Maxim Behar: When you lose, don’t lose the lessons
COVID - 19 brought Bulgaria close to a pandemic breakout. What is important now is the reaction of every single person, as well as the decisions that business leaders have to make. These and other topics were discussed by PR expert Maxim Behar in his last interview on BGONAIR TV.
Host: Here next to me is the PR expert Maxim Behar. Thank you for being a guest of Oporni Hora show.
Maxim Behar: Good afternoon. With pleasure.
Host: We saw how important communication is nowadays.
Maxim Behar: It always has been.
Host: Bulgaria has been in a state of emergency for the last 30 years. Did people understand well the messages of the political elite, of the health authorities? We came to this state of emergency precisely because someone simply did not follow the recommendations.
Maxim Behar: Communication has always been important. Of course, in such moments of crisis, quick decisions must be made. It seems to me that most of the society understood what it was about, they understood that it was something very worrying. It was informed long before the state of emergency was imposed, long before even the cases of coronavirus in Bulgaria started. Тhey were informed quite well, quite comprehensively. Of course, there can always be mistakes. I realize how critical the situation is and now we can all say "Why there are no masks, why there are no respirators, why there are not enough doctors…
Host: Yes, I have heard the conversations.
Maxim Behar:… and everything else ". However, I know that if two years ago someone had built more hospitals, someone would have bought respirators for BGN 100 million, for example, everyone would say "Wait a minute, we spend this state money, instead of giving it for salaries, for schools, for hospitals". It seems to me that we seem to have taken quite good measures and finally realized that we cannot always live peacefully. One day there will be problems that can derail us. But the fact that more and more people are staying at home, there are already online campaigns "Stay at home", which I like. For two days now, my entire team, which is quite large, has been working from home and we are doing a complete disinfection of our offices. We all have woken up.
Host: We will start broadcasting with guests from home via Skype, Viber, etc.
Maxim Behar: I hope there is no spread of the infection and that we can all really get good information. I was a little surprised that a separate group of communication experts was not formed around the government. As I notice, the Prime Minister and the ministers invite doctors, specialists, virologists and any other experts.
Host: He didn't think about such an option.
Maxim Behar: He didn't think of gathering a group of communication specialists…
Host: Because it is very important that what you say is understood correctly.
Maxim Behar: But this is the most important thing.
Host: The first time it did not work. They said, "Stay quarantined for 14 days", and people decided to have a home party and infect 30 people, for instance.
Maxim Behar: The restrictions they set and the doctor’s actions will not be effective if they are not communicated well by specialists who deal with crisis communications constantly. With or without coronavirus in our office we solve complex crises several times a week for large international companies. And I think maybe the government should have gathered a group of experts and it's not too late to say, "We're doing this, what do you say?" This is the situation, we just all need to be careful and at the same time understand the messages very well.
Host: But we don't read the messages. Here, it says "You don't need to stock up." There are shots of empty stands in shops. A few weeks ago, I myself witnessed such empty stands. Now it is even worse since the state of emergency was declared.
Maxim Behar: Well, this is happening in Spain, in the United States, which is, perhaps a century ahead of us in terms of communications and its ability to deal with communication crises. It happens also in Italy, in France. No one knows. No matter how well we explain it to the public, the great uncertainty of what will happen remains.
Host: Yes, we don't know when the coronavirus will go away.
Maxim Behar: Yes, many people live in insecurity. In my opinion, it is absolutely unnecessary for someone to stock up, to go shopping, to fill up their refrigerators. We need to react calmly, sensibly, even though it is not always possible. Because our generation has never experienced such a crisis. In the last 30, 40, 50 years we have lived quite peacefully.
Host: However people remember Chernobyl and how they were not informed about it.
Maxim Behar: Of course, I remember Chernobyl very well and how did not have any information. But, fortunately, in Bulgaria there were no victims, real victims.
Host: After that.
Maxim Behar: There were probably big consequences.
Host: Then we start seeing young people with cancer.
Maxim Behar: But somehow everything went like a little trouble-free comedy movie, because most of us didn't understand what was happening. While now, we have the opportunity to receive all sorts of information in a second thanks to social media. We can discuss on social media and be satisfied and dissatisfied, and criticize the Prime-minister or the President, the neighbor or the saleswoman. And from all this communication mess, in the end we have to draw a good conclusion about what can do – not to panic, to stay at home and do our job, to be careful in order to stop the infection. Both with contagion and with the contagion of fake news and unnecessary panic. Because the second infection is sometimes much more dangerous.
Host: Yes, we see fake news and panic.
Maxim Behar: I haven't seen so much of this fake news to tell you.
Host: Remember, at the very beginning when we didn't even have a positive test, people started to go out, write about it, panic.
Maxim Behar: But it is natural for this to happen. But some of the fake news in media are news taken from somewhere else, republished, unraveled. But this is inevitable. Bulgaria has a population of 7 million and 5 million of them have media in their hands, ie. they have access to Facebook, Instagram, TikTok. And once they have this access, it is normal for someone to drink two rakias and write some nonsense. There should be a good communication strategy and a good communication policy on the part of both the government and the Public Relations companies, because this is a gigantic responsibility. A PR expert can write news that can mislead many people and contribute to great tragedies.
Host: You said the role of social media is huge. We saw what happened in the first minutes when it became clear that there was a positive test. After the state of emergency was declared, 5-6 days later we saw how people reacted, different sites started posting news with interviews of popular scientists who said "The world is in an incredible crisis, people will die. You can't imagine, they are lying to you. "
Maxim Behar: Well, imagine that there were no social media. No wonder we had experienced in May 1986, if I'm not mistaken.
Host: 1986, that's right, Chernobyl, that's what we're talking about again.
Maxim Behar: And we would go through it the same way: "Oh, what coronavirus? Not at all. There are just a few people who died from the flu." And that's it…
Host: You wouldn't understand what’s happening if it’s the same as in 1986
Maxim Behar: Thank God that there is social media, there is a super saturated market with all kinds of information and of course we have to beware of fake news, especially we as Public Relations experts, but this can hardly happen to us. People don't have to be so susceptible, they have to check their sources better, but that's easy now. And I'm not so much worried about fake news as I am about the vast sea of information that can mislead many people into not knowing which one to read first or make their own interpretations.
Host: Sometimes you can find a site stating "This is a fake news site" at the top. And you post the information.
Maxim Behar: Ah, I have never seen one. Is that so, is there such a site?
Host: There are some.
Maxim Behar: We have to inform the audience about it.
Host: Yes, for fake news and then bombastic headlines. And it turns out that they are not true at all, as mentioned, but no one notice that, and ends up being true. Okay, I want to talk about the panic. How can we immunize against it?
Maxim Behar: When we start checking out only good official sources for information. There are four main TVs, one of which is yours, of course, and I always approach your TV with great respect, because you are very balanced and accurate. In these four main TV shows, I did not see a problem or a mistake during these two or three weeks. Sometimes a reporter messes up something or gets confused in some terminology, sometimes the Prime Minister does not understand what he has been asked. However, what is more important for me is that there are serious doctors, experts who provided clear, accurate and timely information long before this first case in Bulgaria. Yes, there are not enough beds, but no one expected such a thing to happen.
Host: I heard that there are no respirators, hospitals, infectious diseases wards.
Maxim Behar: There are no respirators and no tests on how to conduct them. I hope that enough money will be allocated, I hope that this lag that we have had for years will be compensated very quickly, because we did not expect it to appear, and I hope that we will be alive and well as this whole storm passes, the coronavirus…
Host: This is an important clarification, yes.
Maxim Behar:… to be able to draw good conclusions and say to ourselves "Life is not always so happy and serene. Let's take measures and take tests, and make false alarms to see who reacts and how". By the way, with many of our clients in the company we do the so-called simulations once every three or six months.
Host: Crisis situation.
Maxim Behar: Crisis situation, but they are the ones that I usually create, neither the general manager of the company, nor the PR manager, no one really knows what will happen to him and I am the only one who knows him. And when this thing happens, we record everything and we see very clearly and exactly how everyone reacts, then we make an analysis. This is what will happen in the country, maybe in 5-6 months when everything is over.
Host: Yes, but at a very high price, Mr. Behar.
Maxim Behar: Yes, it is a high price, because none of us expected such a thing to happen.
Host: We said "Yes, it happened in Italy, but it will pass us by." We think a little bit like that.
Maxim Behar: Ah, it will not pass it just like that.
Host: This is Bulgarian folk psychology.
Maxim Behar: You know, I received an email the other day from the Chinese PR Association, because there I have the function of a senior adviser on international affairs, and I often travel to China, at least before. And I received a very kind email from Secretary-General Zhao Dali telling me, "This year in May, we won't have our annual meeting, which you always attend, but we're waiting for the disease to pass at any moment," without mentioning the word “virus”, just said "disease". "… The disease will pass and in September we will be happy to welcome you now that we are all healthy and there will be no danger." And I couldn’t believe it and said to myself, "It's not possible." So they believe in each other, this billion-people China says that everything will pass in September, so there is some hope, maybe there is better information there than here.
Host: The economy here is starting to work again. Only after another month there will be imports of goods, basic raw materials, and you know about the Bulgarian business from China. But how will it affect business? Are they worried about business? You work with many companies.
Maxim Behar: Of course they are worried. On the one hand, production will lag behind, as well as for some items, mainly related to medicine and food, and will surely double or triple its production in order to satisfy all this hunger and all this panic.
Host: And in tourism we see what is happening.
Maxim Behar: Oh, tourism, the airlines, there will be a big drama, because especially the airline business, in my opinion, will change completely after this situation. Many people who want to travel a lot, including me, will see that staying at home is good and this thing will seriously affect the airlines, the tourism business. It's just that all this will turn this whole sector upside down. There are some consequences in the Public Relations business, because the events are decreasing, but on the other hand for us this is a unique chance to show our professionalism in crisis situations, to be able to work even better for our clients. We announced today that my company provides free services to all NGOs who want to communicate their ideas, concerns or messages to their members. When it is a non-governmental organization with not enough budget to afford such services, we will do it for free. There is a way if you are resourceful, intelligent, breakthrough, if you think and do not sleep at night in order to find a way to survive in business and even reach a higher level.
Host: At the end of our conversation.
Maxim Behar: I have my last book for you. It was published in America 3-4 months ago, now in Bulgaria. And what we're talking about now is very well described in here. I signed it to you with gratitude for your professionalism.
Host: Thank you very much. It is a pleasure for me. Thank you for this conversation and what can we wish for, Mr Behar, at the end? What do you want to tell our viewers so that they do not panic so much.
Maxim Behar: I wish all people in Bulgaria to be calm, take good care of themselves, stay at home, and be careful not to infect anyone. Don't even think about stocking up on anything but books. Buy a lot of books, because now that we can't go to the movies, theaters, discos, bars and everything else, we have so much time to read and we have to use it. We have to relax and take lessons. After all, as Dalai Lama said, "If you lose, don't lose your lessons."
Host: Thank you and see you soon.
Watch the interview here.