Maxim Behar: Positive Things Happening in Bulgaria Are Unknown to the World
Novinite is publishing an interview with its founder Maxim Behar, CEO of M3 Communications Group and ICCO President, which was originally published in Bulgaria On Air Inflight Magazine.
Among the topics discussed are Bulgaria's reputation and image abroad, his work at the helm of ICCO, the PR industry in the country today, and the impact of social media on journalism.
Mr Behar, you recently founded an association called Branding Bulgaria, or The Bulgarian Image. How important is reputation for a country?
This is the most important thing for Bulgaria right now. Indeed the most important, because whatever we do, however we do it, the world must learn about it. For over 25 years I’ve been dealing with the creation of various investment forums, making our country attractive to foreign investors. I’m more and more convinced that in the modern world where we can communicate with people from everywhere, at any time, the most important thing is to be able to present Bulgaria they way it is. I’ve been to more than 50 countries around the world and I’m certain that the most important advantage Bulgaria has right now is its people. Intellect, culture, relationships, achievements, smiles… And if we manage to demonstrate what these people are capable of, many will look at our country through new eyes.
Does Bulgaria currently have a bad reputation? Or rather none at all?
Rather none at all. What’s more, all these incredibly positive things happening here are quite unknown to the world. I’m constantly asking people in other countries what they think when they hear about Bulgaria. I recently asked an influential man in the United States this question. He just said, “Where?”
For seven years the former Governor of Nevada, Bob Miller, and I were organizing popular conferences called Bulgaria – Dream Area, and when asked where Bulgaria is we simply answered by saying, “north of Greece.”It’s the easiest explanation, understandable to anyone. "South of Romania" doesn’t ring a bell; "Eastern Europe, on the other hand, seems to be understood as a whole.
It’s really more important to show the things happening in Bulgaria, as well as the things Bulgarians do abroad. I often argue with my friends who moan and groan about brain drain fromBulgariaand who say that there are no capable people left. I tell them: a Bulgarian who has succeeded abroad is even more valuable to the country than a Bulgarian who is successful in Bulgaria. I have my strong arguments. First, a Bulgarian abroad succeeds in a competitive, multinational and diverse environment. In order to succeed, they compete with at least 20 other nationalities.
Second, a Bulgarian who has become the head of a bank in the UK, the home of this business, is the best possible advertisement of Bulgaria. However, the same applies for the goodtaxi driver, for the good babysitter... Anyone who is good at their job is a great advertisement of Bulgaria!
Practically speaking, how could successful Bulgarians be presented? Who should do it?
Those Bulgarians who are abroad should do it themselves. If they know how important this is, what kind of ambassadors they are, what huge responsibility they have... A Bulgarian waiter in Milan or Barcelona – and there are manyof those – communicates with 200-300 people every day. If they make a good impression, these people become fans of Bulgaria straight away. And remain a fan forever.
Personally, I deeply don’t believe in mainstream TV advertising. I have yet to see a well done advertisement of Bulgaria and because we usually advertise everything the others also have: spa resorts, beaches, mineral water... Until relatively recently there were ads of honey stirrers with honey flowing down them – as if honey only exists in Bulgaria.
Advertising itself in its classic form does not seem to work as well...
It’s a fact. But if we had various online and social mediaforumswhere some successful Bulgarians exchanged their experience with others, shared the specifics of their countries, and said how they succeeded... A social media posting can disappoint 50,000 people,potentially even a million,or, if it’s done well andintelligently,it can make these people fans of Bulgaria. Online media can present Bulgaria as a country with intelligent people with a European mentality, who fit really well in the whole European picture. Of course, there are plenty of flaws in Bulgaria. I’ve always been against entirely pink messages: come, we have the best here, the most beautiful beaches and so on. When I’m being interviewed for foreign media and I meet people abroad, I always answer the questions they ask. Yes, there’s corruption, just like there is everywhere around the world. There are bad roads. But it’s important to see how advanced Bulgariain only 25 years . Sofia, for instance, isn’t Vienna yet, of course, and it doesn’t need to be. But over time it’s getting closer and closer to it and that’s more than obvious.
Bulgarians tend to notice what’s negative more easily than noticing the positive and also tend to underestimate themselves. How do you explain this?
It’s not only a Bulgarian tendency. There are many other countries where hatred and nihilism prevail. Over the past 25 years Bulgaria has been experiencing a rapid and dramatic transition. During this wild shift from one system to another, lots of values and criteria about where we’d like to be have been lost.Did we want a market economy? Then there would be rich and poor. A lot of people are disappointed by this and feel nostalgic about the past.
They can’t appreciate what’s happened and it is gigantic. For 15 years “we’ve moved” fromthe Warsaw Pact to NATO. For 18 years we’ve replaced the CMEA with the European Union. It’s somethingunprecedented. Historically, 17-18 yearsare nothing. This stress has confused lots of people’s value system. But when these same people go to Spain or the UK and feel homesick during the first three months, but then they get used to it and see that in order to succeed, one must work hard, be disciplined, obey the bosses, be creative, and take initiative... For example, I’ve always believed that the Turkish economic miracle that has happened in recent years is, to great extent, a result ofTurkish “guest workers”in Western Europe.
Do you mean not only the financial impact from immigrants, but also the way of thinking they bring back with them?
Of course. The habits, the atmosphere from a truly market environment... Once, the Turks went to Germany ultra poor, did the dirtiest jobs, but sent their children to German schools; they, in turn, sent their children to the best German universities and now they’re returning to Turkey and becoming the basis of theeconomic elite of the nation. The same will happen in Bulgaria.
If you look back at those 25 years, what are the main mistakes we could have avoided?
I think business should have prevailed more decisively over politicians and dictated the reforms. Because when communism was falling in 1989, there wasn’t a single experienced market-oriented politician in Bulgaria.
And when these amateur-politicians began dictating the rules of the game, many of the things that had been positively planned at the beginning of the transition, were twisted based on personal interests. My first book is called "Secondary Instinct: Why what happened in Bulgariawas that nothing happened." In it Icompare what happened in Poland, Czechia and Bulgaria.In Poland people had long been ripe for the market economy: literally the next morning they got into theirFiats and headed for Frankfurt and Vienna to trade, to import... The Czechshave always been an extremely pragmatic people. A great basis of comparison with Bulgaria is what they did with theiragricultural cooperatives. Politicians in Bulgariamade an extremely wrong and impractical decision – to give the land to everyone and let them do anything they wanted with it. In Czechia the land was returned, but always within the cooperative. Thus, they preserved the functions of a profitable agriculture. There are dozens more examples, including privatization, the management of state companies, etc. However, despite these errors Bulgaria isn’t a different country now compared to 1989, Bulgaria is a different planet…
Your sector – PR and advertising – has come a very long way over these 25 years. In the beginning, Bulgarian businesses considered these a luxury and were of a last concern.When did this attitude start changing?
It’s a fact that there wasn’t a great understanding about the PR business in the new markets, not only in Bulgaria. This was because the difference between PR and advertising was very fragile then. It was also because the media here had great influence – like the communistparty once affected them, business also started trying to influence them, as if by inertia: directly, without the mediation of PR consultants and were considerably financially backed. But then German investors came – WAZ – who for some time owned a majority share of the media market and imposed their working model. The second factor is thatlots of large western companies came to Bulgaria and they couldn’t imaginethey would try to directly influence the media. The first thing these companies did here was to find a good PR agency. Then they expected the same quality service they had received from theiragenciesin Germany, France, and the USA. This helped us develop really fast. Now, the PR market is really well-developed and competition between the large agencies is starting to become more and more ethical and professional.
You’ve recently become President of the International Communications Consultancy Organization (ICCO). In the past, you were in charge of the Bulgarian Association of Advertising Agencies. How do such alliances between such fierce competitors function?
At ICCO we don’t have much competition, as we don’t unite companies, but rather national associations. We have 48 countries, which means that there are 48 people on my board. This is quite labor-intensive and takes a huge amount of my time. Yet, it’s a great responsibility for a Bulgarianto demonstrate that what we’re doing here in the PR-businessis absolutely commensurate with what they do in big countries. There are at least ten firms in Bulgaria, which regularly win international awards in competition with global companies. It shows that our market is really well-developed – not only the PR market, but also the industrial one as a whole. As we’re on the secondarymarket: if we have good clients, we’ll also have good projects.
Does the PR-industry in Bulgaria still have its own specific characteristics, compared to other countries? You also conduct business in other countries, so you have a basis for comparison.
In Bulgaria we’re part of Hill+Knowlton Strategies, which isthe world’s largest PR corporation. For five years I’ve also been managing the company’s Czech office, so I have quite a detailed look over various markets. In addition, my role at the ICCO allows me to compare. Each market has its own characteristics, but social media seems to be blurring the lines as they operate in nearly the same wayeverywhere. We are left with the cultural and historical characteristics of each nation. Some are more emotional, others aremore relaxed. The means of expression vary, but the means of communication, to a great extent, have already been equalized.
You were one of the pioneers of the professional use of social media in our country. How has this changed the PR industry?
They’ve turned the whole business upside down, or downside up. It depends on the point of view. It’s been the most drastic change in the PR-business over the past 120 years. It was only until a decade ago that our role was that of a mediatorbetween our clients and the media. If someone produces good beer, for example, through our service and creativity they would like the media to learn about their achievement in an attractive way, to inform society and urge people to start buying the product. It was the closed circle. Now, however, the clients already own media. The ownership of the media has changed. Five or six years ago, in order to be a journalist, you had to work for a newspaperor for a TV station.Now, everyone is their own media - whether it’s LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, it doesn’t matter. They all have something newspapers can’t offer – interactivity. This change has actually drastically changed our business from being creative mediators to even more creative media managers and content writers.
It’s also much easier to measure the effect of advertising...
Not just easier because the effect is 100 percentmeasured.This is the biggest advantage of social media. They allow you to be positioned right where your potential clients are.
Once we used to tell our clients: newspaper Х has published a story about your product. Newspaper Х hasa circulation of 100,000; a newspaper is read by an average of four people, which means that 400,000 people have read it. Before, could we know whether on a particular day there were really 400,000 readers and how many of them read the articleon page 8 down in the corner? No way. You estimate within approximately 30 percent, which is a great deviationfor this business. Whereas nowadays you can be precise, down to the very last user: who has read it, what time, what their interests are, have they bought anything after reading about it... This is a huge advantage. Now the very concept of Public Relations is an anachronism and it won’t last for more than four or fiveyears. When this business was emerging, a great part of human relations was non-public. Today, however, all relations have become public. A month ago I gave a lecture at the University of Milan. Wediscussed this same topic and we came to the conclusion that the right term in the future would be Live Relations, orLive Communications.
What will happen to journalism now that we have social media?
... it’s already happening – in fact, it’s already happened.
... because what mainstream media had and social ones don’t, is authority and trust. People used to say, "It’s in the newspaper, so it must be true.” Now, if it’s on Facebook, is it true? Isn’t this explosion of populism we witnesseven in countries like the UK and the USA due to the fact that more and more people get information from social media with their blurry responsibility? In June we saw how in the UK, the country with the oldest, best developed and most free media, people made an obviously uninformed decision regarding the referendum?
This shows exactly the opposite. It shows that social media have authority because social media carried out the Brexit campaign. Not only that, but alsoBarack Obama’s campaign and to a great extent Donald Trump’s campaign – it is all a lot of commercial products.
I am referring to “authority” with a slightly different meaning. Once publishers were responsible for what they published – if you’ve published something in the newspaper it remains forever attached to your name and you’re responsible for it. There’s no such responsibility in social media – first, because there’s no lasting physical object, and second, because there’s no publisher...
Yes. In my opinion, however, they’re reliable for a different reason. Theoretically, you can bribe a journalist or a whole newspaper – whether you do it with money, charm or special treatment. Yet, you can’t buy a social network. You can’t influence Facebook. Users have the role and the final say there, the real civil society is there now.
I know that much of the information on social networks might be unreliable. However, the chanceof refuting it thereis repeatedly greater than in mainstreammedia. Post anything false on Facebook and immediately there will be 10 comments confirming it as misleading information.
Paradoxically, sometimes obvious fabrications continue circulating on Facebook for months, after they’ve been categorically refuted...
That’s true. But with mainstream media the risk is much greater. A commissioned article, or one a journalist did a bad job on, can hardly be refuted. Especially if the information is on the front page and the refutation is on page 12 down in the corner.
I know social media hides lots of risks. They allow extremists or poorly educated people to influence large groups of people. Nevertheless, if you look 120 yearsback, when Henry Ford introduced his first car, he also heard the risks: what happens if you get a flat tire? What if the engine breaks down or if we run out of petrol? What if the car runs over somebody? But today, we all drive cars even with all their risks. The same goes for social media. And that’s how it will be. One more important thing – the world is really small and we must know it’ll become smaller and smaller.
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