Maxim Behar for “Totalprestige” Magazine: There is no elevator to success, you should take the stairs
The Best PR Professional in Europe (according to the international competition PRWeek Global Awards 2020) for 2020 Maxim Behar appears on the cover of the prominent "Totalprestige" magazine. In an interview for the media he shares priceless lessons about his professional development before and after launching M3 Communications, about the changes in the industry, and about the achievements and knowledge that transformed him into a respected “communications guru” for over three decades.
- Maxim, M3 Communications Group, Inc. provides a full range of communications services. Before we get into the company, however, let’s look at your past in the communications industry. What led you into the communications sector?
I was a journalist for many years and suddenly one day got a quote by Winston Churchill saying “You can achieve a lot of things with journalism, but you should know when to quit…” So, I did, but also, I was considering this change as an upgrade of my media career, as something which is more sophisticated, as the next peak to climb in my life. And I must admit that I was right.
- In 1981, you began a career in journalism in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Poland. What was it like to be a journalist in those countries during the 1980s and what did you learn from the experience to help you in the future as a communications expert?
It was a completely different world. On the one hand, there were so many emotions and hopes in Eastern Europe. In the whole of human history, no government or personality had made even an attempt to transfer the centralized economy into market one. So, Poland was the first back in 1989 and I had the great chance to be a journalist there and to be a witness of dramatic historical changes. Then it was Hungary, Czech, East Germany collapsed, Bulgaria… Each country with its specifics, achievements and disappointments.
Back in Bulgaria, I founded together with a group of Friends one of the first private independent daily newspapers – Standard. It was, in fact, the first media in the country which stood steady behind free market values and was even slightly conservative. I spent almost three years in the position of managing editor responsible both for the editorial content, but also for the business development and sales departments. It was really a great school for me, the first one in the environment of free competition, an environment in which I have spent all my life since then.
Answering straight to your questions – the most important lesson I’ve learned spending almost 15 years in journalism is that freedom of speech is the “mother” of all freedoms and the absolute base of each democracy. Of course these days “freedom of speech” has an absolutely different meaning, keeping in mind the “tsunami” of social media, but let me tell you, whatever changes could happen in the global media landscape, freedom, integrity, transparency and ethics always will be the very base of every communication (and not only) business.
- You have been labeled as a “communications guru” by clients and others in the industry. How did you receive this label and when did you realize communications was something you excel at?
All my life related to communications. It is widely known that when I was 13-years old “publishing” a neighborhood newspaper called – I don’t remember why in English – Daily News. It was just in five copies typed on a typing machine with indigo paper. Since then, everything I do is dedicated to learning and innovating in the field of communications and management. For all those 25 years in business, I received global awards, but the latest one I got at the end of May this year really flattered me. The global edition of PRWeek announced me as “The Best PR Professional in Europe” for 2020.
If you happen to come to our main office in Sofia, it will be easy to see the sign on each stair from the ground to the first floor where our offices are: “There is no elevator to success, you should take the stairs”. This is the main understanding of how people must develop their business. And then it is learning, learning, learning. Every day. That’s what we do in M3Communications Group, Inc. and the result is not only receiving tens of very high level international and local awards but mainly happy clients and amazing teams.
- In 1994, you opened M3 Communications Group, Inc. providing public relations and public affairs, graphic and web design, media monitoring and analysis, just to name a few of the services offered. Why did you decide to open M3 Communications Group, Inc. and build an all-inclusive platform of services?
Leaving journalism and being in a top media position, the next logical step for me was to try to launch my own company in the field of public communications. In 1994, there was only one word for this business – advertising. And that’s how it all started. I rented a small office which was more like a kitchen with a small corridor and my first services were to print business cards, calendars and different souvenirs for client’s needs.
One day, I received a call from my good friend from the Sheraton Hotel who told me that a newcomer on the market was looking for a PR company. To be honest, I was not very sure what it was at all, only guessed that it might be some relationship with the media. Which in fact it was then on the local market in Bulgaria. So, that’s how I met the great James Shields, at that time, the country manager for Amoco Petroleum. A team from Chicago came down to Sofia and provided interviews with many agencies. And when they announced their selection – M3 Communications Group, Inc. I just had one question to the leader of the Amoco team: Why did they choose a company with one employee and a small kitchen instead of a luxury office? His answer was clear: We value this employee much more than the hundreds of others we met in Sofia and we appreciate that you will not spend our money for luxury cars and offices. This was my first and priceless lesson in business – be pragmatic!
- You are in your third decade of being CEO of M3 Communications Group, Inc. Going back to those early days of the mid-1990s, what were some of the early challenges you faced when launching the company?
The biggest and very first challenge was total lack of information and knowledge about the business. Second one – I wanted to do a PR business in a market with clients which did not have a clue what PR was.
The first challenge I overcame two or three years later when USAID – US Agency for International Development – organized an almost one month trip to the United States. For this period, I visited more than 12 states and maybe about 25 PR companies, came back to Sofia with a couple of notebooks full of experience and what was more important – one year later we signed a contract as exclusive with partners of Hill+Knowlton Strategies. I met my mentor and godfather in business, the late Terence Billing, who at that time was executive VP of this amazing professional corporation.
The second challenge was much easier – we simply started creating and also educating the market. Couple of years later we started M3 College, an amazing project, later in partnership with New York-based Manhattan Institute of Management. M3 College is still the only public communications educational unit with a full license with the Bulgarian Ministry of Education. Since then, more than 3 500 students have graduated from college. These days – of course – all programs are online with unique practitioners as speakers.
- How has the communications industry changed since launching M3 Communications Group, Inc. in 1994?
Amazing change! My latest book, published in the US by Allworth Publishing and distributed by Simon and Schuster is named The Global PR Revolution and this title says everything. Revolution! Everything changed – the whole business, environment, media, relations. The reason is very simple – total change of the ownership of media. In the “previous” world all was clear – the media had publishers, they were clear and public, only journalists with education, press cards and employment contracts could have access to the public. Now, the world cannot be recognized, indeed. Some five billion people have media in their hands, write and publish whatever they want, write or wrong, fake or true. So, trust me, this is a huge change. Social media turned the whole media environment upside down and it changed exactly the same way the whole public relations business.
Also, during the past couple of years we observed a unique trend – the merge of the three most important elements of public communications – advertising, public relations and digital. The COVID-19 pandemic sure sped up this merger. A lot of different theories exist now in our business and argue which of the three elements will have a leading role in the new business, but I say loud and clear – it will be public relations. Here are just two of the arguments I have. In modern times, corporations and clients are focused on two communications risks – crisis management and brand awareness. They are in the public relations business and PRF experts are the ones to be the most experienced to solve them.
- What are some of the challenges in the communications sector today and how does M3 Communications Group, Inc. stay on the cutting edge?
The most important challenge today is speed. Nothing else. Some 10 to 15 years ago, the public relations industry used to have a lot of time to respond to the media, especially in crisis situations. We had some 10 to 12 hours to think carefully about how to respond and what to write. Today, we have 10 minutes to do this. It requires huge professional preparation, a lot of reading, simulations in the office with clients and without them. But most importantly there is a need for the whole office to be online 24/7 and to know how to react. In addition to that, all different social media have their own specifics and different languages. We all speak English in social media, but we use one language on Twitter, different on Facebook, of course, another one on Instagram or even TikTok. Yes, the language is English, but the construction is quite different for each media. New things and new challenges every day.
- Maxim, you are also a widely read author with three books that have been top-sellers on Amazon. Your most recent book, as you mentioned, The Global PR Revolution, reached No. 1 on the Amazon sales New Books Chart and also the largest independent ranking BookAuthority put it among its top five new PR books for 2020. Can you tell us about The Global PR Revolution? What inspires your books and how can they help others in the communications industry?
It is a great book, indeed. All sales and rankings reached levels far beyond my expectations. Hundreds of universities all over the world ordered it and presented it to their students, small town libraries in the USA even have it on their shelves and the feedback from top level PR managers is excellent. I see two reasons for that. First of all, there was no book analytically and with case studies to explain the tremendous changes in the PR business for the past decade. And secondly, which is even more important, in the book I managed to collect the opinion of 100 top professionals from 65 countries.
Being humble I can say that no book in the public communications history has this advantage. One hundred great professionals speaking about changes in the PR business, but also about changes in their offices, clients and partners. It is a great experience because the book shows a full picture of the changes in business in many countries from all continents and this – I guess – made it a bestseller in many countries.
There are three very important professional who read the book long before it went on the market and wrote their opinion on the back cover – the undoubted legend in the PR world Paul Holmes, the founder of The Holmes Report, Today Provoke, Francis Ingham, the Chief Executive of ICCO and the New York Times best-selling author Eric Weiner. All three of them were extremely excited about the content and gave me the courage and motivation to work further on the book. I really hope it was an excellent continuation of all my writing experience up to now. It is my fourth book, and thousands of communications experts from all over the world will find answers to all their professional questions.
- Awards and accolades have been prevalent for M3 Communications Group, Inc. In 2020, the company won the prestigious Employer Brand Leader of the Year award. How gratifying is winning the numerous awards M3 Communications Group, Inc. has achieved over the years?
This is just one of our corporate awards for all those 25 years, although I never divided my personal awards with the ones presented to M3 Communications Group, Inc. Since the very first award back in 1997 until today, all together we have more than 200 different awards.
The one I most value is The Holmes Report award to M3 Communications Group, Inc. announced as The Best Consultancy in Eastern Europe and my personal, the one I mentioned earlier – PRWeek’s Best PR Professional in Europe. But to be honest, every single award is valued as it is a part of a great puzzle, the puzzle of success. My long-term experience shows me that clients actually do not care a lot whether a PR company is awarded or not, but for the team it is a huge motivation tool of acknowledgement of our efforts, creativity and professionalism.
- Maxim, what is a day in your life like?
Every single day is interesting, full of emotions, interesting meetings, positive thoughts and new ideas. I wake up at 7:01 am, just to be sure that all day will be No. 1, two cups of coffee, shower, handling emails of the night, obligatory reading one or two news articles from PR authors, quick sports and 9:00 am I am in the office. And then every minute is different and interesting. What I like most is golf, parachute diving, listening to rock music and playing cards with my family. Whatever I do, I can guarantee that I do not spend a minute of my life bored.
- What is something most people don’t know about you?
Nothing. I like transparency. What is more, I adore transparency and all my life is exposed on social media, every day, every hour. The ones who would like to know more about me can contact me any time of the day and night, but I doubt I can tell them something unknown and curious. I really believe that everything which is transparent is ethical and ethics is the icon of my life. Both personal and business.
- Can you share two of your favorite quotes with us?
“If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” – Unknown
“If you lose, don’t lose lessons.” – Dalai Lama
- If you had the power to change just one thing in the world what would it be?
To prohibit using fake names or nicknames on social media. I know sooner or later it will happen. The world will be more and more transparent and thus a much better place to live.
You can read the whole interview here: https://bit.ly/3hdfBrF