Maxim Behar for “24 Chasa": "PR crisis management became routine"


The PR expert Maxim Behar shared his opinion for 24 Chasa newspaper about the rapidly changing communications and the application of modern media tools in business. He also commented on the pros and cons of changes in the PR business that occurred after the pandemic.

- Mr. Behar, you were re-elected President of the World Communication Forum in Davos only a few days ago. What does it do?
In 2009, I was one of the initiators and founders of the World Communication Forum in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, which we then almost connected with the iconic Economic Forum of Dr. Klaus Schwab. We were about thirty enthusiasts, PR, marketing, and advertising specialists, mainly from Europe. Still, there was a need to gather at a high level because in just three years, we were already 250 people from all over the world, and the forum created its own life, again in Davos. In 2014, I was elected its first president, but a year later, I was elected president of the World PR Organization ICCO. As I took on a huge responsibility, I temporarily retired from the management of Davos.

Last year, however, my colleagues insisted that I return, elected me president, and re-elected me a month ago for a three-year term.
I chose my board very carefully; now there are 11 people from 9 countries on all continents. This guarantees a variety of ideas, but the different cultures, time zones, and the lack of events at the Davos Congress Center make things quite complicated. But over the years, we have become a powerful and severe organization whose meetings teach the latest stuff in the field of public communications and share trends that will be dominant in months; you can meet experts of very high rank, for whom at other times you have to make appointments for months and years.
 I must manage the finances, events, ideas, and diversity of this already very heavy machine, but for me, it is an invaluable experience and, for Bulgaria, a unique promotion.

-What are the global trends in communications? Are they only dealing with crisis PR in this sick time?
Crisis PR has become commonplace. A month ago, I published my new book, The Morning After, in Bulgaria, and in it, I focused not so much on the communication business but on leadership. Being a PR expert nowadays is being a leader in your workplace, on social media, among your clients and readers. Now, everything is PR, communications, and management.
If we must work diligently for our customers, which is now mandatory, we must manage their brands, messages, and products more than ever. Just us, not them. This is the global trend: we, the communication experts, are leading, and the clients only support us. But that means brilliant preparation, daily pro-activity, and always fresh and original ideas. I've been in business for over a quarter of a century, and now, going back to some of our first projects, I say this is no longer the same business. There is probably no other that has changed so drastically over the years. And who does not understand it, of course, will have to part with it.

-How has your company - M3 Communications Group, Inc., changed during this year?
Working from home during the first months was a bit strange and uncomfortable. But this fact mobilized us incredibly, now we work much more, more responsibly and the results are there – we have new clients of world renown, to whom we offer even more professional and most importantly lightning fast services. The speed of reaction, communication, and decision-making are the main characteristics that define a company as modern and innovative. And not just in the communications business.
Working online and meeting with clients, the media, or partners on different platforms has given us incredible freedom to save time, make quick decisions, and be pragmatic. You won't believe it, but I've never seen my team so often and haven't known my colleagues so well. We meet via Zoom daily for half an hour, and we meet on Monday for longer. This could never have happened in the previous life, how will you gather the office every day in conference halls, what will you tell them, who will hear you?
The changes are many; they are forever and are already in our thinking and approaches - quick reaction, pragmatic view, and a lot of innovation, literally every day.

-What are the pros and cons of the pandemic in your daily work?
So far, I only see advantages in our business and have listed many of them. The pandemic coincided with my announcement by the influential American publication PR Week as the best PR professional in Europe for 2020. To this day, I joke that if I have to defend my title in this crazy and unpredictable year, I will have to work around the clock. I've been doing this for at least 40 years - first in journalism and then in business. And there is not much difference. Nowadays, if a person works and wants to succeed, he has to work hard; if not - it is better to give up. I can turn an amateur into a professional in a few months, but I can turn us into a lazy, hard-working, or intriguing team player.  

-Did agencies stop working because of the coronavirus?
Well, for sure. We know many of them in Bulgaria; there will be even more. Globally, for years, there has been a relatively rapid unification of the three elements of public communications - PR, advertising, and digital business. It was clear that soon they would be one business.

I have always defended the position that PR will be the leader in the future joint business, which is precisely what happened. The pandemic accelerated this process. That is why, in all three sectors, one or another company will fall overboard.
Many of the things described in my book, The World PR Revolution, which first came out in the United States a year ago, are already coming true. This puts her among the ten best PR books in the world, ranked by BookAuthority. In this global organization, books are offered and ranked by Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, Cheryl Sandberg, Warren Buffett, and many others. This is a phenomenal success that I have never dreamed of in my wildest dreams, but it shows that in Bulgaria, we can generate bold ideas in business and sell them successfully around the world.

-The Bulgarian Association of Communication Agencies expects a 10% decline in the advertising market for 2020. Is it possible that the decline will be greater?
The decline in the purely advertising sector will undoubtedly be more significant in the coming years. And this will not be because advertising agencies are bad or colleagues are not creative. It's just that the market's and customer's needs are completely different.
In the PR business, we have "taken over" many of the territories of advertising and digital agencies. The reason is too simple - the nature of our business is to create content, and now companies around the world need just that - new, interesting, readable, and well-organized content, telling interesting, sometimes even fictional stories, professionally crafted words, cultural word order, a sense for the titles and the first few sentences. Straight - journalism, but in a slightly higher form, carrying the interests of your business, absolutely by all ethical and moral rules. It seems a bit complicated, but it's very specific.

Online media is also why the newspapers in their print life are slowly leaving. Still, not because the journalism in them is terrible, journalists cannot write, but simply because they have to appear in these large circulations, a newspaper will cost at least 20 roars. Only units will be able to afford it. The reason is clear - advertisers are gradually withdrawing from everywhere - newspapers, television, and radio to devote themselves to online media. They are interactive; you can go and buy the product with just one click; they are fast to read and easy to remember - not only as text but also as a file or content in the phone's memory, for example.
And with all these positives, they have one quality that hits advertisers "right in the heart" - you can measure the effect of advertising like no other media - how many people came in, how many clicked, how many they bought, who they are, where live what they are interested in. This historic change will radically transform newspapers, television, and radio and, if they do, survive and thrive, if not, ingloriously leave.

There are thousands of examples of this around the world every day. Here I would like to mention that a brilliant example of these changes in Bulgaria is "24 Hours" - the first newspaper to realize that the online language has nothing to do with the language of the print media. That's why I read the media early in the morning and follow it all day.

-Which businesses strengthened the advertising market?
The answer is very short - everyone! I don't believe there is an advertiser who has a product or service and has stopped advertising. On the contrary - now the market is narrower, and if you have a product, you must be more aggressive and active in advertising to be more innovative, creative, and flexible.

Companies now have two main concerns - how to communicate to international customers, partners, suppliers, and distributors and how to do this to their team, as many of them work from home and do not feel comfortable at all.
Online advertising will certainly increase, no matter what anyone says. And I would say that it is not advertisers who strengthen the market, but good media that helps and strengthens advertisers. This trend will continue to develop and depends on how the media will use it - on the one hand, to make their media products even more interesting, but on the other, to help their advertisers succeed. In English, this tandem is called a win-win, or "both sides win," but they must come together and work together for their common success.

-How will the communication market develop in 2021?
Next year is very difficult to predict. Many businesses will still be "licking their wounds," but they will need good communication - advertising or PR - without having much money to do so or being sure if investing in them is wise.
I will tell them: if you have one LEV - give it for PR; if it doesn't work for you, try advertising. This is a very logical approach that does not affect colleagues in the advertising business. However, champions in advertising will be all online sellers - from stores to thousands of services because these businesses are now experiencing a great boom, and their profits will increase steadily.

-The study of BACA hopefully predicts a recovery of the market and quite a large growth in our country in 2022. How will this happen?
Well, it has not been so dramatically affected as of now. There is a decline naturally, but we have seen declines of this magnitude when there were no pandemics. The market will be restructured. PR will take an ever-increasing share, the advertising business will groan, and the digital business will be slightly and irrevocably twinned with PR. At the same time, everything blends into one big, modern, and dynamic communication business. Only then will we sigh and say – this is already a severe business for a serious market with serious media. My prediction is that this will happen in five years.

-Does traditional advertising die?
Gradually, everything old goes away. Of course, television is still a medium where advertising continues to follow its basic rules. Radio advertising has not changed much, but it seems to go the fastest, and for the newspaper - you know much better than me, it is almost gone. The most important and best thing remains - online advertising. What's new is that social media has started to "eat" more and more of the budgets, and because it is quite well-regulated, the profits for the agencies are getting smaller. But I want to put aside the business part and look at the creative part. The forms of online advertising are beginning to differ more and more deeply from those we remember in standard ads.

No matter how important, graphic design is giving way to words, content, stories, and narration. Hence the great change. Only a year or two ago, advertising agencies - some until now- relied mainly on the image and what the ad would look like - television or outdoor, for example. But as exciting and colorful as it is, you can't stop the car, get on the billboard and click. Although it will happen soon, you can't do the same on the TV screen. That's why - and we feel it increasingly in our company, advertising forms, goals, and, of course, budgets are increasingly directed at PR companies.
We have the so-called wording, the art of persuading in words; we know perfectly how to formulate the right users, how to convince them, and last but not least - how to measure the result. Customers - and this is their nature and always will be - want to achieve the best commercial results with the least amount of money. The combination of good words with the exact "targeting" in the client can now be provided to them more and more successfully by PR companies. And this is no longer a fashion but just a business necessity.

- Is it possible for the technological boom of programmers to completely replace the standard purchase of advertising?
At this stage, this approach seems to be in the realm of considerable risk. Virtually every LEV is valuable, and for every LEV, you need to know if it will come back to you with more, whether it will be in money, positioning, brand recognition, or another purpose.

Online media essentially offer automated purchase of advertising space; they can also quite successfully calculate the expected results, but I think that for at least another five or six years, customers will choose media according to their preferences, depending on whether they like it or not, whether they are even read by people in their offices and their families. In our latitudes, personal elements, mood, and emotion remain strong factors in determining advertising strategies.
Over time, advertising campaigns will be considered an algorithm for achieving the goals. Still, then the advertising business will probably completely fade, and PR companies will largely become media centers. And it will not be boring at all. To a large extent, this is already happening.

The modern PR business already makes us a strange combination of publishers, editors, and reporters. Publishers - because we have media in our hands, yes - social media, but powerful, interactive, and well-targeted. Editors, because we work with words, we take good care of every comma and the order of these words so they influence as quickly, efficiently, and effectively as possible. And reporters because news is expected of us, something new, unknown, and interesting. This concept, described in great detail in the book “World PR Revolution,” is one of the most cited and discussed worldwide among professionals this year.

-How did the crisis affect the budgets and prices of online advertising?
They will become more and more result-oriented. And that shouldn't scare us. We will achieve better results and turnovers with fewer people in our companies, but with smaller profits. This is undoubtedly a trend and every manager must make his plans so that by "drawing the line", all three parties in this chain are satisfied - customers, media and the agency.

Media, whether social or just online, such as “24 Chasa”, no doubt have to support teams, have a variety of other costs, and have to work hard to deliver good platforms with great content and target customers, thus facilitating the selection of agencies.
A global trend in the overall media business is with fewer people to achieve more with less profit. And here is the subtlety of the managerial leadership approach to make your plans so that this whole mix of clients, media, and agencies is happy. This is achievable when there is an intelligent and well-founded proposal for prices for advertising by online media. I do not rule out that they will soon be determined, as in socially, by the results achieved. We live in a new world, by the way - everything is already in the hands of managers, including their proactive approach, visions, and pragmatism.

-Is there enough transparency of the existing metrics for the online advertising market in Bulgaria? Do we need a second metric (besides Gemius) on Bulgarian sites, as appeals have always come from publishers? As far as I know, the IAB (International Bureau of Interactive Advertising) is preparing a new measuring method - obviously, there are suspicions worldwide.
The more companies that offer accurate metrics, the better. Monopolies, especially in such a sensitive area, are not good, especially in a relatively small market like Bulgaria. The world has already developed very modern approaches to measuring the results of online advertising forms. Still, whatever they are, and they are evolving, in the modern world, everything that is transparent is ethical. After all, every agency for measuring the effects of advertising sells trust first, then everything else. Especially in this business, I would add two more factors - innovation and precision.

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