Maxim Behar: PR is Telling the Truth in a Way People Like
Often called a Modern PR Guru, Maxim Behar is one of the leading voices within the European communications industry. Serving as CEO and Chairman of M3 Communications (Bulgaria’s leading PR and Public Affairs company) as well as Chairman at Hill+Knowlton Strategy, Czech Republic, Mr. Behar is also a top social media evangelist, who often argues for the increasingly important role of social media strategy within the PR toolkit.
Mr. Behar was in India recently to speak at the ABCI Comfest 2012 in Mumbai, where Image Management served as the Digital Partners.
During our interview, he discusses amongst other topics, the impact of democratic social media dialogue on brands, the future of communications education, and the importance of PR conferences.
So you mentioned about how communications has become global, how certain practices from one country can be used in another. But there is also the other extreme, where companies and brands should be wary of one size fits all approach? Because there are obviously still differences in the market. So how important is having local expertise?
Local expertise was for many years the basis for public relations. But local expertise is in details. And generally, for advertising big companies, like Coca Cola or McDonalds, they use global creativity and they localise it. Yet, in public relations, local practices are still most important, because history and culture are the driving force for consumer behavior.
On the other hand, Facebook 2 weeks ago celebrated 1 billion people. Imagine 1 billion people at a shopping mall, who share the same religion, culture, moods, language; this means nowadays there are instruments which can influence many people gathered in one place. If PR manages to accumulate global achievement and implement into localities, it will mean good success.
Local expertise in countries like India, China and Japan, and local knowledge is one of the most important assets. In Europe and US they’re all different; in India 5 centuries is ancient, but in the US, 5 years is ancient. They are new markets.
Countries like India, China and Japan, they have their own culture and traditions. So local language and understanding is of high importance. Global experience should not be forgotten, and we should take a look at the experience of the most advanced countries in PR and communications like US and UK, and throughout Europe.
One of the things you mentioned is social media, which is fuelling this new world of connections. Social media is often called a democratiser, because it gives people a voice when they didn’t have one before. But from a brand perspective, do brands actually want to partake in a truly democratic dialogue, because it is a place where of course your brand can be praised, but it also means that in a single tweet, 50 years of a brand’s reputation could be negated or taken away.
They benefit. Absolutely. No doubt.
Because social media is an excellent instrument to promote a brand and to put them into a democratic discussion about their strengths and weaknesses. On the other hand, whether brands of global or local companies like social media or not, it’s a reality and they should change their policies towards the new conditions. 100 years ago people were riding horses and carts. Suddenly someone comes with a car and says this is a new unit, faster, more convenient, so let’s move form horses to cars, But people said ‘no, no, no, it uses gasoline. What happens if the gasoline runs out? What happens if the engine breaks? What happens if the whole thing blows up? Or the tires? And it’s very dangerous as it can kill people.’ But at the end of the day, we all drive cars, not horses.
Of course there are risks with social media, but it puts the brands in PR into completely new challenges as compared to 10 years ago.
First of all, it’s very democratic and transparent – it’s based on transparency and knowledge.
At the end of the day all we do with social media is share knowledge.
In my brain, your brain, brains of your readers, there is now a thousand times more knowledge than there was 10 years ago, and I never expected that my brain can accumulate so much knowledge as it does now, and we the people who are promoting brands, we must be aware that people now know 1000 times more than they knew 10 years ago.
That’s the main difference, the main challenge that now faces our business in the last 120 years. We all have this media, we have Facebook and Twitter – we should know how to manage this media. This is the biggest challenge. How to manage this?
First of all, we must know social media very well. Second of all we must be aware, and we must be experts. We must know how to respond, how to respond to a negative post, how to tell the truth in a way that people like it. Because that is the new definition of PR that I have come up with: Public Relations is to tell the truth in a way that people like. Because we must tell the truth, because we have Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin, we must tell the truth because the world is transparent. So that’s why the risks are more for the brands, but so are the opportunities.
So another big challenge facing the PR industry in India is the talent crunch, where there is not enough talent. This can partly be blamed on the education system that’s producing communications graduates in this country, and that they’re not given enough experience to enter the industry. I know that M3 runs a very successful communications school in Bulgaria as well, so just from that perspective, what do you think that communications or PR colleges need to do to make students industry ready for how PR is today?
From my understanding, the future of PR education will be based on line because yes, even though I’m the chairman of the college, the only one properly licensed in Bulgaria, the knowledge which students have with social media today is much better and much more than a college can provide. Because a college has two functions. One of them is to educate people about how to use social media, and the other one is to show them where to find the right information.
Of course, our teachers and professors share a lot of knowledge and case studies, but at the end of the day all those things might be found on the Internet, on social media. So the education system must create good abilities in the students for how to find the proper information.15 years ago, whatever the professor said in the room was knowledge. Or the professor could show you a couple of good books to read. But of course there weren’t many books written on how to be a successful PR, because it was top secret. Now, there are no secrets. Even if I must describe the modern world in 3 words, I would say: No secrets world. There are no secrets, but we need to learn to find the information we need in a very fast way. So the college, in Europe, India, Japan, anywhere, should be able to teach the students how to find those secrets which they need to find. And if they learn this, then they will be very good professionals very fast.
With so much substantial experience in PR, if you could give one piece of advice to a 21-22 year old, just entering the industry for the first time, what would it be?
If he/she would like to learn how to swim, I would tell them to immediately jump into the deep end, into the ocean, not to go to the indoor swimming pool with the coaches, because going into social media, and trying to do business, and learn case studies, that’s the deep ocean, but on the other hand the people must be very well prepared in advance because advance preparation is crucial for our business.
One mistake can cost you your lifetime career. One mistake can damage the brand of your client. One mistake can devastate your business.
That’s why you should be well prepared, and honestly, if it’s a new person, I would advise them to use one of the laws which I have followed my whole life: that’s the Three S law, Speed, Simplicity, Self confidence.
Because speed is crucial in the modern world, in my office in Sofia it is the 5 minute law, and each of my employees is obliged to answer to an email in 5 minutes after they see it. Even if just to say ‘thank you for your mail, I will answer in one month’ or so. But within 5 minutess you must register the receipt. This is the speed. Also, in the past, if our client has a crisis, and a bad article is written in the newspaper, we have 8 hours to react before the next issue. You go to the client, you sit down, you prepare a press release, you discuss, then you edit, then you send the press release to the media, then the media comes back to you with questions, so it’s a full day, and in it, you manage a crisis. Nowadays, you don’t even have 8 minutes. Or 8 seconds. It requires really high speed, and preparation on how to react and what to say.
Simplicity: we must make our world simple. Because its so sophisticated and complicated, we have knowledge from all sides, we go to one website in the morning and the same one in the evening, and it has different information and different points of view because the world is changing every minute. So we must make our lives simple. That is the second S. We must have priorities. To defend the brand of our client is a priority, the priority is not to put every 5 minutes a tweet about our client. OK you can do this too, but that’s not the priority. Our priority is to defend the image, to be proactive, not to be defensive, to understand the product of our client, the base of its image, to follow very carefully how the social media is saying of the image of the client.
And number 3, Self-Confidence. We cannot do anything without self confidence. If we stay in a small room, looking at Facebook and Twitter, and having no trust that we might be the leaders of the image of the brand of our client, then we cannot do anything, we cannot win. Self confidence is based on our knowledge. It is based on our reaction. It’s based on our ability to manage the media and express ourselves in a good way, and it’s based also on our trust that we are the leaders.
So: Speed, Simplicity and Self-Confidence.
Finally, you’re here for the ABCI conference. I mentioned to you earlier that we’re having our own PR festival coming up next month. So what do you see as the importance of events such as these for the PR industry, and do you think they’re doing enough?
I think that meeting different cultures, and different experiences and points of view in one room is extremely important in the digital world, because in the digital world daily we meet 100 new people and we don’t know what they look like, and every day we discuss different things. And by the way, in the digital world, we may say things which we would never say in the real world because that’s the nature of this media.
And another thing, you speak one language, but we don’t realize that we speak English in completely different ways in different media. How we write SMS, how we write on Facebook, are completely different from how to we write on Twitter.
In completely different ways we make different English languages, and now potentially the only real language we use is when we meet in person. Because we have our body language and tone, and you know in human communications, 93% is body language and tone, 7% the words. Nothing else. That’s the big advantage of this media, because when we speak on social media, we may exchange millions of words of information, but its only words, and we don’t have tone, or body language or our eyes, our smiles, our expression, our faces, our gestures, everything.
And that is the future of PR. Because if we don’t know this type of communication, we don’t know PR. So my definite hope is that your PRestival succeeds, Holmes report events succeed, as do PR events across the world.
Interviewed by Kunal Pal