ICCO Board Members: Exciting Changes in Bulgaria, Streets in Sofia Paved with Gold
Exclusive interview of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) with members of the Board of the International Communications Consultancy Organization (ICCO): Richard Houghton, ICCO President, PRCA, Public Relations Consultants Association; Lou Capozzi, Council of Public Relations Firms (CPRF), USA; Jean-Leopold Schuybroek, Belgian Public Relations Consultants Association (BPRCA).
On November 4-5, 2010, for the first time the ICCO Board held its meeting in Bulgaria, in Sofia.
ICCO is the largest global organization in the PR industry uniting the national associations of 28 countries around the world, and encompassing some 1400 companies.
You just completed the first ever meeting of the ICCO Board in Bulgaria. Why did the Board of the ICCO decide to hold its meeting in Bulgaria and in Sofia?
Houghton: I think part of the ICCO mission is to share knowledge and understanding of PR markets around the world and as Mr. Maxim Behar represents Bulgaria on the ICCO board meetings, he suggested that we came to Bulgaria. We obviously researched the state of the market, and, as we said earlier on, it is a market that is changing very rapidly, it is growing very rapidly.
The trade association BAPRA (Bulgarian Association of PR Agencies – editor's note) is growing very rapidly, and Bulgaria is a country that has gone through dramatic changes in the last twenty years. So from that point of view, there is a lot for us to learn.
Capozzi: And frankly, we weren't very familiar with it. I'd never been here before. There aren't too many major countries in the world that I could say I've never been to, and so to visit Bulgaria for the first time was a great opportunity to learn about a new country.
Houghton: Many of our members' associations have members who are doing more and more international work, and I think it is safe to say that Bulgaria is a little understood market but it is clearly growing and will become bigger and more important as years go by.
So the ICCO Board members had the chance to come here, have their meeting here, and meet practitioners in that market, and then go back to their associations and members, and spread the word. That's part of the benefit, and really the main reason.
How do you feel in Bulgaria? What did you think of Sofia and Bulgaria?
Houghton: My first impression is just coming from the airport. There is a lot of building, a lot of change, the work that is going on on the subway, and all those infrastructure projects going on gives you an indication as a visitor that things are changing, and that's important.
Looking at the clients of the BAPRA members – Microsoft, Cisco, IBM – there are already servicing the biggest brands in the world so many of the big international brands are working closely with members of the Bulgarian Association of PR Agencies, and there are different stages in that development of the market because at this point the Bulgarian economy is very young relative to the other more mature markets.
The impression I get is that it is an exciting time for Bulgaria and things are changing rapidly, and I would like them to continue to change very rapidly. That clearly has been impacted by the membership in the EU.
Capozzi: I spent a lot of time in Johannesburg when the government changed, when Mandela got out of jail and the elections happened. I spent a lot of time in Prague when the government changed, and democracy came to the Czech Republic. I felt a similar sense by the opportunity that is created by change, I got that same feeling here in Bulgaria. You get a sense that there is so much opportunity, that the streets in Sofia are paved with gold.
Schuybroek: You have the same kind of feedback from me. We have an office in Slovakia and the Czech Republic and we've seen the evolution when those countries joined the EU. Bulgaria joined a bit later but you see the changes.
What we saw with a number of countries that not so long ago were in the communist environment is that you have the ability and the possibility to jump much faster. You take over the new technologies, you don't have the heritage we have in our countries in the West with older technologies. We have to go through changes.
You can start with the newest things which really makes it possible to go much faster than we used to go. That is a major opportunity. And we see that, as Lou and Richard said, it is happening, and the new technologies offer the possibilities to move really rapidly.
When people think of the public relations and communications industries in underdeveloped or emerging markets such as Bulgaria, what usually comes to mind are things such as who knows whom, networks of clientelism, etc. Do you think that this is really the case? Is it safe to say that the public communications in Bulgaria already occur according to Western professional standards?
Houghton: I can speak for the BAPRA Bright Awards since I was one of the judges. There are 53 awards – for events, campaigns, etc. I can only speak from what I read but the campaigns were structured in a very familiar way to me, and they were delivered in a way that you would expect for a more mature PR market, and the quality of the thinking is good.
In terms of the networks within the Bulgarian media or PR community, I think in any developing market a lot of that starts from the journalism world. That was the same in London. So those networks have always existed.
To what levels they influence public communications - it is difficult to say from the outside but I would say that the level of thinking that goes in and the quality of the work that I judged for the BAPRA Bright Awards in terms of PR practice was as good as it is elsewhere.
How those are delivered - it changes from country to country. If you go to Finland where I was last week, it is a very different way of doing it. It is a tiny, small market. The networks are minute. They really do know each other. But that doesn't mean that you can get away with have a poor story, or a poor content.
I am a strong believer that a good network is great but a good content will win out every time.
Schuybroek: Relating again to our experience in the Czech Republic which came earlier into the EU and so on – we've seen the evolution.
When we came in the first time, and we opened an office there in 1990, we saw a market that was extremely different – not the sort of governance that we were used to in the West. And by being first of all, part of the EU but also of an association like ICCO, it exposed the national association and the national firms to the ways of doing business in that part of the world. That really evolved and changed rapidly.
That is also part of our responsibility within ICCO to share knowledge, best practices, code of conducts, and really help national associations to evolve. And that goes extremely rapidly. I would say the example of the Czech Republic was amazing – what they achieved in 10-15 years, other markets have taken 20-30 years.
This is a constant topic and much has been said and written about it – but how would you characterize in a nutshell the transition in the PR industry brought about by the new technologies?
Houghton: Traditionally, PR has focused on getting a message to an identified public – create the content, push it to them, and hope and expect the filter of the media will get the message through.
I think the introduction, first of all, of Web 1.0, then the development of the social media and conversations mean that you can't push information out with the expectation that it will be received with open arms and happiness. It may come back with critiques or a welcome.
But the truth is that you no longer control it like you did because you are not using a formal media channel with a professional journalist in the middle. You may be using an amateur blogger, a community forum, a social network.
And the aim here is, if done properly, to build an understanding of what your consumer and your audiences want, and then be able to provide that as a business.
Lou made this point earlier about how good PR changes a business's behavior. Not just to say, "Look what we are doing," and hiding the bad things. It actually changes behavior.
To give you an example of where PR is headed – a lot of companies are already using social media for customer relationships. A lot of the content that starts these conversations comes from PR agencies because we understand business models, we understand business strategies and objectives, and therefore were are adept to writing good content.
We are learning to introduce video and audio content and deliver that through those various channels.
The last thing I want to add to that is what PR consultancies are adept at is understanding the relationships between those different channels.
So if you've got Twitter as a microblog at one point with a lifespan of five minutes at the most, and a Facebook page at the other end, which is very controlled and everything is laid out in front of you, understanding that and how that fits with an event, product sales, the behavior of the chief executive – fitting all that together – I think that's what modern public relations is about.
In other words that is the transition from a PR agency to a PR consultancy. Helping companys with learning to listen – which I think a lot of companies around the world are not so good at. But they are learning.
Do you think any Bulgarian PR company has the potential to go international?
Houghton: I absolutely believe that. You are multilingual. You are working with bigger brands already in your market. You are hungry for knowledge and best practices, and the growth in the trade association and the active role in ICCO shows that. I see no reason why the models that are being built in Bulgaria around consultancies shouldn't expand.
The likelihood is that as those Bulgarian agencies grow, they will have to specialize because in more mature markets you don't see many general agencies doing media relations, public affairs, web development, design. And allowing for the fact that you are a growing economy, there is no reason why bigger agencies won't be able to raise the funds to go and buy independents in other markets.
Schuybroek: Another point that you see is that when you talk about international, you are not necessarily talking about global. The first step in international is the region. When you have a market that is much more sophisticated than the other markets, you can play a role at a regional level. We saw it in the Nordic countries, in the German-speaking countries, Spanish, and so on. Bulgaria can grab this regional role. You have a number of countries – Macedonia, Montenegro, etc. All countries whose markets are not at the same level of sophistication.
I think this is the major opportunity for Bulgarian companies – to become regional champions and a hub. Clients are also structured on regional hubs, and if you have one organization that can operation in 5, 6, 7 countries – that is the first and major opportunity you have. In Bulgaria you have a larger market, you have many more consultancies than in others, and you can expand.
Houghton: The last thing to add on that is that Bulgaria has got a real entrepreneurial spirit. The people we met here – they are as a hungry, motivated, and enthusiastic as any other major markets.
For the first time the ICCO Board elected a Bulgarian and Eastern European as Treasurer. What makes Mr. Maxim Behar a good choice for that position?
Houghton: The role requires somebody who is a good businessman, with an understanding of the profit-loss account and the balance sheet, who has experience in business to a sufficient level to allow them where to invest, where to come back.
ICCO as an organization is not huge but it is important that we manage our fees from our members properly. So Maxim met all of those criteria. Obviously, he understands business, he runs very successfully a number of businesses, he has an entrepreneurial flair, and he is demanding in his financial approach. All these things make him a very attractive treasurer for us.
Schuybroek: In our executive committee we take people and countries who are more active than others. One of the reasons we have asked Maxim to take that responsibility is because he is one of the more active board members.
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