Maxim Behar: Social Media Turned PR Business Upside Down
Maxim Behar is a dreamer and visionary for a better, more dynamic world and also a practitioner. He likes chatting, networking, serious business projects, social media, rock music, gadgets and traveling. He was born in Bulgaria, but he always says he is a «Citizen of the world».
Maxim worked for almost 15 years as a journalist, including several years in prominent Czech magazines Mladý Svět and daily Mladá Fronta in the early 80s. Apart from that, he has a long career as a journalist in Bulgaria, traveling in more than 65 countries throughout the world, becoming a Board Member in many local and international communities.
He is the founder (1994) and CEO of one of the leaders of the Bulgarian PR market: M3 Communications Group, Inc. The company is an exclusive associate of Hill+Knowlton Strategies in Bulgaria. Since January 2012, Behar has also been Chairman of Hill+Knowlton Czech Republic.
In March 2013 he was elected Chairman of the Board of the World Communications Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Behar is the Honorary Consul of the Republic of Seychelles to Bulgaria.
Mr. Behar, you are a very interesting and fascinating person, dreamer and visionary, a man of many interests and activities – so to begin – can you tell our readers more about your journey from Bulgaria to the Czech Republic?
It is a long journey and an everlasting love. I came to Prague back in 1981 to study International Business at the High Economic University (VŠE) and just a couple of months later I was sit¬ting in a coffee shop and a middle-aged man sat next to me and we started a friendly chat, although my Czech language skills were relatively limited at the time. And the next day I was employed as a junior in Mladý Svět, the most widely circulated and influential magazine at that time. The name of the man in the coffee shop was Ales Benda, a great journalist, the first General Director of ČTK after the collapse of the communism and long-time Washington correspond¬ent of the agency afterwards. We worked many years together. I was studying economy, but at the encouragement of my colleagues from Mladý Svět also began to study journalism at Charles University.
At the end of 2011, after a long conversation with the then Hill+Knowlton European President in London and discussing the possibility of taking over the Prague office, I very honestly asked her, “Sally, how do you know I speak Czech?” She turned turned to me in surprise, and said: “Max, you speak Czech? Too good to be true!” A week later I arrived back in Prague as Chair¬man of the Hill+Knowlton Strategies office in the country, representing the largest Public Relations and Public Affairs company in the world. It was a very responsible and – now I can say – tough job to do. The Hill+Knowlton office in Prague had a very long and sometimes controversial history in the Czech Republic. But at the end of the day I managed in less than an year to create an excel¬lent and knowledgeable team and now, for sure, it is one of the best companies in our business you will find in Prague.
After graduation, you worked as a journalist, beginning your career in 1981. Can you tell us why you chose journalism as a profession and what led you to that decision?
It was a spontaneous decision, let me say an internal feeling, but my years at Mladý Svět in Prague were unforgettable and turned my future life in a completely different direction. After I got my masters degree in Prague, I spent a couple of years in Bulgaria as a journalist and then, just before the collapse of communism, was sent as correspondent to Warsaw.
Who was the most interesting person you interviewed?
There were so many… but one of the most significant interviews I had was with President Vaclav Havel in 1995. We spent several hours together with him and my good friend and prominent pho¬tographer, Miroslav Zajic. Havel was an amazing person and an unbelievably interesting entertainer, especially on Friday afternoons. He was relaxed, had an excellent sense of humour and was very positive about the future of his country.
Let me tell you a story that happened during one of my meetings with the then Polish president, Lech Walesa, which I‘ve never shared before. In June 1995, I was waiting for him at the Belvedere Castle in Warsaw and he came straight from the airport, where he was escorting President Bill Clinton at the end of his first visit to Poland. Logically my first question was, “What did you say to President Clinton in farewell?” Walesa answered straight out, “I told him, Mr. President, the generals must come back to Poland. All the generals must come back and then everything in my country will be OK.” I was really surprised. In Poland, a country that had military rule in the early 80s, the topic of generals was quite sensitive and it was very unusual for a personality like Walesa to even think about that. My face showed my surprise, but the Polish president quietly continued answering my question. “Yes, only the generals will save my country, Mr. Behar. General Electric, General Mo¬tors, General Dynamic.” We laughed heartily at his answer and it was so funny and also true that his words were quoted by all the international news agencies throughout the world that very same day.
In 1994 you founded M3 Communications Group, Inc, where you are currently the company’s Chief Executive. (M3 Communications Group, Inc. is the leader in the field of public and media relations in Bulgaria). How did your company change throughout these years? How did your role change?
In fact all my business – Public Relations – turned upside down. And the reason is very simple – social media. Some 10 years ago our clients were coming to the public relations companies with, generally speaking, one simple request. To reach their clients through media. At that time the business approach was quite clear. We would arrange a press event, make a presentation, a conference or direct promotion. But in any case, the most important thing was to attract media attention. Now it is entirely different. The main reason is what is often called by me the tsunami of social media, which created a completely new order and priorities in our business. First of all, our clients already own media, they all are on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and all other profiles and ac¬counts. What they don’t know is how to handle and manage these profiles and how to make their content attractive. Content turns out to be the most important tool in modern Public Relations. All those facts made our business completely different and, of course, my role as Chief Executive in Sofia and Chairman in Prague also changed. The modern management, the modern business belongs to horizontal, not vertical, structures of management and from that perspective I am nowadays just one of my staff. And it’s a great role, just serious enough, responsible and, trust me, not easy to play.
In 2004 you were appointed Honorary Consul of the Republic of Seychelles to Bulgaria. How did that happen?
It was and still is, an amazing and beautiful story, like many others in my life. Maybe fifteen years ago, I received an email from a friend of mine in Paris that the founding President of the Seychelles, Sir James Mancham, would spend a day in Bulgaria and it was possible that we might have lunch or dinner together. In fact we had them both, lunch and dinner and we liked each other so well that we became great friends. Some years later the then President of Seychelles, James Michel, appointed me Honorary Consul and I’m very proud and privileged to help and serve such a small, brave and capable nation. Throughout the years, I have done tens of extremely successful and beneficial services for Seychellois projects.
You have met and organized meetings with people like George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, the Prince of Wales.
We can extend this list and it might take many pages to fill. The most important thing I always try in all these important meetings is to remember at least one important sentence, word or act that I can find useful in the future. Many times such events changed my life, my businesses and my points of view. “Can you describe your country briefly”, Prince Charles asked me during one of our regular meetings, when I was Chairman of the Bulgarian Business Leaders Forum. The conversation just began and we had no common points to discuss, on top which, describing your own country in just a few words is always the most difficult task one might have. I looked at him with a very innocent face and said briefly, “Bulgaria, Your Royal Highness is a WWW country”. “Oh wonderful”,
Prince Charles replied, “that means people there are very advanced on the Internet. Good to hear, this is the future”. Then he was silent and looked at me again. “No, I said. WWW means Weather, Women, Wines…”. Of course it was just a joke and a funny game of words, but Prince Charles began to laugh and it was obvious the ice was broken and the conversation went more than an hour in a completely friendly manner.
All my meetings were accompanied by amazing and interesting facts and situations. During my conversation with Vaclav Havel, I asked him when was he was first offered the presidency. Havel thought for a while and then quite unexpectedly answered, “In 1968”. The current year was 1995 and, for me, it was a statement not to be believed. “Yes, Havel continued, In early August 1968, just before the Soviet occupation, we met in the mountains with the famous Polish dissident, Adam Michnik. And he told me, one day you must be president of this country. So, thirty-two years later, it happened”. By the way – Adam Michnik is still alive and remains editor-in-chief of the larg¬est Polish daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza and for sure he would remember this story…
Lately very interesting news hit Czech media, that you have been elected Chairman of the Communications Forum in Davos, which is a fantastic success. Can you tell us your feelings? Can you share with us your plans for the future?
It is an enormous achievement, indeed. Not only for the Czech Republic and my native Bulgaria, but also for Central and Eastern Europe. Over recent years, the World Communications Forum in Davos turned into a leading Public Relations, Public Affairs and Social Media event on a world-wide scale. What I will share here, for the first time, is that very soon we plan to organize, under the Davos ‘umbrella’, a Regional Forum in Prague and this will be my first serious innovation after taking over the management. I am pretty sure it will be a very successful event and also a great opportunity for the Czech market and Czech public relations businesses to participate in a world-scale event.
Maxim, you are truly a renaissance man, full of interests, wisdom, experiences, plans and projects. Can you describe for us how an ordinary day for such a man looks?
That’s exactly the beauty of my business and personal life. Every day is different. You might be surprised, but I wake up every day at 7.01 and please don’t ask me why this one minute exists. My explanation is that as long as I must wake up around 7, something should remind me that I must be Number 1 today. Then meetings, travel, endless sleeping in airplanes, junk-food at airports and, at the end of the day, a glass of fine red wine in the hotel’s lobby bar. When I stay home, evenings are far more enjoyable, with fresh salads, crystal clear Bulgarian Grappa and, of course, good conversation with good people.