business.
If we don’t bring money in, there’s no way we can pay taxes and support this effort. So, by doing what we do now, we actually help Israel overcome this situation. That gives me a lot of hope and optimism.
Bob: What should companies be saying and doing at this point? I’m talking about all channels: internally, to their employees, social media, and public relations.
Shai: You need have a lot of compassion first for your employees; yes the the internal communication is the most important channel as I see it. Because people are going through stuff. If you want the business to keep on rolling, you need to make sure…
You need to be very open with with the the employees of the company. Show compassion, show that you know that they’re going through something and it’s okay if they’ll take the time.
I think most of the companies did that after the first week of war, just let the employees do whatever they wanted. A lot of people decided to volunteer to help the the the army build its forces, make sure that logistics work, and volunteer whatever they can.
There were people in the south that were evacuated in tens of thousands, or people who got recruited on a shiny Saturday for weeks of war.
So, that was the first week – talking it through with the employees of the company. But then, I think after the first week it was our responsibility, as Yotam said, to try to make the business roll, to try to make the economy roll.
If you’re not an active reserve server, which is most of the the Israeli people, you need to make sure that after this war will end, the business will survive. it’s our responsibility
So communicating and talking with your investors, your customers, that the business is running, we know that you’re aware of the situation in Israel. We’re very proud of being Israelis, we talk about it very openly with our customers. We’re a tech company, so we work mostly with engineers and data scientists and they’re fully aware of where we’re based we’re not shy about it.
So, I think communicating and talking with either the champions or teams that you’re working with, that: “thank you for being worried for us…. we’re here, available for you for whatever you need …” it’s our responsibility.
Bob Yotam, would you agree? Any other viewpoints?
Yotam: Yeah, I agree. I think it’s the right way to to handle any company, especially as startups. Employees first, customers second and investors third; so that’s the order of of importance.
Obviously, the business cannot last without the employees; they need your support. All the companies that I’ve spoken to have given their employees the leeway to do whatever they want to do. Some have allocated funds for them to call in babysitters to allow people to work.
There’s a massive shortage of of working hands in the industry and in agriculture. We have a lot of foreign workers from Thailand that have fled the country, so the fields are are filled with fruits and vegetables ripe for the picking, and no one to pick them. Entire companies took a day off, went to the fields and have picked them up. There’s huge logistic supports around the country.
So, if you do that as a company, it helps bring people together, it gives you a sense of meaning.
Obviously it’s not going to save the country or the agriculture, but it does help a lot of people, volunteering in general. A lot of Israeli companies do it on an ongoing basis for myriad reasons, but especially now it’s critically important.
And I think that customers are aware of our situation, and I think they understand that for a week or two there’s going to be some delays, and that’s fine if you communicate that clearly. And, after that, you should emphasize that although, yes, it has some impact on the business, we will try to do whatever we can to keep everything normal.
And, again, it’s not business as usual it’s an economy under war, but we’re robust and resilient enough to withstand that.
I look back not very long ago to Covid. When Covid started, it seemed like the end of the world. How can we work when the office is closed? And we all managed to find ways to circumnavigate that and find new ways, and actually businesses have found ways to do it better, in an improved manner.
A lot of tech companies are very young, people out of the IDF; so they’ve been drafted; and they still manage to deliver on time. That just means they’re going to be more effective down the line.
I think this is a very strong point with Israel: yes we can operate in such unnatural circumstances. We should not ignore the challenges – but on the other hand I think that we should keep our focus on doing business and delivering.
Bob: What about the backlash and anti-Israel sentiment?
Yotam: Some companies have picked fights… where people have said, you know, things against Israel.
I think that personally you should do whatever you think you should do, but keep the business going, don’t get into dog fights. Don’t try to be the the spokesperson of Israel.
People have started doing battles on LinkedIn, posting a lot of very graphic content. I don’t think that’s the right platform to do that. Anyway, if you want to be active, do it as your own voice and not as the company and pick the right platform where people are interested in having discussions.
Otherwise, doing this on social media is just like smashing your against the wall. nothing good is going to come out of it.
Bob: I think it’s a very strong message to send about resilience, and, let’s face it, much of the world depends on a lot of the great technology that comes out of Israel; and, for the most part, Israeli tech is keeping up, right?
Yotam: As far as I can tell. I mean we’ve gone into this situation not in bad shape but not in terrific shape. The economy had taken a hit even prior to this attack. It hasn’t been a great year for tech in general, and in Israel, specifically, with everything that’s going on locally and politically.
But businesses are still moving and we’ve had two huge exits this week alone worth over a billion dollars. I mean, Paulo Alto came and bought two cyber companies. If that’s not a vote of confidence…
It’s not like they’re based here, it’s not like they can take this IP and implement it into Palo Alto’s platform and it will work tomorrow. No, they have a very long effort of implementing it, they count on Israel. I see it as a vote of confidence, that the leading cyber company in the world (we can all agree, they have like $70 billion in in market cap, it’s huge) and they’ve placed this bet on Israel saying we believe in this market; we believe in this tech community.
So who am I to argue with Palo Alto? They’re not an Israeli company by any means. They do have some Israeli ancestors but, other than that, they want to do business. They think the tech is good, they trust the people to be here.
Going forward I think that’s a strong message: it’s difficult but we will endure.
Shai: I want to second that, and I think if you’re talking about a non-Israeli company making investments, you can look at all of the big names: Nvidia, Intel, Google, Apple Amazon; all of these companies have either shown support in Israel, or in their Israeli employees. They’re showing the people that work there: we’re with you, stay strong and we’ll go back to business as soon as everything is going to end.
Bob: Apart from letting the world and your customers know that you’re there, you continue to operate, what should the message be, what should the pace of communications be? Are we going to come out with a big product announcement now, are we continuing with events, are we acknowledging what’s happening in some way, even if we’re not getting political?
Shai: It depends; how big are you, how strong are you? I do gree with Yotam. I think that most of the companies shouldn’t pick a side.
I’m an Israeli civilian. I live in Israel, so I can pick a side, it’s okay as myself. Will Aporia go out with a huge announcement that we back up israel? It’s not relevant.
For big brands that have employees that work here, it is important. For startups, 400-500 employee companies, is it important to pick a side? No, it’s important to keep on working. I don’t think that it’s a company’s job to pick a side, unless we’re talking about huge brands like all of the ones I’ve named before.
Yotam: And even if you are such a big brand like Intel (and they have massive operations here). They have more than 10,000 employees in Israel, and they have given a grant of I think $500 to all their employees in Israel.
That’s a big investment, and that’s to show that they support the people of Israel. They didn’t have to go out publicly and say we condemn the people who are going against Israel… no, they just very publicly said these people are in need there, as a company we support them…
I think that’s what you should be doing. The best way to test that will be, going forward, there’s a big AWS conference at the end of the month. Many cyber companies, many Israeli companies will be there in some capacity.
I think that’s the best way to ensure that, I mean, we show the world that we keep on. And business – it’s not as usual but it’s operating.
So you don’t have to be there with a huge Israeli flag. It’s enough if you stand at your booth and you welcome people. If they want to talk politics, they can do that. You’re not there to represent Israel, not there to fight people who want to boycott you, that’s not your role.
If you are there and you’re accessible people say, hey we know that you’ve been through a rough time, but this is the business and you keep doing what you need to.
Bob: It must be incredibly frustrating, assuming you’re watching the headlines and the news coming outof the US; not just from the media, but some of the conflicts and protests against Israel. What is your reaction – do you watch them, do you tune out these kind of reports?
Yotam: I don’t think it’s possible to tune it out, I mean it it will reach you on any platform that you use: Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn. It’ll catch you on TikTok. You see it in the mainstream media.
I mean, as I said it’s a big world. There’s lots of opinions, and and I think at least the mainstream media is doing an okay job in portraying the situation as it is (I am not talking about the history).
There have been atrocities. There are casualties on the other side, we understand, it’s a war. I mean, if you keep a balance in reporting, it’s fine.
As with all the anti-Israeli sentiment in the world, again I always look back at history. It’s nothing new. It happens every time there’s an armed conflict involving Israel. It has happened to the Jewish people before.
I don’t think the state of Israel should be extremely concerned about this at the moment because we have more acute things to deal with. And, in the end, if we do what we need to do to keep our a civilians safe, that’s the main focus at the moment.
Although, it does get under your skin. I mean, we know that there has been, as I said, atrocities. Kids and and babies have been murdered. I’m not saying that kids aren’t dying in Gaza, but no one here is doing this on purpose.
I mean, this is the big difference. And I guess, when you live far away and you feed off media or even just social media influencers, you would get a very unbalanced view of what’s happening. And I don’t blame people, especially young. If you lived through 9/11, you know that it feels like a kick in the gut to anyone living in the free world, but specifically people in the US. If you’re younger than that and you don’t have this living in the memory of civilians dying in a huge unprecedented terror attack, I mean if you haven’t actually felt that, it might seem, you know, mundane. Okay, there’s been another skirmish in Israel. More people are dying. It doesn’t seem that unique.
When you’ve lived through that time, you’re traumatized even if you’re not impacted directly. The same with Pearl Harbor, although no one here is old enough to have lived through that. But something like that lives in the memory of a nation, and if you’ve lived through that, I think you have some empathy to what we’re going through.at the moment; and if you haven’t, I hope you’ll never experience that in your life
I mean, you’re a New Yorker right? 9/11 lives in your memory. Whenever you look there at the skyline. something is missing. You don’t even have to go to Ground Zero to know that something terrible has happened.
When someone dies here in Israel, we use the word halal, which literally means a vacant space to describe them… If you’re killed on active duty, we call you literally a vacant space or blank space, and that’s what you see when you look at the skyline, I mean you can always imagine what happened there and what the people must must have felt.
But if you’re new to New York and you look at the skyline, it’s just what it is, so I can’t blame you for not reliving the tragedy, but more empathy would definitely help in this case.
Bob: Part of the challenge, though, is that the reports and the sentiment bring pressure on the Israeli government and on the US government, ties your hands a bit maybe. I don’t know, I mean it’s just frustrating to see the attempts at nuance and moral equivalence, which just really hurt. So I guess we’re all doing our part, that’s what this podcast is about, Shai, that’s what your effort is about: to try to in some way to help shape the narrative.
Yotam: I have to say, Bob, as an Israeli, and both Shai and myself, we have some military background; mine, specifically from the Navy; and, seeing the amount of forces, that the US has sent here to back Israel up, to help us against, you know future, conflicts; there are two carrier groups operating in the region; there’s a huge Marine force right next to southern Israel; there’re bombers all around; they’re sending more missiles, and anti-missile missiles to the region.
I mean, the US is putting genuine support for Israel and it is definitely unprecedented. There’s never been such massive actual military support and, I think in times like this, you can really tell who your friends are in the world. And there’s been an alliance between the United States and Israel going back decades, but we really feel it at this point, and we’re grateful
I hope the US doesn’t have to step in militarily, but the fact that it’s here to support us, that means that the Free World acknowledged that something has changed and the fact that the US is sending troops here to to assist means that we’re not alone, and it’s heartwarming. Again, I hope no one has to go into fight, and that we can end this on our own without further escalation, but if it does happen.we know we have your your back, so thank you for that.
Bob: Well, we have to do what we can to try to mitigate a wider regional conflict and be there as a friend.
Some have said even before the war, with the political conflict there, that there 1might be an exodus of Israeli executives and startups to other parts of the world, maybe the US. Have you seen any of that?
Shai: I think that we’re seeing the the other direction, lots of Israelis coming back from all over the world. I have five friends that have come back from the US and Europe.
I think a part of it is because they’re scared; like, we see what’s going on in Europe, we see the the global sentiment and people are worried.
But the main reason for for their comeback is feeling the need of being here, feeling the need of being with family feeling the need of being around, helping.
Bob: Any other thoughts to share?
Yotam: I have to say that I’ve gotten numerous messages, phone calls, on LinkedIn on Twitter, people have my number through WhatsApp from from many places, especially in the US.
And the first notion was always “how are you guys?” The second is, “we support you.” And you can’t really say a lot through text messages. I used to do this very laconic message saying “we’re safe but we’re not okay” and then “thank you,” something like that, but it really means a lot.
And I think that’s the strength of business and personal relationships. I have many acquaintances, colleagues, and ex-colleagues around the world, and the fact that the Israeli tech community has such a wide network, it really helps us. We know that people will want to continue to buy Israeli products, they will want to continue to cooperate as I mentioned. I mean, that move with Palo Alto and Israeli companies – this has been brewing for months now, but the fact that they’ve finalized it this week, it means a lot.
And I really appreciate the fact that such big companies have taken not a bet, but a bold step. They could have postponed it, no one would have said anything. I mean the future of the area is is under turmoil, okay but they went through with it.
It’s not business as usual but we try to keep it like that.