US Public Relations Analyst Paul Holmes: Bulgarian PR Agencies Are as Good as Those in the West

Novinite Insider » INTERVIEW | Author: Ivan Dikov |September 11, 2009, Friday // 16:05
Bulgaria: US Public Relations Analyst Paul Holmes: Bulgarian PR Agencies Are as Good as Those in the West Paul Holmes, leading world PR specialist and publisher of The Holmes Report. Photo by M3 Communications Group, Inc.

Interview with Paul Holmes, leading US PR analyst and publisher of the Holmes Report.

Paul Holmes is one of the most renown PR specialists in the world, often described as the most influential figure in the public relations industry globally. Holmes is an editor and publisher with more than two decades of experience writing about and evaluating the public relations business and consulting with both public relations firms and their clients. In 2000, he founded The Holmes Report, a publication dedicated to providing insight, knowledge and recognition to public relations professionals. The Holmes Report organizes the world's largest and most sought after public relations awards competition, the SABRE Awards, which recognizes Superior Achievement in Branding and Reputation in North America, EMEA and the Asia-Pacific region.

Paul Holmes was in Bulgaria on Thursday, September 10, 2009, for a round table and a lecture on modern standards at PR business at the Sheraton Hotel at the invitation of the Bulgarian Association of PR Agencies (BAPRA).

Is this your first time to Bulgaria, and what are you impressions of the country?

It is my first visit here. What familiarity I have with Bulgaria is probably a typical Westerner's familiarity, which is not very much. I could find it on the map but I don't know very much about the country. But I am fairly familiar with the Bulgarian PR industry because several companies from this market have entered and done quite well in our awards competitions. So I know a little about the PR industry.

What is your impression of the Bulgarian PR industry? How is it different from the one in the Western states? Is it behind them in any way?

I think if you talk to PR people in America and the UK, the conventional wisdom is that the Eastern European public relations - I don't think any of them know very much about Bulgaria specifically - but Eastern Europe is behind. I don't think that is entirely true. I will say that the Eastern European public relations market differs from the Western European market in a couple of ways which don't have as much to do with the quality of public relations people here as it does with the quality and the tradition and the conventions of the media.

There is not the history of a free press here that there is in the US or the UK, and the rules - written and unwritten - for coverage of corporations are slightly different. And it doesn't have the same sort of corporate history here, and the understanding of the proper role of corporations in society is still evolving, and that creates a lot of challenges for public relations people. But one of the things that we found when we launched our awards competition was that there was very, very good public relations work being done everywhere.

I was very worried when we launched the competition that either all the winners would come from London, or all the winners would come from big multinational agencies. And I thought I might have to say, "Look, let's give an award to this little firm from Bulgaria because at least they are trying." Not at all. The first year that we did this, we had winning programs from Poland, Russia, Slovenia. We've had winners from - I think - every country in Europe.

The fact that there are more programs from London is simply because there are more PR agencies and more work in London. Not because they are better. What I think is true is that the best PR firms in Bulgaria are as good as the best PR firms anywhere. Or they are very close to it. The difference is how many of them. In London there 100 good PR firms, in Bulgaria there 8-10, a smaller amount. So it's the size of the market but not necessarily the quality. And the depth of the market. And also the quality of the young talent. Because in the US there are hundreds of programs for people to learn public relations. In Bulgaria there are three or four. So America is producing talent more quickly. Here I think it is still a young profession so you are sort-of training people as they work, and building it that way.

You mentioned the competitions you organize, the SABRE Awards. What are the basic criteria that you use to assess PR firms from different countries? How do you go about comparing them?

We have three separate competitions. First of all, it can be difficult. A good program in London might generate five million impressions, in Bulgaria - a lot fewer. Smaller population, smaller results. We look for a couple of things in particular. We look for creativity, big ideas, or very clever ideas. And we look for results. Not necessarily results in terms of how much media coverage because I think that public relations at its best has evolved beyond measuring success in terms of coverage - to business results - did we increase sales, did we change attitudes, did we get people to vote for a particular initiative that we wanted them to. So real behavioral results.

And the industry as a whole, globally, not just in Bulgaria, has not always been good at measuring its impact. A lot of PR programs have very vague objectives, "We just want people to like us better". I don't think you should be in business to make people like you. I think if making people like you results in better performance that is OK. But you should be measuring financial performance, and not how popular you are. So we look for those kinds of results. And I think that we have seen programs in Bulgaria where the results have been outstanding. It's difficult for me to recall specific programs.

You have this round table that you're going to be talking about PR business and modern standards. What will be your major message to the Bulgarian PR industry?

I think - because I am a journalist, I like giving both the good news and the bad news - and I think there's some very good news for the public relations industry in terms of what I think are big societal and technological trends. I think one of the things that's changed over the last 5-6 years, is that not very long, five years ago it was still possible for marketers to believe that their brand was all the things they told people about themselves. So it was the logo, the ad campaign, and the sponsorship, and that was your brand.

But today your brand is really all the things that other people are saying about you. So the challenge for marketers is to make sure that people are saying the right things. And if there is a gap between what you say about yourself and what people are saying about you, then you lose all credibility. In that situation what you are saying about yourself is counterproductive. Because people are seeing you say one thing, and their understanding is another, and there is a gap there that creates dissonance.

So the challenge is to contribute to those conversations, and I don't think advertising can do that, and public relations can, because PR has always been about having a conversation - usually a conversation with a journalist but today a conversation with a blogger, or a housewife, anybody who could influence the way your brand is perceived. So public relations people are in a better position to benefit from this greater engagement. This huge opportunity here is the good news.

The bad news is that I think a lot of companies are still doing public relations in entirely the wrong way for this new era. Because there are several things about this sort of conversational world that are different. The biggest is if you are not authentic, if you make claims about your company that are not true, or are exaggerated, you will be discovered incredibly quickly. Everybody is online. Your employees are online, and not all of them like you working for you, and so they will tell people what it is really like working at your company. Environmentalists are online, and they will tell people you are not as sustainable as you are. The people who buy your products are online, and they will tell people that your customer service sucks. So you have to make sure that you communicate two things.

First, you have to communicate very honestly. And second, there are a lot of people in this business who think that communicating and talking are the same thing but actually in this world, listening is as important, or maybe even more important than talking. If you are to engage with people, then actually hearing what they have to say, and taking it back inside the company is just as important as taking the company message out. And so public relations people have to learn to be good listeners as well. And they also have to learn to be more technologically savvy. Because this is a world in which so many of these conversations are taking place online - Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, and all those places. So PR people have to become smart enough to leverage all those.

A lot of the older PR people like big, established journalism, because they know the journalists, they know the rules, and sometimes there are other rules at all those other media I mentioned. So it is just more comfortable, and you have more control if you use traditional sources. So we have to learn to surrender a little bit of control. So good news is huge opportunity; the other side is we have to learn very quickly. And we are not the only people who see how the world is changing, and PR people are not going to be given that they have a right to it. We have to earn it.

You touched upon that already but has the Internet changed the very nature of PR, or just the ways you go about it?

I don't think it has the nature of PR, I think it has made it more difficult to do bad PR. And more difficult to get away with not doing PR properly. But I think good public relations has always been about conversations, authenticity, honesty, integrity. But obviously the reality is that lots of companies did not use PR that way. I think that you can get away with doing public relations in a dishonest, manipulative, unauthentic way up to a point. But then when you are discovered, it can be very, very damaging. And today you get discovered much more quickly.

Obviously, it has changed the profession. But I don't think it's the huge, seismic shift that everybody thinks it is. I think it's made it more difficult but it hasn't changed the rules. Because public relations isn't about technology, it is about people, relationships. And technology, however much of it there is, hasn't changed the way you build a good relationship. If I want you to trust me, I have to behave the same way whether you have a computer, or not, whether you are on the Internet, or not.

The difference is that today, if you don't trust me, you can tell so many more people about it. It used to be that if you had a bad experience with a company, you would go home and tell ten friends. Today, you write a blog about it, or you start a website, and you tell ten thousand people. So in the past, it would've been stupid for me to do something to make you not trust me but as long as I didn't do it over and over again, it was fine. Today I only need to do it once, and can blow up.

You've mentioned the need for honesty and integrity in PR. How frequent would you say are dishonest and manipulative practices in the PR industry globally?

More frequent than they should be. Here is the problem, I think. Doing bad PR is easy. Anybody can do it. And, like I say, I think that historically you could get away with it for quite a long time. Doing good PR is hard because if you are doing a really good PR, you don't just change what you say, you change how you behave. If I want to build a relationship with you, and I can't tell you how much I respect you if I am selling crappy products, or if I am dumping my waste in your backyard at night. If I am a company, and I want you to trust me, I can't build a relationship with you if I am polluting the river in the city where you live.

What I have to do is change. It's no use me sitting there, and say, "actually, we do care about the environment", when my employees are out pissing in a lake. So good PR is bad because you actually have to change who you are. It's really about changing the values that you have, changing the values of the organization, and in some cases changing its practices. It's not just about saying the right thins. Saying the right things is easy, doing the right things is hard. I'm being a little simple here but a lot of companies will try saying the right thing without doing the right thing until it doesn't work any more, and then they will do the right thing. It's much better to start by doing the right thing.

So I still think there are a lot of people doing PR the wrong way, more people do it the wrong way than the right way. But I think it's more and more difficult, and less and less sustainable to do that. I think in the past you might be able to do it and get away with it for ten years. Today I don't think you can get away with it for ten weeks, it's that kind of world. And the penalty will be higher.

If you go to political PR. Would you say that negative PR is stronger than positive messages? For example, in light of the last Presidential Elections in the US?

That's a very interesting questions, and to a certain extent my answer is the same as it has been always. First of all, the political world is very different from the corporate world. The first reason it's different is that there are a lot of people who are passionate about one side or the other. There are some people that nothing you can say would make them like you, there are other people nothing you can say can make them dislike you.

The second thing about politics is those people in the middle - it is less about a relationship that it is about a transaction. There are two things. First, they don't have to like you, they just have to dislike the other person more. So if have two candidates, and they both start out with 50% of the vote, and they criticize each other for a year, and at the end of it, one of them has 20% of the vote, and the other one has 19%, the guy with the 20% wins. If you are in business, and you both have 50% of the market, and you criticize each other, and you end up with 19%, and the other guy is with 20%, you both lose. Politics is a zero-sum game.

The second thing is that it is transactional. If I get you to vote for me, and then two weeks later you find out that I was lying to you the whole time - I don't care, you voted for me already. So I don't need a relationship with you, I need a transaction, I need you to do one thing, one time, and then I don't care. So you can get away with dishonesty in politics more than you can get away with it in the business world. We now all know that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It doesn't matter because by the time we found out we were over there killing people, and taking over the country. So that's the difference - politics can be a much more short term game so it's doesn't matter if you are found out.

Bulgaria's new Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, has a fairly interesting image of a kind of a "superhero". This public image is believed by many to have helped a lot for the victory of his party in the recent elections. You are probably not familiar with him, so I would like to ask you in general - would you say that just PR and a very strong public image could be that powerful as to get a politician elected largely on its own?

Without knowing anything about the Bulgarian Prime Minister, I would say that to a certain extent I think PR can raise expectations to that kind of level. But here is what I would say. I think that ultimately, unless he really is a superhero, it's probably very damaging long-term to have that kind of image.

Not meaning the specific individual, I would just say that everybody thinks that good public relations means people thinking you are better than you really are. People think that if the truth is this, and the PR is that, the public relations is better than the truth, that's good but actually, the best thing would be if the truth and the public relations were equally good because sooner or later people would realize if there is a gap between what they were told about you, and what you really are. And they will disappointed.

And they will blame you, even if you didn't say, "I'm a superhero", if you allowed people to think you are a superhero, and you are not, they will blame you, and when they do, suddenly you image collapses. One of the rules of the PR business is, "don't pretend to be better than you are". Because people will eventually will find out, and it will make it very difficult to govern. I think that PR can deceive people well enough to get you elected. But I don't think it will be able to deceive people well enough for you to govern the way you want to. So ultimately if there is that gap between reality and expectation, people will find out, and it is not a good thing.

How has the economic crisis affected the global PR industry? Have companies scrapped a lot of their PR expenses because of the crisis?

Obviously, it's had an effect, and it is sometimes difficult to judge because a lot of the big PR agencies don't talk about their finances. But the industry is down. I don't think it is down quite as much as advertising. I'd much rather be a PR person than an advertising person right now. Or a journalist, frankly, because I think that mainstream media have a lot of challenges ahead. But it has been down.

There are some companies that have looked at their marketing, communication spending, and they have said, "Ok, PR is less expensive and more cost effective than advertising. So we will cut advertising, and maybe even increase PR." But PR has not always done a great job at explaining how cost effective it is. As I said at the beginning, we have not always been good at measuring what we do.

The thing about our industry is when times are good, nobody does measurements because everybody is spending money, and why bother to produce research when they are already spending? When times are bad, nobody does measurements because it is expensive and you can't afford it. So we don't measure very well. Nobody said we were all smart. The easiest decision to make when you are in charge of a communications budget is to cut everything by 10% - public relations, advertising, etc. It would be much more difficult to say one department has to cut 10%, another has to stay where they are. So more companies have cut everything. The difference is that I think PR will bounce back very quickly, I am not sure that everything else would.


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Tags: Paul Holmes, PR, public relations, BAPRA, Bulgarian Association of PR Agencies, The Holmes Report, Internet, Boyko Borisov, Prime Minister, Global Financial Crisis
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