Maxim Behar in the "Reasonably. Responsibly. Dialogically" series

Maxim Behar in the "Reasonably. Responsibly. Dialogically" series

HostDear friends, welcome to the first part of my column “Reasonably. Responsibly. Dialogically.” Our first guest is the one and only PR guru, Maxim Behar. Mr. Behar, thank you for your time, it’s an honor and a real pleasure! 

Maxim: Good afternoon, I am very happy to be here with you and your viewers, followers, and friends.

Host: Thank you very much for your time. To begin with, I wanted to ask you a couple of questions. As you know, political engagement is crucial for political participation, but more and more youngsters don’t seem to engage much with politics. How have your personal public engagements and community causes and activities contributed to you being such a successful and respected person?

Maxim: Success is a very relative concept. One day you can be successful, the other you can fail. You can learn your lessons and become successful, again. I think that a lot of young people are apolitical, but this is not a problem in Bulgaria only. It is a trend all over the world, especially in Europe. And this doesn’t have much to do with the young generation itself, as young people are far more interested in topics outside of politics that appear to be more appealing and significant to them.  But this is also largely due to the nature politics itself. As you know, life changed a lot in the last 20-30 years. There is no room for comparison between the lifestyle we have in 2023 and the one we had 10 years ago. Politics, however, is still the same, and no mechanisms have changed significantly. In fact, every generation is operated with the same mechanisms that are no longer up to date. Also, 20 years ago, to be successful in the public sphere and business, it was important to be involved in politics, as well. The new technologies, the IT business, Silicon Valley, the success of tech companies like Microsoft, PayPal and, of course Amazon, Tesla, and everything else, showed that people can be successful without getting involved in politics. Before, that wasn’t possible. In Bulgaria there are millionaires, even billionaires, young people of 25-30 years old who have developed their own technology companies, sold them successfully, invested their money in other new technologies, and they didn't need to deal with politics at all. And this has led to the fact that politics is done by enthusiasts who tell themselves: "I want to change the world, I want to make Bulgaria a better country to live in and do business". This is pure enthusiasm. Or maybe, politics is done by people who can’t find themselves doing anything else. Which is to say that they are not good in doing business, maybe they have tried, but did not last much, maybe they are not good at studying, they are not good at doing serious work, and they say: "Let's get into politics," and since the competition there is not that great, they make their way and unfortunately they succeed. Whether in first, second or third position, they could eventually get into Parliament or the local authority and govern a municipality. It’s essential to keep the enthusiasts. Young people between 20 -30 years, whatever we call them – Millennials, Z, Y or F should know that they are capable of doing the hard work. Speaking of which, I have a book called “Generation F”.I don't know if it's 100% up to them, but they can get the job done, and they can also give a more human and meaningful message regarding politics. They can speak with reasonable arguments, and they can say: ''Oh, we want to compete, but we don’t want to be corrupt. All we want is to make Bulgaria a better place to live.” When Bulgaria becomes a better place to live, they will win, we will, and everybody will win. And right now, this is possible!

Host: Well, in that case. What is the role of communications, how can we make politics interesting, appealing, and exciting for the people you are referring to?

Maxim: I'm sorry to say it in such a straightforward, yet witty way. We can all observe the total nonsense that is coming from TV, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and various social media. Words, that if a young and intelligent person turns on the TV in the morning, or turns on the screen in the evening, or goes on some of the social media and sees who is saying what, he'll say: "Wait a minute, these people are talking such a nonsense, these people are not saying anything substantial, they're not talking about Business. We all want to have bigger salaries, bigger pensions, the standard to go up. We must work it out how to get what we want. But how? By what economic mechanisms? There is inflation now, how are we going to fight inflation? And when we hear people who are actively involved in politics, again some of them are very sensible people, with clear and meaningful messages. However, they are sinking into the general mass of empty-mindedness and empty talk, and many of these young people may give up. When they see the extent to which politicians have mastered communications, they recognize that they have not mastered them at all. And at the same time, communication is something FANTASTIC. One of my books is called " The Global PR Revolution" and I really keep thinking about the term “revolution” as much now as when I was writing the book. It's been three years since I published it in America, I'm convinced that it really is a revolution. Firstly, because we have the media in our hands. It was only 10 to 15 years ago that anyone wanted a politician to say anything in the media. What does he have to do? Either get paid, which is terrible. Or, because the media will say: " You don't have money, you don't get an appearance on media." Which is not only undemocratic, but also absurd. This politician may have some brilliant thoughts, but he may also not. He can try to get some journalist on his side and say: "I'm very good, Dear Mr. Editor-in-Chief or TV Director or whatever, give me some airtime or give me some space in the media, I can say some interesting things." Now politicians have the media in their hands. We all have media in our hands. There are more than 4 billion social media users in the world. That means there are 4 billion media. And all of us, I go back to the politicians, I go back to the Businessmen, we're sort of in-between publishers, in-between editors, and reporters. Publishers because we own media. I own a media because I have a Facebook profile, an Instagram account, and TikTok. Why editors? Because the most important thing in media is the content. You can have the largest media in the world. You can have a million followers. If you don’t provide good content however, and talk nonsense, people will alienate, and nobody will believe you. Even reporters, because their job is to report news, and people, readers, viewers on these social media are interested in news, something they don't know. Communications are the backbone of society right now.

Host: But does that mean that the responsibility for getting those people involved and getting that enthusiasm going must do more with the political class, and the politically engaged people must be more proactive?

Maxim: I strongly believe that the responsibility does not lie with politicians only. The responsibility is in the whole society. Because all of us travel a lot we see that Bulgaria the whole society has a protective shell, in which all the actions happen. And that’s not positive. There is a lot of populism and misunderstanding about what is going on. There is a lot of despair, in the sense that when somebody tries to do a business, and fails, the following words follow: “This country is not good for business”. There is a famous saying in America, especially in the technology industry, that if you haven't failed three times, it means you can't succeed in business. And this is very common in our society that came out from 40-50 years of very difficult and heavy communism. A very strong equation that still exists in our society is that all people are equal, all should live well, all people should get high salaries, but that’s a misconception. Only the hard-working will succeed and will get high wages. Those who are lazy will not. You must be hardworking and innovative, but also initiative and motivated. We can clearly see the protests taking place in France in the last one month. The same is super left-leaning and super let's say union-oriented. While in other countries the situation is completely different. The situation in the US and the UK is different too. For instance, you go to northern Europe and Scandinavia and those countries know how that money is earned when you put many efforts. They know that in those eight hours they must work hard because only in this way will they increase productivity and money will circulate in the domestic economy. Here, on the other side, there is a rather negative attitude towards most politicians and the country’s development in recent years. Everyone believes that nothing’s really happening and blames the European Union for not meeting the expectations. The truth is that, of all the countries I have been to, possibly more than 100 worldwide, people in Bulgaria are the most intelligent, and with great desire to succeed. And very often people come back home or visit a country abroad. They walk past the streets of Vienna and admire how clean and neat it is, followed by an immediate rather negative with comparison with Bulgaria putting emphasis on how dirty it is here. They say: “Ah, Vienna’s so pretty, unlike Bulgaria. In Vienna, the drivers are so disciplined, in Bulgaria they are so rude." Austrian people have already worked their way to leading a good lifestyle, now people in Bulgaria must do it themselves so that life quality here improves too. Furthermore, 100 years ago Austria was far ahead of Bulgaria. Nowadays, however, Austria is still there while Bulgaria is much closer. In fact, Bulgaria is a whole new country. I would say, it has evolved so much and feels like another planet compared to 30 years ago. Sure, we are not always content and may wait for a “savior”. Also, we have a dozen problems. In municipalities, in politics, in parties, in Parliament. Poorly educated people get in there, don’t behave accordingly, lack pragmatism are business orientation. All these problems are not new to the rest of the world. Even in Western Europe, they exist. Here I am not talking about Asia and Africa. It is quite different there. We are the ones to bring the change and young people under 30 must take the initiative and say: "Let’s take these things in our hands so that Bulgaria can climb even higher, as we don't want to live as immigrants. We have seen many successful Bulgarians with prosperous businesses around the world. However, I have never seen a happy immigrant. All very successful, but when you ask them: "What can I bring you?”, they would answer: “A Bulgarian newspaper, please”.  It’s 2023, who’s reading newspapers. Now I'm watching Donny and Dara, they're doing a super successful tour in America. I followed them in Vegas because I was in Vegas two weeks ago. I even asked some friends of mine to go. The halls were packed. People want to hear Bulgarian music and talk in Bulgarian. Of course, everyone has the right to find their happiness, wherever they want to live. And the most important thing is to be happy. But if somebody leaves Bulgaria because they don't find fulfillment here and thinks it's a miserable country. We must keep him. We must keep him if he wants to, of course. And give him a chance to be successful. In politics or in business. In Business, the State owes a huge debt to young people. If you want to establish a startup company here, there’s a 50 000 EUR interest free loan. Take it right away with as much as five minutes of administration. Yes, half of them will go bankrupt. Or they won't pay back that loan. But the other half that will make it and will pay that money back multiplied by 5. They will enable people to work and achieve success. Policies need to be broader-minded. My company employs about 50-60 people, young people all under 30. I always give them the “Green light” – “Do it, do it you are responsible'. It has been years since I last gave a negative answer "No" in my company, because once again I repeat young, intelligent, well-educated, motivated, meaningful people. With them you can have a conversation on any topic, and we must give them a chance.

Host: Now that you mentioned Vegas, let me ask you, you are very active and respected internationally. You're a former President of the World PR Association, currently President of the World Communications Forum, Senior Advisor for International Affairs and China PR Association. You are also a board member of the PR Museum. What does Bulgaria look like now from the perspective of New York, Shanghai, London to Geneva?

Maxim: It's different from every single city and every single person. There are people who know Bulgaria. By the way, in these 30 years, Bulgaria's image has changed in a positive. It is very rare to hear someone say a bad word about Bulgaria. Since I have lived in the Czech Republic for many years and 15-20 years ago, I called a friend with whom we were and remained super good friends. But we hadn't seen each other for about 15 years. However, we saw each other in a hotel for coffee. And he said to me: " Oh, you know, I think about Bulgaria every day, every day single day", and he had never come to Bulgaria, and I said: "Why? " - "A Bulgarian stole my car and every day, I think. "All these things are history now. Yes, at the time someone may have had a bad experience or a bad experience with Bulgaria. Now I've been in America for a month, I've been all over the west coast, the word Bulgaria now sounds very positive. And that is a huge change. Not all Americans know that we are in the European Union, of course. But it is not a big drama. Within Europe, Bulgaria continues to have a very positive image. A lot of people are coming, some of them are doing very successful businesses. More investors should be given the opportunity to invest. But Bulgaria is still not such a well-known country. To be more specific, Bulgaria is the country with the lowest taxes in Europe. We have a 10% corporate tax. This has been the case for some 15 years. We have a 5% dividend tax. Essentially, only Slovakia has a lower dividend tax, which is 0%. But it makes no difference whether it is 5% or 0%. Bulgaria has a 10% corporate tax, which is a great relief for any investor, be it foreign or domestic. He can come here and predict things for years. He's not going to have his taxes changed, nor is he going to have any turmoil. Nobody is aware of that. And when I go to Austria, Germany and tell people about taxes in Bulgaria (we also work with a lot of foreign clients ourselves), they say: "Oh, don't tell me that, we're hearing it from you now." Which is to say that there is no strategy to present Bulgaria abroad. Even China, which is a very friendly country. Even America, which is an even friendlier country, the European Union countries too. Well, when we have the lowest taxes, we must promote that to the world. And this is not just a matter of investments, because when you present Bulgaria abroad as a nice, wonderful and friendly country, that should not relate solely to tourism anymore. Yes, some will go to the sea, or go skiing. It’s about the image that Bulgaria has, and it is crucial for foreign attracting investments, not only tourists. But that takes time. In 1991 or 1992, some American bankers from Merrill Lynch came to Bulgaria and they had to study what were the prospects for Bulgaria to enter the European Union.  Back then, I was a journalist, doing the Standart newspaper, and they invited me to dinner. We had dinner with the people from Merrill Lynch, and I asked them: "How did your research go?" and they said, "In 15-17 years Bulgaria can enter the European Union." As I heard what they said, I got extremely emotional, nervous, and angry. I said: "How come in 15 years, communism in Bulgaria is over and there's a free market. We're doing privatization now, there's freedom of the press now. Bulgaria is ready for the European Union. They looked at me and said: ‘’Please, be patient. It takes time, and you have to mentally change the state, the mindset of people, the legislation and everything else." In fact, they were also right about Bulgaria's image. However, I am sure that Bulgaria will take turn into a prosperous country with many business opportunities.

Host: One last question. You have said numerous times that you dream of a better, more dynamic, more ethical world. What does a better, more dynamic, more ethical Bulgaria look like in your opinion?

Maxim: Just as it is now, but with better business relations and a growing economy. Because when Business is going well, everything else falls into place. And not just because there is more money in the economy, but primarily because people have more job and career opportunities. They also have better examples of how to climb the ladder to success in Business. It’s crucial that you have a good example from your “neighbor” who doesn’t drive expensive cars and makes illegal deals, but rather earns money in a transparent way. A person can have 10 expensive cars and live in a palace. In America, for example, when you see a rich guy, you say: "I want to be like him." But how can you be like him when you sleep until 11:00 at noon and then in the afternoon you go to a café with friends, then in the evening you gather to have a drink and discuss how low salaries are, and how strict your boss is. You must work hard if you want to progress. And I imagine Bulgaria as an even more developed country, which has much higher business growth potential. In the end, I always make comparisons with other countries to better evaluate our current progress. If we take Slovenia for instance, it has 2.000.000 inhabitants. The average wage is twice the average wage in Bulgaria. Slovenian people seem to be happier. But why? Well, because their economy is growing. Except for the Austro-Hungarian traditions, of course, from the 1930s. Where the market is working, and legislation and laws are respected. Sure, sometimes it can happen that you break the law, but you should take responsibility for your actions. But still, the main thing, in my opinion, is the market, the base for a well-functioning business. A state that really cares for small businesses and says: “Let’s help this business”. All the funds that the state has in the treasury, including the financial aid coming from the European Union. Let's give it to Business, and not for salaries. Wages will come eventually from business, and they will exceed numerous times the initial capital invested by the state. That’s why I consider business to be the single most important driver. It is where smart, happy, and motivated people will come from and we'll have a much better country, which I strongly and fanatically believe in. Bulgaria, on top of that, is a fantastic country even now, but potential is nonetheless huge, and it will grow even more as business grows. And when business spurs economic growth, politicians will make better policies in favor of people.

Host: Mr. Behar, thank you very much for your time, it was an honor and a pleasure.

Maxim: Thank you, too.

Host: Friends, I hope you found our conversation interesting. Also, I hope that we have asked the right questions, and got the right answers. See you soon and thank you for watching.

You can watch the whole video here.