Maxim Behar: Fake News Must be Criminalized


*Sources: Interview for the PR manager of Enthusiast Publishing House - Siana Kolibarova.


The Host: Hi, I'm Siana from Enthusiast Publishing house. I am happy that during the Holy Week after Easter and the day after the Holiday of the book, guest of our virtual studio is Maxim Behar - a recognized PR expert, a former president of ICCO, a member of dozens of international boards and organizations, and CEO of the prestigious M3 Communications Group. In his latest book, “The Global PR Revolution”, which Enthusiast published in December, he talks about How Thought Leaders Succeed in the Transformed World of PR. In fact, this is a title for everyone in the business, not just for the leaders, and it is especially necessary for a state of emergency. So I'm very happy that we can talk. Hi, Maxim.


Maxim Behar: Good afternoon to Enthusiast, to all friends, to readers, to friends of the book especially. Happy holiday, but since yesterday it was the International Book Day, today it may be continuing. It will probably be Book Week, Book Month. We spend two months with books, you see behind my back.


The Host: Yes, I hope you are ready to answer the readers' questions, but first I want to ask you: You are a real professional and a person who really loves his work and what he does and that is evident in everything you publish and share. How is the workflow happening in the new environment?


Maxim Behar: We're getting used to it. In my opinion, the business will change a lot and one of those changes is actually that next year, half of the time we spend on projects will be from home. Much more efficient, much more time available, but of course, it requires much greater internal discipline and ability to respond in the best way. All my colleagues work from home, some in Sofia, some in the countryside. We meet every day in the various video link software programs and this cannot happen in real time. In our previous life, we met once a week, while now we are all online. We are doing much better. I feel more fulfilled, I have more time to think and more time to work.


The Host: It is great, yes. However, there is some communication problem as well, because now there is much more virtual communication. Do you miss contact with people, live meetings?


Maxim Behar: You know, I haven't known for years what is virtual and what is real. 7 years ago, in 2013, Enthusiast published my book, “Generation F”, and exactly, maybe, half of this book was a reflection of what is virtual and what is real. Sometimes you meet a lot of people, some of them friends, other colleagues, like-minded people, in a real environment, and it turns out that this connection is not as effective or as real as the relationship with many other people who have never seen and met them. However, in the so-called virtual environment, which sometimes turns out to be much more real. For many years, it doesn't matter much to me whether I have been seen one person face-to-face or online. I even get the feeling that online people are a little freer, less anxious, can ask hotter questions, more direct questions, maybe more personal. Therefore, I do not give much weight to the comparison real-virtual, but rather look at the effect of what we do. Whether it ultimately results, whether something interesting has happened, whether people create, or if they understand. This type of communication has its risks, especially when it is not with video but only with writing, it can be very difficult to grasp what is going on in the head of a person who writes a sentence, so there are often big discrepancies. Some have written one thing and you have written another. Then some explanations begin. But in a year or two or three, it will be depersonalized. People will begin to get used to communicating online quickly, clearly, and pragmatically. You know, during these 2 months since we were being at home, we have been working in different conditions, we have been living in different conditions. In my opinion, the most important word we have all learned is pragmatism. I try to be pragmatic, to be direct, concrete, and ultimately to look at the result because we are in a time of crisis and it is a very deep crisis. I do not want this crisis to become mental or psychological. Rather, it is incarnated in our extraordinary life. Otherwise, we all know that there is still no economic crisis. We have everything we need to have. We have the most important, one of the best Internet in Europe, the fastest broadband connections. So, if there is a crisis, it is because we live differently and that is why we have to be very pragmatic, looking only at the result.


The Host: I ask a question from Miglena: “Mr. Behar, PR is not just a modern concept, it is a necessary concept with a flexible definition, it is a skill and an art to communicate globally. PR is a global language that few people master. I am interested in what way you plan today, for today's I would call it crisis PR because it is very important how information is presented to the population.”


Maxim Behar: You know, Siana, nowadays anyone can be freely giving advice, stand on the sidelines and say it's right, it's not right, why the people from the television are filling our heads with so many things. If, for example, there are no briefings and conferences at 8 o'clock which these people with shoulder-straps give, then the people will say why they do not inform us. It seems to me that there is too much information from all sources at the moment and, thank God, everyone has the freedom to choose the sources of information. Since I was on pretty good age when the Chernobyl tragedy happened in 1986, there was no information then, and we all listened to the BBC and all sorts of other sources, very difficult to capture in Bulgaria, to find out what was going on. Inadvertently, over these weeks, months, I have compared to the year 1986 and say to myself - Thank goodness there is a lot of information, everyone can choose what he wants, whatever he wants. I don't know how I would proceed if I had to be a consultant to those people who speak from the screens from morning till evening. Rather, I am committed to being a little more frightened than being freer and not thinking about the consequences of the pandemic. Personally, my family and I do not go out from home at all, we do not receive anyone at home, we stay at home because we think it should be this way, but there are other people who say to themselves - Fuck, I don't care. You know, I work for a wonderful country called Seychelles and 2-3 weeks ago, just before the flights stopped and the borders closed, a woman called and told me - "I'm traveling to Seychelles tomorrow. What's the situation there? " I said, “Wait, how are you going to travel? It's not a question of Seychelles, because there you go to the beach and you don't see a person. The point is, you will travel, you will go through airports, planes, you can get infected there. Who knows what kind of people will be on these planes." She told me - “One moment, Mr. Behar, I paid my vacation and I am not afraid of any viruses. I'm going." I remained open-mouthed because she said to me, "I'm a young person and I don't get sick." There are such people, but there are also people who strictly follow the measures. I think communication and information come from all sides, so everyone can choose what they want to learn.


The Host: I skip the sequence of questions a bit because we have a question about fake news from Carolina Hristova - "In your book, you talk about the fake news and its distribution. In the current situation, fake news can be described as a virus on Social Media networks. What do you think are the mechanisms by which we can limit them and protect ourselves from them?”


Maxim Behar: For many years I have been touring the various Davos world forums, ICCO congresses, and talking about fake news. I will say, what I have believed for many years, that fake news must be criminalized, that is, to be under the Penal Code of all countries or as many countries as possible. There are several US states that have already done this. You publish fake news and you suffer the consequences, that is, it should be qualified as a criminal act. Otherwise, there is no way to fight it because a huge number of websites, various news sources have to be closed. The problem will be that there is no freedom of speech and there is, in general, something quite disturbing about it, because you never know which news media or which website, with what logic and reasons, will be shut down. It may be fake news. Tomorrow, someone who may think he can do anything may assume power. That is, fake news when it goes to court and be qualified as a criminal act, then it seems to me that… it is like theft - you steal something, or run over someone with a car, or do something else that falls within the scope of the Penal Code… then people will think about what they publish. And I set this example in my book - when 120 years ago, Henry Ford introduced the first, then called “gasoline car" and said - “Here's a car that will take you quickly and safely from one place to another”. Then many people said that this was not possible because that car could ran over a person, it could burst a tire, it could break the engine, and everything above had to be filled with gasoline - “Where will we get this gasoline from?” That was then, it seemed very dangerous to all these people to replace the cart with horses of that time. Yes, we can now see carts with horses only in some suburbs with people who only load them with waste. Everyone drives a car and bears the appropriate responsibility for driving a car and doing something wrong to anyone else. Similarly, when you have media in your hands, each of us has media in his hands, and this is the most important thing that has happened to have The Global PR Revolution - changing media ownership. When you have the media in your hands, you bear the corresponding responsibility. Posting fake news is like hitting a man on the street with a car. In the same way, I qualify them because with one fake news you can scare people, break a brand, you can kill a person, change his future, you can do him harm. Yes, if you do not affect human health, but the only effective fight against fake news is to put it on the spot as one of the crimes that a person can commit because he has a medium in his hands and can abuse this medium. Not to mention how many competitors publish fake news about their opponents, how many brands suffer from this thing, probably how many companies and people. I do not see any other way that anyone will publish something and we will refute it.


The Host: Still, in your opinion, can society and even people with relatively social status be able to get a filter on how to read news, especially now? Maybe if they check the sources of information? Maybe that's where everything comes from? The source of information and its veracity must always be checked.


Maxim Behar: That's almost impossible, Siana. Imagine reading interesting information, you have to start checking the source, you have to check if it has been published elsewhere, compare it… Yes, that may happen, of course, but this is not the way, because it is rather a reaction to the consequences of this fake news, not to the source itself. In my opinion, everything that should happen should happen upon potential sources of potential fake news. There are software, Microsoft have developed software that classifies the media according to whether they are reliable - whether they can be trusted and whether they publish fake news. However, it is putting a stigma on one media because 1, 2, or 3 times, without wanting or because of neglect, it published something and immediately you hit a slap and say that this media has fake news. The end. No, I think each one of us checks many times, especially now. The last news that contented something about the wind that would bring something from Chernobyl and I saw some published news about it. People have compared them many times without anyone remembering that no radiation can come from this already closed plant. However, when you check from 2-3 places, you see that it is fake news. You lost half an hour and you had a lot of things going through your head. No, the one who posted something, I am not exactly referring to this case because I have not analyzed it so much, but the one who reported something that is not true has suffer the consequences.


The Host: Another question from Diana Georgieva: "Mr. Behar, according to your opinion, is freedom of speech currently threatened?”


Maxim Behar: Freedom of speech is always threatened, and in Bulgaria it is threatened too. I have no idea, despite of spending half my life in journalism and being a part of various associations and organizations. I founded an association for journalists in the European Union at that time. Some adherents and I wanted Bulgaria to join the European Union as soon as possible, to have a free market, free media. I believe that freedom of speech is also threatened now. It is because there are media that are very heavily dependent on someone. Everyone knows this and it's no secret. Otherwise, each of us owns media and can say what he wants to say. Yes, it is not the same power as the power of the television screen or the power of the newspaper. However, media freedom is determined not only by what the journalists say or not only by what the publishers publish. I know that Bulgaria is in 111th place in the ranking, but I do not know this ranking what it is based on, how it is created, what are the criteria. Again, freedom of expression is always threatened, at any time, in every country. But each of us must know how to operate the media because that is their power. If you want to be honest and honorable, you can be honest and honorable without any problem. If you want to write something that is true or you are convinced that it is true and justified, you can do it. Many people think that the word is television, newspapers and, to a lesser extent, the radio. No, this is not all media. Media is also Facebook, media is also Instagram, media is Twitter,  media is LinkedIn. All that can go through our head and publish and write something where we want to. Yes, it is true that there are newspapers and TVs that, at least I think, are very selective and cautious when writing about one person or another. However, there are social media and people who are not cautious at all when writing about the same companies, people, events, social events and everything else. Freedom of speech is threatened as long as we do not have access to free speech, and all of us ultimately have access. I do not know what I can say about the traditional media, which are disappearing or undergoing a great transformation that makes them completely different already. I remember that in 1999, then a friend of mine, Justine Toms, you know, she writes books and deals with the Internet. Then she published a newspaper, it was at the very beginning of the Internet and the media in Bulgaria, and I had an interview in which I said that in my opinion, the last printed newspaper would be published in Bulgaria in 2025. I know how many slaps I received back then from a lot of my friends, because I was a newspaperman for many years, because they kept calling me on the phone and telling me - “You are a traitor. How can you say such a thing? The newspapers are feeding you." But it was obvious, then 21 years ago in 1999, it was obvious that newspapers were going away, not because they were bad, but because online media appeared and advertisers began to show a great interest in online media. Back then, there was no Facebook, no social media, only websites. However, it was an indication that the entire market would be moving online, which is already clearly happening, especially on social media. Much better-targeted advertising, much cheaper advertising, much more visible advertising, interactive advertising, that is, you can see a link, click on it and go where you want to go and most importantly - an ad that is measured. That is, the advertiser can log in and see how many people have seen his ad, how many people have clicked, how many people have bought later. As advertisers, from the traditional media, which are newspapers, radios with very little influence, and TVs move online, it's natural for online media to become stronger. This is us, in the online media we all are honest, honorable, decent, we have something to say. It is not so big tragedy that a newspaper or a television can have corporate influence from one person or another. It's dangerous, it's not fair, it's not right, but it's not a tragedy because we already have the media in our hands. 7 million Bulgarians, of whom probably 5 million are online, 5 million are media.


The Host: Another question from Daniel Gospodinov: "Do you notice any misconduct on the part of state leaders in the crisis, not only the Bulgarian but also the world ones?”


Maxim Behar: It will take several hours. Of course, all of them, I can also talk about the leaders in Bulgaria - about Boyko Borisov, about Rumen Radev, about all that is happening. Since the leaders are over-appearing, some of them, I can talk about Donald Trump, of course. These are the people who stand on screen from morning to evening. There is no way they will make no mistake. There is no way that some people would liked them and others would say it is an absurd that a statesman to say such a thing. If we look at the Bulgarian Prime Minister, I have analyzed his words, sometimes he says something and some people think, including people in my social environment - “How he can speak such stupid things?” Otherwise, there are people who say he is great - "He has such a cool language." - for the same thing. That is, it all depends on who perceives and understands it. It's the same with Donald Trump. On YouTube, and in general, the media is full of scraps of things we have never seen before in any President, no statesman. You can't think that someone will tell a journalist - Get out of the hall. Leave. You are a fool. You don't deserve to work for CNN” - or something else. Some people say this is unacceptable and how a statesman can talk like that. Other people will say that he told it very correctly and well that the journalist was kicked out. That is, the more one statesman appears in the media and social media, the more visible he is. The more weaknesses he has, the more we see his weaknesses. Appearing in a pre-recorded conversation or interview, such as Todor Zhivkov or Leonid Brezhnev, and other such people we had, and we watched them. They recorded them all day to record 15 minutes in their best light. You could never see live how he would react. You could not imagine him appearing live, in front of the television or in public. I do not want to go back and I don't want to think about this artificial life. That life was more artificial than life in the online space now. What you say is virtual space, and what I say is real. However, these are people, we observe Boris Johnson, we observe Macron, we also observe Merkel, and all these people who can omit some stupidity, they can say a word more. After all, we have to judge what exactly is happening in each country and what they are specifically doing. One of the principles in television journalism is that the camera enhances your positive qualities, if any, and accordingly increases your negative manifestations, if any. When these people are in front of the camera all day long, they cannot handle and arrange the stories, cannot arrange or learn the sentences in advance. If they do that they will look like coiled spring dolls, once you wind up them are telling you things. Honestly, I prefer people like Trump and Borisov, Johnson, because at least you can see how much they cost. If one person likes them, you will say good and great about them, but if you do not like them, you will say that you do not like them. Question of opinion. The most important thing is what is happening in the countries and what the leaders are doing. What they do is more important now than what they say.


The Host: Since we do not have much time, I suggest returning the conversation to the books. As there are many more questions that cover a variety of topics, people have been tempted to ask you about politics, the media, and it is normal to do so. But I want to talk about “The Global PR Revolution" and in my opinion, one of the most valuable things about this book is that it actually gathers the opinions of over 100 leading PR experts from around the world, from 65 countries. What did you learn from meeting them?


Maxim Behar: I did not expect or even thought that the book could have such a success. Last night I surfed in and saw it ranked 45th out of the 100 best PR books in all of Amazon's history. I have always thought it was a book that would be more appropriate for marketing and PR professionals, including those in Bulgaria. But also in Bulgaria, I get every day emails from all kinds of people who have nothing in common with the business and tell me that they have read it. An Israeli grandmother wrote to me. I hope she's not offended that she's a grandmother, but she's 85 years old. He wrote to me that she was reading the book.


The Host: An Israeli girl.


Maxim Behar: One girl from Israel, right. I am very pleased that everyone finds something in it. The idea of ??the book was to be written so that you could open the page you wanted, read something and close again. Then, especially if you are travelling by plane or at a hotel, open somewhere else and read something interesting again. These 100 people are actually very valuable to me because that makes the book unique. Since, after the US publishers started editing it, a process that takes about 1 year maybe, I started digging into Amazon to see what books were written and published. There is no such book. There is simply no such book in the entire history of PR publishing that has garnered so many views from so many countries. What I wrote, someone may like it and others may not. One may say that he does not want to read what I have written, and another may say that he likes my previous books. Additionally, I'm not a professional writer. I write so I can share the experience I have. But the opinions of these 100 people from any country, from small countries like Botswana and Albania, to countries like Australia, Canada, America, Brazil, is something that I think would remain in history and after time when someone wants to find out what it was like our business in 2020, he can open this book and, leave my written opinion, see the opinions of people, some of them manage, for example, Sir Martin Sorrell, David Gallagher, Jack Martin, Elise Mitchell, Francis Ingham. These are the people who manage billions of dollars, run giant companies, and their opinion is really important.


The Host: By the end of our conversation, what are you reading right now? What are your recommendations for movies, series, if you want museum exhibitions online, to look at now? Is there a hobby you have rediscovered?


Maxim Behar: I read a lot of material and articles related to my business, because it is very important that I can analyze how it will change, and it will really change only after 2, 3, 4 months. I've left the literature behind my back, I can't focus on it. We watch various movies every night, which is why I would hardly recommend a movie. Even when we talk at 4 pm at the meeting with all my colleagues and they tell me - “Tell me some interesting movie? Tell me about a new movie?" I start to struggle and start to dig into my memory which movie we watched yesterday, which movie we watched last day, so I can really recommend some worthwhile. There are so many good movies. There are so many things to see that it's just a huge paradise and I'm a little worried about recommending anything. I don't watch virtual exhibitions, I don't look at virtual museums. Rather, I'm trying to use my time. First I want to think about the 2 books I have on my laptop and I know that starting them I will finish them in a week or two. One, for sure, I can write very quickly. The other book I want to write is about a topic related to that in all these years I have gone through several universities where I studied leadership. The last one was Harvard Kennedy School last year and when I came back from Harvard I was so excited, I was full of energy that I said to myself - “My God, everything I learned at Harvard I have to share and I have to write a book." Then I remembered the one month I spent at Yukohama Kenshu Institute, then remembered the month and a half I spent at the Pacific Institute in Seattle. I started to unite everything and wanted to write something about leadership. In fact, that's how my book, "The Global PR Revolution”, ends. The last sentence is that this is a business for leaders. I think that after all this jumble called the coronavirus, life is already becoming life for leaders, not just in business.


The Host: Great finish. Thank you very much for the opportunity to talk and I hope to do it again soon.


Maxim Behar: Thank you! I wish you success! Sincere thanks to all the publishers and once again Happy Holidays!


Full video watch here.

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