Maxim Behar in Kamen Vodenicharov's show "The Evening of..." on 7/8 TVNovember, 2023
Host (Kamen Vodenicharov): The show in which we have popular Bulgarians as guests, and you can ask all of your questions concerning them. Tonight, we have a very erudite, broad-minded, and informed expert who sees things happening under the surface of the media and public space. Our guest has had a remarkable career beginning as a newspaper correspondent. He started in business and became a globally recognized expert involved in various associations and structures, some of which he is the leader of. It is a real pleasure for me to introduce to you the President of the World Communication Forum Association, the Bulgarian journalist, businessman, diplomat, and PR expert Maxim Behar. Good evening, welcome.
Maxim Behar: Good evening. It's especially nice to be here together.
Host: Thank you for responding to our invitation. I'm sure it will be very interesting for our viewers to learn many things related to you, your career, and your encounters because there are hundreds, maybe thousands of them. You know royalty, you know the leaders of the international political scene. Media drives the communication between people around the world. People who work in this area are the ones who invent new creative products and influence the hearts and minds of millions.
Dear viewers, this is the moment to tell you that you can ask questions live at the address you see listed on our screen. You can type your question and I will read it to our guest. Let's open the door a little bit for the public and get into this very important profession of PR, public relations. What is this network? What are these relationships with the various strata of public life? What is that communication, that connection between the media and those who have a need to present themselves to the public?
Maxim: You have given a complex explanation, but in reality - it can be far more simple. I have come up with dozens of definitions of what Public Relations is in my nearly 30 years. By the way, I can't stand the literal Bulgarian translation of public relations. I think it's very clumsy. I call our business Public Relations as it is called in many other countries. There is no Bulgarian word for marketing and many other things. In the very beginning when I started, you know I was a journalist. Then at a certain point, I parted ways with journalism. I still think of this quote from Winston Churchill: "One can achieve many things with journalism, but one must know when to leave it".
I was working on my own in a small office near Ruski Pametnik. People came to me with stories of their success, accomplishments, and products and wanted me to publish them. In the past 30 years, I have met many editors-in-chief of publications and newspapers, but I haven’t called any of them asking to do me a favor and publish something.
I started creating news with the idea of making products and people more popular in the media. However, in the last 10 years, media has changed and so have the ideas. Now, 10% of it is in print, the other 90% is on the social media platforms. That need to create news in order to pique the interest of people through news is now gone, as it no longer has such an impact. Now everything is done online.
Two or three years ago I asked myself what is my Public Relations business? I decided that it is telling the truth in a way that people understand it. There are two very important words here. One is the truth. We are inundated with an ocean of fake news and made-up stuff.
Host: That's what I was going to ask you. When you create news, do you create good news, or do you create news that contains the truth?
Maxim: There is no good or bad. Some news is what it is. However, we try to create real news or tell the truth to the consumers, to the services, to the products, to the projects of our clients. The creativity comes from the way you describe it to people so that they can understand it.
You can communicate a news story in an insanely boring way that nobody understands or pays attention to. However, our business is closely related to creativity and open-mindedness. You cannot be an artist if you lack freedom in society. Thus, we should make everything seem interesting on social media.
I’ve been doing this for 30 years or almost eleven thousand days. Every morning as I drive my little car to the office, I mentally imagine who I will see, which colleague I will say good morning to, who I will smile to, and from whom I will learn something interesting about the project I will work on.
Host: And what did you dream of becoming when you were a child? You were born and raised in Shumen.
Maxim: The Shumen years were wonderful, but that was in the late 50s and early 60s. And my only memory was a grey color. Everything was just grey. The winters were very cold. Then we came to Sofia and my first job when I was 13. My parents got into a car accident and my father is the one who survived.
He gave me a job at the Serdika dairy factory. I was forging crates for fresh milk. Back then it was sold in glass bottles. Then I started making a newspaper in the director's office at the company and selling it in the neighborhood for 2 cents. I printed it with indigo and somehow, it has been associated with the written word ever since. In that paper, there was gossip, neighborhood football match results etc.
Host: And with the creative process, but at the same time, as you say, with commerce, with business. This news, these well put together stories to sell them to the readers.
Maxim: 2 cents worth of Work Affairs, which was a big newspaper. I used to sell them in the neighborhood, 10 newspapers for 2 cents each, and then we'd spend them on boza with my friends, but that was my first exposure to work. After that, I spent 5 years as a sheet metal worker in an engineering plant. I started as an apprentice and finished as a locksmith. The vise I worked on is now in my office.
A few years ago the new owner of the plant invited me to have coffee and gave it back to me. I asked him how did he know which was mine and he told me that he asked one of the guys I worked with. As we walked down the aisle, I saw that only my vise was gone, and they had taken it and shiny it. Now it's in my room.
Host: And what do you think the Bulgarian society failed to take from your Jewish community?
Maxim: Bulgarian society has given a lot to the Jewish minority in Bulgaria. I always say that I am Bulgarian, and it is so. Because if you ask an Italian in America what he is, he will answer that he is an American. He will not say Italian. His name would probably be Vincenzo Labrizio or something however this guy is American. And we Jews in Bulgaria are Bulgarians. And I think we gave a lot to the Bulgarian people, Bulgarian society, Bulgarian state. These nearly 50,000 Jews stayed in Bulgaria and were not put on the train to go to the concentration camps. All my friends do not have Jewish names they have Bulgarian names, and they are Bulgarians like me. This tolerance and this wonderful relationship that we have I think gives a lot to both sides. Otherwise, we have given what we could as Bulgarians to society. One more, another less.
Host: Were there things that people could have learned more from your way of communicating?
Maxim: I don't believe there is your way of communicating and our way of communicating. The way I was brought up, I don't believe there is any difference. I know people from probably over 100 nationalities. There are lazy ones, there are hardworking ones. There are successful ones and there are unsuccessful ones. I believe in a person being good and hardworking, nothing more. I divide people into good and not good, but I divide them into lazy and hardworking. There are such people in every nation, in every country.
Again, I am thankful that there are around 4000 people of Jewish descent in Bulgaria. And I am thankful that we live in a society with which we get along perfectly, in which there is absolutely no anti-Semitism. I often argue with my friends who say that there is anti-Semitism in Bulgaria.
There are anti-semites, which is normal. However, our society is wonderful. I am in love with Bulgaria. I travel all over the world. You mentioned Prince Charles, who is now King. One day I asked him what he liked in Bulgaria. His answer was the mountains.
“But there are mountains in every country in Europe” I said.
He was silent for a few minutes and then he started listing different things, but none of them were right. Finally, he asked about my opinion and I told him that maybe he liked the people. Of course, they can be aggressive, rude, and maybe uneducated. Still, most Bulgarians are decent and intelligent human beings.
Most people who work in my company are under 30 years old. These are exceptional young professionals that I am proud of. People in Bulgaria are the same as we are. And we are the same as the people in Bulgaria. We give and take from each other, and we have made up this wonderful nation.
Host: This community has been centuries in the making.
Maxim: Yes, and it seems to me that in Bulgaria people are very patient. We want to get along with each other. Yes, society is divided politically. Yes, maybe economically it's divided but ultimately these are processes that are going on all over the world. And I see countries that feel much more strongly than Bulgaria.
On the other hand, there is another reason. We had to enter the European Union. We had the example of Greece and Spain. We were all saying upon becoming part of the EU, life will become wonderful. But yes, it will take time. You need generations, you need people to change. Now of course Covid-19 has happened, there are two wars going on right now and they are not far from us. But everything takes time and I'm a great optimist that people in Bulgaria will be able to fight this time. Let me give you an example. I was a journalist in the very beginning of 90-91 and some people from an American bank came here and had to assess when the Bulgarian legislation could be adapted to the European legislation and when Bulgaria could become a member of the European Union. We were invited to dinner in what was then a Mexican restaurant. We sat down and I asked them what their assessment was. They told me another 15 to 17 years and there is a possibility that we could join the European Union. And then I, a big amateur, jumped up and answered them that this was not correct. Communism had fallen, we had a free market, privatization had happened, we had private ownership, and in two years we would be ready. Then an American replied to me that it must take generations. We must psychologically change things and societies. And this is slowly happening in Bulgaria.
Host: A question from one of our viewers. Stefan, as a professional, I would like to ask you where does PR end and propaganda begin in crisis situations.
Maxim: PR should not end in any situation, even more so in a crisis. I know many people overlap the PR business with propaganda. I know that in the Bulgarian language, there is not a very good connotation of the word PR. In my opinion, if you put in the sense of the word propaganda lying or telling untruths or trying to influence these untruths has nothing to do with the business called Public Relations.
I echo that definition which drives me these days to tell the truth so that it is understood. And in a crisis especially in corporations, that truth needs to be repeated even louder and even more clearly. I enjoy it by the way because I am such a proponent of social media. Because it has given us transparency.
In 2002 I was responsible for coming up with the standard of the country’s business ethics. Many people have asked me what business ethics is. It is to make profits transparently. We are all in business to make profits. However, if we make them transparently that means it is ethical. If you are minting, if you are doing some kind of deal, make it transparent for the whole society to see. But I don't think any other business model is possible. Yes, somebody is going to gain from some deal, some commission. So, what?
Neither will he become a better person nor a better professional. In business, professionalism is best and most clearly seen. And that's why I think it's important for Public Relations to always rely on the truth. You tell the truth, but you tell it in a professional manner so that it is understood. Yes, a company can be wrong about something, and they call me and ask me how to fix that crisis because they made a mistake. I tell them it's a simple job. Just say you made a mistake. There's no way currently in 2023 you can do something and try to lie. To try to cover it up. It's not possible, everything is so transparent already, it's better, to tell the truth and do it in a way that everyone will understand you. So, there is no propaganda, there is Public Relations that tells the truth.
Host: One more question from our viewers. Kirill Asenov writes “One question gives me no peace. What is the role of black PR in Bulgarian politics today? Can an entity survive in this politics without expensive professional PR?”
Maxim: I don't think there is black PR. There is a lie. What does black PR mean?
Host: What about smearing your opponent?
Maxim: That is, to lie that he did something. It's a lie, it has nothing to do with PR. Yes, I know it's called black PR around the world. I would rather describe it as fake news or fake characteristics of a person you want to smear. However, if we go back to our beloved Aleko Konstantinov and read about how Bai Ganyo made elections then there was no PR. PR was born in America between 1912 and 1915. There was no PR then, people just lied and slandered each other.
I think it's a misunderstanding, however, it has come to be a term anyway. Yes, the role is very big and for that everyone, especially politicians, should have a clear precise and honest strategy for their representation. If they tell an unpleasant truth about someone they should know how to respond. If you're a crook, if you've done scams, you won't do politics. And in that sense, if you point out a person's flaws, that's not black PR. It's a verbal political battle. I think politics and public affairs should be done by people who can answer any question. There are no infallible people. Can you answer every question with clear, precise words and messages? Get busy doing public outreach. However, if you hide and sniff something then it's not black PR, it means you are a loser and have no right to engage in such activity that influences other people. Let alone having public funds, which is the great drama of our society. Since we were talking about 2007 and the European Union, it seems to me that Bulgarian business has not seen much of these European funds. And they should have been invested in old-style businesses, in young intelligent people, in great projects. Why? Because they create jobs, and they create products. Otherwise, this “money” should be smoked or eaten away. I think public money must be managed very carefully and people who have black PR or feel they've been wronged should be able to answer for that. Accurately, honestly, clearly and with integrity.
Host: We have a viewer from Spain who is on the phone.
Viewer: I have a very interesting question for your guest. Why did King Charles choose to visit Kenya for his first visit? What exactly are his motives for visiting this African country?
Maxim:He didn’t visit Kenya first. He was in France; he was in Germany. First African one perhaps. Kenya is a member of the British Commonwealth and what I read is that he wanted to make a gesture to the fact that the Kenyan people don't have very good memories of the British colonial years. He wants to reach out to African countries. Africa, by the way, is a continent that is developing at an extremely rapid pace, and you know I work for a wonderful little African country called the Republic of Seychelles. I know how dynamic these processes are. In Africa, the IT business is becoming more and more popular. Kenya is a big country; it is a very developed country. That is a very logical explanation of why King Charles went there. The royal family in general has quite a big attachment to Africa. His mother, Queen Elizabeth, became queen of Africa. I'm going to be wrong here, but I think it was in Kenya. When King George died there's a famous story about how she went to sleep as a princess and woke up Queen.
Host: Thank you for calling in and for that wonderful question.
Viewer: Thank you.
Host: You mentioned that you are Honorary Consul of the Republic of Seychelles. What is this position? What are your responsibilities here in Bulgaria? How do you help the people who run this small Republic?
Maxim: In 2004, almost 20 years ago when the Minister of Foreign Affairs invited me to Victoria we sat and talked for about an hour. He told me that he really liked me and wanted to appoint me as Honorary Consul. I replied that Bulgaria and Seychelles had nothing between them. It would be a great honor for me to work for this wonderful country. He then replied that it was not about countries at all, but about people. Then I asked him why the ministry did not have a website. He replied that there was no need for a website. But if someone wants to inquire, then there are brochures. I asked if he was from another country how he would get these brochures and he said they would send them to him. And so, we did a couple of digital projects, so Seychelles became much more accessible to the world. At the end of the day, it's my business to be able to present products, people, and in this case a country, to the world so that they are more understandable and more popular.
Host: Is there a result of what you did with your team?
Maxim: There is a huge result. But it coincided with Seychelles opening a lot to the world. They were a very closed country. 20 years ago, there was not a single private hotel in Seychelles everything was state-run. Now Seychelles is a very modern country open to the world. They use the resources of the International Monetary Fund. Seychellois travel. The country has become number one in Africa in Facebook visits per capita because it is an island country. There are 80,000 people there. As many as the Levski district here.
Host: And what type of tourists is their product aimed at? Are they targeting the more affluent?
Maxim: They've been focusing the last 2-3 years mostly on more expensive tourism. Because that's where the profits are. At the same time, you can go and spend a week for less than in Greece. If you know how to organize your trip. When we go, we live in an ordinary house right on the beach. Some beautiful Creole women make us toast with butter or pancakes in the morning.
Host: Is it as crowded as our Black Sea coast?
Host: Did they manage to keep their size?
Maxim: First, the territory of the Republic of Seychelles consists of 115 islands and is the most protected territory of any country in the world. Nearly 60% of the territory is preserved by UNESCO. You can't drive a nail there. There is a law that no one is allowed to have a hotel higher than two stories.
Host: Well, there is a law here too, but they jumped over it.
Maxim: It is not possible to skip laws. The Seychelles is not crowded at all. This beach where we live Beau Vallon is public and everyone can go. There are no more than 20 people per kilometer.
Host: Question from our viewer. Ina Stoeva, Mr. Behar, you are the author of several books, but one of them is very different “Seychelles Recipes and more about Paradise on Earth". Why did you make a recipe book and what place does cooking take in your life?
Maxim: Ina, thank you very much for that question. The reason is simple I participated in a TV show where I had to cook. And I decided to cook something more interesting, so I cooked a Seychelles menu. Much to my surprise, this show had such a great response that people started writing to me on Facebook, and Instagram and asking me how to cook this or that. I told myself I better make a recipe book. I chose 25 recipes. I have a friend, Milen Velikov, who lives in Ruse, but he was in Seychelles for 15 years before that and he had restaurants, and he was very into cooking. I called him and suggested we try making 25 recipes. He gave me a lot of advice. I finished the material about Seychelles, about hotels, about history. It's almost sold out in Bulgaria, but it's selling beautifully in English. Without me knowing, it turned out that there was no other cookbook about Seychelles. And this is not exactly a cookbook. These are 25 recipes that I have found to be the most easily accessible to people in Bulgaria. That was the reason I wrote this book. I'm not a geek about cooking. Sometimes I cook, but more often my wife cooks. We both work a lot and get home late and it's easier to order food from somewhere or make a nice salad with ouzo or a schnapps. But when we cook, we try to be very good at cooking.
Host: Are Bulgaria and Seychelles similar?
Maxim: Well, yes. We have people who stay on Facebook a lot. Yeah, that's a characteristic. At the same time, Seychellois are very smiley people. By the way, there are a lot of smiley people in Bulgaria too. We can see frowning people, but if we predispose them with a few nice words we can make them smile.
Let me tell two short stories in Seychelles while we are on this topic. There is a Bulgarian, Mladen Gergov, who lives in Seychelles. I arrived in Seychelles 15 years ago and he saw on the hotel list that I would be there and recognized me. We met. The car traffic there is like in the UK and the roads are terribly narrow. So, I hired a car and invited him to drive around with me. He agreed. The next morning, I went to the reception and asked where Mladen was. They told me that Mladen was not there and his name is Greg. After a while he arrived, and I asked him what was going on.
The French renamed him because it was a French hotel. He was the head of the front desk. He said the hotel was full of Germans and he would introduce himself to them and say, "Ich heiße Mladen". And so, they started calling him Bin Laden. The manager of the hotel called him over and said that this couldn't go on and asked him what his name was. He replied Mladen Gergov, so from then on his name was Greg. His wife called him Greg. Sometime later when his first child Martinka was born, he asked me to be godfather to his daughter. I agreed and this is the only Bulgarian-Seychellois child I know. I told him to find a nice church and we would go and baptize her. Later in the evening he called me and told me we wouldn't be able to do the baptism. Because the mother is Catholic, he is Orthodox, and I am Jewish no one wanted to take us. However, he found a Seventh-day Adventist church that agreed, and we were able to baptize Martinka.
Host: I will ask our colleagues to show you the other popular politicians and world figures you have met as a journalist or as a representative of the organizations you have been a member of. Lech Walesa, Hillary Clinton, His Majesty Simeon Saxe-Coburg Gotha. Here we also see Zhelyu Zhelev.
Maxim: Some of them are a consequence of the ten years of journalism I did. You know that I founded the Standard newspaper together with Valery Zapryanov 31 years ago. I took something from each of these people. I am very glad that I was able to see and still meet them to this day. Two weeks ago, I was in London having lunch with two Lords. In the House of Lords because the British PR organization PRCA elected me as a Fellow last year, and I couldn't translate that. I thought it was sort of an advisor, a consultant. When I went to see them in London it turned out we were 18 Fellows, and it was for life. Among those 18 people, we have two Lords, and they invite us every year to lunch at the House of Lords. Two months earlier I had lunch with Prince Michael of Kent, who is the first cousin of the Queen. And I'm pleased that you always learn something from these people, and you never have to worry because they are people too. This has its pros and cons. A few years ago, I was at the Davos Forum, and I was interviewed by an American television station, CNBC, and they asked me a question: 'What do you expect from the Davos Forum?' And I said, 'One sentence'. And the reporter asked me, "What? I said, "I don't know.". Because if I'm at the Davos forum and I walk away with one sentence it could change my whole life. This conversation that we're having in the studio of this wonderful television show, someone having one sentence to remember from it could change his life. It might make him think about something and if that happens, I would be very grateful. This is Sir James Mancham founding president of Seychelles. A wonderful man who passed away a few years ago. An exceptional friend and the reason I docked in this wonderful country. He invited me.
Host: Since there is a photo with Simeon Saxe-Coburg Gotha from a political point of view and from a PR point of view is it possible that the topic of the monarchy and the restoration of the constitution of Turnovo will return in Bulgaria?
Maxim: No. It makes no sense for that to happen, and the king understands that very well. We have spoken dozens of times with him on this topic in the years before he became prime minister.
Host: And why not?
Maxim: Because I think it would mean purely politically a step backward. It makes no sense. We have a system, good or bad, working or not, that the vast majority of countries in the world have. Monarchies are a minority.
Host: We have the example of Spain, which is going back from dictatorship to monarchy.
Maxim: Yes. At Franco's request and with his explicit request and under very different conditions. There is no point in Bulgaria going back again, we will start some arguments between monarchists, and anti-monarchists. I am very happy about what is happening between GERB and We Continue the Change. I know there are many critics. Some say they are liars and others say they are thieves. But yes, the country must be governed somehow. And if there are intelligent people who say that it is right to put aside all that divides them and try to find something good for Bulgaria. I never would be a politician. But if I were I would try to have no enemies and not to be divided. In my business I try to communicate with my competitors, to please them. Because when you enjoy your competitor, it means you're a businessperson. It means you're a big person, you're not some petty, quirky person. In politics, though, that's probably true with quintuple force. Because all the people come home from work and take the remote turn on the TV and start watching the news.
Host: We end our conversation with a musical performance, and we'll end this one with your musical performance. A collaboration between you and the great Big Sha and his son. An R&B track created in the USA ten days ago and already conquering the charts.
Maxim: You know how I'm enjoying this project. What a pleasure it gives me. In 10-12 days, it has been streamed by nearly 40,000 people, 99% of them in America. It's a rap song that I've dedicated to my PR business called "PR We Are". I explain what PR is in simple words with a nice melody. I am very excited about this project. Big Sha is a wonderful man and a very good friend.
Host: I also had a lot of questions about Seattle, about journalism, but well, we didn't have 50 minutes. Thank you so much for having this conversation.
Maxim: I want to say something to your viewers. This 50-minute call is the beginning of our conversation dear viewers on 7/8. If you want to ask me questions or argue with me I'm the easiest person to find on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. I will then update Kamen and Slavi on exactly how our conversation went. Thank you very much for your attention. Special thanks to you, Kamen. I wish you success with this great show.
Host: Thanks again.
You can watch the whole interview here.