The Global PR Revolution.
An interview with Maxim Behar.
Maxim Behar is a globally renowned PR professional, entrepreneur, writer and media expert. He is also a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School at Harvard University.
He is the founder, CEO and Chairman of the Board of M3 Communications Group, Inc. The company is an exclusive associate of Hill+Knowlton Strategies in Bulgaria. From 2015 to 2017, he served as President of the International Communication Consultancy Organisation (ICCO). Now, as Immediate Past President, he is a member of the Executive Committee and Chair for International Growth. He is also the current president of the World Communications Forum Association based in Davos, Switzerland.
Maxim was invited to the Global PR Hall of Fame in London and has received numerous titles and awards over the years, including Best PR Professional in Europe for 2020 from PRWeek magazine, Global CEO of the Year by The Stevie Awards, and Communicator of the Decade by the Indian Association of Business Communications. Maxim has lived in Poland and the Czech Republic for many years and is very familiar with the CEE.
He is the author of “The Global PR Revolution”, published by Allworth Press in the US. The book is ranked among the 100 greatest PR books of all time by BookAuthority. His latest book, “The Morning After”, focuses on leadership in communications during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Born in Bulgaria, Maxim considers himself to be a citizen of the world.
You have just been at the World Communications Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where you spoke to the best PR experts from around the world. How is the pandemic reshaping our industry?
A lot has changed in our industry, but it is worth noting that this was not started by the pandemic, but by the gradually growing influence of social media. But over the last year or two, a real revolution has taken place. PR specialists have gone from being advisors to decision-makers.
Meanwhile, just a decade ago, we served as a liaison between our customers and traditional media. Clients came to our offices and asked, “Dear Expert / PR expert, can you help me promote my product in the media?”. It did not occur to them, nor to us to tell you the truth, that one day everyone will be able to have your own communications channel. Today, traditional media have almost completely disappeared. Social media is what counts.
Sometimes, I can still hear a client say, “Please help us with PR support, but don’t touch Facebook and Instagram. My secretary handles those perfectly well.” That’s when I step in and say that I’m beginning to doubt if we’re going to get along, as today’s dialogue with a brand’s audience happens on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, TikTok, etc. Nowadays, it’s all about content. And it just so happens that we, as PR specialists, are masters of content.
We are on the frontline of managing social media channels and our reactions must be immediate. We are no longer external consultants who suggest solutions. By making decisions on behalf of our clients, we become part of their brand management team. And this is an enormous responsibility that requires integrity, honesty, and good judgment. To be able to perform these tasks properly, we must have a completely new insight into a company than ever before. We must know the organization inside out, and know what it’s like to walk a mile in the shoes of the company’s bosses.
What’s the biggest trend right now?
A major change seen in recent years is the full integration of three main communication components: PR, advertising and digital. This merger is a fact that no one is trying to argue against anymore. Today, however, the issue is about which of these competences takes the lead.
I have had many discussions on this subject, including with my friend Sir Martin Sorrell. Of course, in his opinion, advertising will remain number one, as it is determined by creative competences, graphic design skills, and media purchasing and planning. I believe that, yes, advertising agencies still have their fair share of influence, but we are the ones who talk and build relationships. PR is better prepared to run social media channels. That is why I am convinced that PR will dominate digital, as social media is an increasingly important part of it. And this will ultimately determine our position as a leader in the entire industry. My argument here is simple. You can develop any software or buy any media outlet around the world and flood it with ads, but you won’t achieve anything without properly engaging content. It’ll just be a blank space. We, as PR specialists, are masters of content. In my company, I’m constantly hiringmore and more graphic designers, web developers, and people who know social media well. We have full creative competences. I’ll even go out and claim that in two- or three-years’ time, we will have social media workers in place of today’s account executives and account managers. This specialization is coming to dominate my team.
What, apart from social media, is important when thinking in terms of contemporary PR?
I believe that there are three vital things that we should be paying attention to, and I wrote them down in my book, “Global PR Revolution”. The three Ss are: Speed, Simplicity, and Self-Confidence.
Speed is how fast you make decisions and react to a crisis – how quick you are to say, “Thank you”, or “I’m sorry”.
Simplicity. It’s necessary because when we receive 1,000 different messages and have a thousand things that need doing, we need to set our priorities for every single day, week and month. All it takes is a simple, “Okay, I need to do this and that. Then I can move on to doing other things.”
Self-Confidence. I list it as the third S, but in fact it is the most important of the three. I do not know anyone who could possibly be successful in business or in their personal lives, or who could head a successful project, if they did not believe in their own strength. If a client is to trust you and take your advice, then your credibility is key. I keep telling my team this. We don’t sell strategies, creative ideas or media tactics. We sell trust.
What do you see as the main opportunity for growth for our industry?
The reason for our leading position in the communications industry is our access to decision-makers. Advertising agencies usually work with marketing directors, while digital agencies work with brand mangers or lower-ranking specialists. Only PR agencies are in touch with the CEOs, and this is an undeniable advantage!
Moreover, mounting time pressure is in our favour, and this is a key change that the PR industry has witnessed over the years. Crisis management used to be easy. In the past, when a negative article was published in the morning newspaper, we would make an appointment with our client, meet for a coffee, and read the allegations a dozen times over. Then, we would prepare a press release or statement, invite journalists to a media briefing, and explain our position. We had to reach, let’s say, 20 key people from the media, and we had at least a day to react. Today, this time has shrunk to about 10 minutes. When a negative article appears online, it begins to spread faster than the pandemic. In order to be able to react immediately, one needs to be perfectly prepared and undergo frequent trainings. We used to do a large crisis simulation once a year. Today, we hold such trainings for clients every two to three months. Only then can we react quickly enough. We step out of our role as an advisor and become someone who takes full responsibility for what’s happening. We make decisions without consulting the client.
Today’s PR specialists have completely different skills, knowledge and competences. It is therefore natural to rebuild agency structures to reflect this, as our business and management methods have changed. I explore this topic in my latest book, “The Morning After”, which came out during the pandemic.
In your opinion, how will PR agencies change in the years to come?
At the ICCO Congress in Paris in 2016, I predicted that by 2020, or maybe 2025, 20 – 30% of employees would work remotely, sitting in a Starbucks or at home on their sofa. Meanwhile, this change has come much faster. We all work from home now, and a completely different management style is needed to cope with this.
In the past, we would meet as a team around once a week, usually every Monday, to discuss and allocate tasks. Now, decisions on what to do next are made in a matter of minutes. I ask, “Can we meet on Zoom in 10 minutes?”, and that’s what happens. On the one hand, we have shortened the decision-making process and are meeting people much more often, but we have also started entering their homes. Every meeting, you’re looking at my house and I’m looking at yours. I meet with a team of 20 – 30 people and can look them all in the eye. This wasn’t possible in a conference room, where I would only be able to make eye contact with a few people. Today, I can see everyone’s faces, and all their reactions, in real time on my screen.
The most important lesson I have come to learn during the pandemic is that there should no longer be any vertical structures within an agency. Everyone has to be a leader these days. Talking to clients on Zoom in your kitchen or living room requires a lot more independence from your teams. You no longer have the option of walking into the president’s or CEO’s office and asking them to make a quick decision.
Leadership today is already horizontal. Over the past year, this management model has proven successful in my agency, where we took on an additional five people and acquired seven more clients despite the crisis. This proves that we have adapted well to these changes. PR agencies work on the “secondary” market, just like lawyers or real estate brokers; the primary market is where our clients operate. Our success is determined by the success of our clients. That’s what we’re here to do.
How will horizontal management affect employees?
The most important change here is the distribution of responsibility among each team member, and this requires that they are constantly broadening their horizons and deepening their knowledge. The positive effect of being locked in at home is that we have much more time to work. We’ve saved the time we’d spend on commuting to the office, or looking for a parking space, and we’re no longer going on business lunches or dinners, which sometimes, let’s face it, were simply unnecessary and boring. We work much faster and much more… internationally. In the past, I would fly down to South Africa for a three-hour meeting, which would take me two days. Today, such trips are no longer necessary as I can join a conference all at any time. And the time we save should be spent on reading! There’s so many sources of knowledge and inspiration! I subscribe to about 20 different newsletters, and start each morning with a cup of coffee and at least two articles to read.
Are there any differences in defining changes and directions in the development of the industry for specialists from different parts of the world? Are different regions characterized by any sorts of distinct ways of thinking?
Local habits cannot be seen at first glance. For example, decisions at firms in Europe or the United States are made much faster than in Asia, Africa or Latin America. I head the World Communications Forum, where I have 11 people on the global board from 11 different countries – this includes Vietnam, China, Europe and the United States of course, Mexico, Malaysia, South Africa. When we meet, I always try to convey what I have to say in a way that’s easy to understand for everyone. However, sometimes, and especially in online communications, certain details are lost in translation or may be perceived differently by others. That’s why you have to be very careful. Now that we’ve all moved to online communication, it’s harder to pick up on the subtleties. The success of a project depends on the culture of employees serving a foreign client. And not from the office, but from their homes. We have a lot of Chinese clients in my company. Their culture and habits are different from ours, and working together isn’t always easy. I have worked with the Chinese for many years. I have also been there many times and have friends in China. I am also an ambassador of the China Public Relations Association (CPRA), and we regularly stay in touch. But now my people must learn to get along without me. They’re on their own.
Despite the existence of cultural differences, we think about Public Relations globally, not locally. This is partially thanks to social media. We’ve learned to use the same tools to speak a global language.
What is the state of the PR industry in the CEE today? How do you rate agencies from Eastern Europe when compared with those form the rest of the world?
We are extremely diverse. Here in the CEE, you can still find “one-man show” companies that lure clients with lower rates. I often ask clients who fall for these agencies whether they also choose to go to the cheapest dentist. PR isn’t about being cost effective! If one dentist damages your teeth, another can likely help you fix them. But if you damage your corporate reputation, you’ll find that it can’t be fixed that easily these days. You could be building a brand for 20 years, and all it takes is 20 minutes, or sometimes even 20 seconds, to lose everything you’ve achieved.
It is important to keep in mind that the number of clients in the CEE is limited. Meanwhile, there is also a lot of communications agencies. Agencies in the region are much bolder when it comes to crossing borders. It happens every now and then that we send our suggestions to a client’s headquarters only to hear, “Well done! It’s great that a small country like Bulgaria, with just seven million inhabitants, could come up with something like this!”. First off, we have the chance to operate internationally and fight for projects in very competitive (Western) markets. Secondly, we can also expand our operations by fighting for advertising and digital businesses.
I am happy to work in such a dynamic market. The CEE region is robust and competitive. It’s different than the West, where agencies have their usual clients and work 9-to-5 office jobs (with weekends always off). Here in the CEE, we find ourselves working a lot harder!