When the air-raid sirens ring out in Israel, there is only one sure prescription for calming the public’s frazzled nerves – hearing the voice of the Israeli army spokesman, Nachman Shai.
The handsome 44-year-old brigadier general has become the country’s hottest media superstar. His reassuring, personable demeanor on radio and tv after each air-raid alert has endeared him to the public.
Shai has been army spokesman for only six months, but already he has restored credibility to a position tarnished during the Palestinian uprising and the war with Lebanon. A recent poll found that 95% of the Israeli public have complete trust in what Shai says, compared with a high of 69% for the previous army spokesman.
Shai, who previously worked for both Israeli tv and the country’s largest daily newspaper, Yediot Ahranot, makes an effort to relate to the public on a personal level.
For example, when he gave instructions on how to put gas masks on panicky young children, he also talked about his own problem at home with his 5-year-old son. Says Shai, “When I was a newspaper writer, I also always asked myself, ‘Will my mother understand what I’m trying to communicate?’”
Shai’s success came after a shaky start on the night of the first missile attack. While asleep in his Jerusalem home, he failed to hear the sirens go off, and panic-stricken Israelis had to wait 15 minutes before Shai delivered the first official instructions and assessment of the situation.
But since then, the public never has had to wait more than a minute or two for Shai after the sirens ring out. “I learned that I don’t have time to wait for a thorough check of the situation or estimates of the injured.
“First, we just have to restore sanity, and if the public simply hears my voice, a voice they recognize, it tells them the army is in control.”