Maxim Behar for the Polish Magazine PR Manager: Modern PR GloballySeptember, 2021
The world-renowned PR expert Maxim Behar talks with Zofia Bugajna, Founder of SEC Newgate CEE for the Polish magazine PR Manager about the changes in the PR industry as a result of the pandemic, what modern communication practices and trends are used nowadays, what changes await PR agencies worldwide and what are the opportunities for their future development.
I happen to meet you right after the World Communication Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where you had discussions with the best PR specialists from around the world. How is the pandemic changing our industry?
- Our industry has undergone huge changes, but it should be noted that the changes were not the result of a pandemic, but of the growing influence of social media over the years. There has been a real revolution in the last two years - we have gone from consultants to decision makers.
Only 10 years ago, we were the communications intermediary between our customers and the traditional media. It has happened clients to come to our office asking: "Dear Mr. PR expert, can you help me promote my product on the media?" It did not occur to us then that one day we would have our own media in our hands. Today, traditional media have almost disappeared and replaced by social media.
Sometimes I still hear, "Please, manage our PR activities, but don't touch our Facebook and Instagram pages, because my secretary is managing them perfectly." Well, I usually respond that in such case we couldn’t cooperate, because these days the communication between the brand and the audience happens exactly through Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, TikTok, etc. Now it's all about the content we provide and that is what PR experts happen to be masters at.
Managing our clients' social media channels means that we are at the forefront and our reactions must be immediate. We are no longer external consultants offering solutions. Making decisions on behalf of our clients, we become part of the brand management team. And this is a huge responsibility that requires honesty and integrity, as well as accurate evaluations. In order to do it correctly, we must have a completely different level of understanding of the company's activities, we must know the internal organizational structure, and even to put ourselves in the CEO’s place.
What is the biggest trend right now?
- The main change in recent years is the complete merger of the three main businesses in public communications - PR, advertising and social media. This is a fact that no one is arguing about anymore. Today, however, there are disputes over which of these competencies will be leading.
I have had many disputes on this subject, including with my friend Sir Martin Sorrell. He believes that advertising will remain number one, thanks to creative solutions, graphic design skills, planning and buying media. Yes, but I think we, PR professionals, can talk and build relationships, and we are better prepared to handle social media. That is why I am convinced that PR will dominate digitally, because social media is an increasingly important part of public communications. And that will ultimately define our position as a leader in the entire industry. My argument is very simple - you can develop a software or buy any media around the world and flood it with advertisements, but today you can't do anything without properly structuring the content. Otherwise, you will just advertise an empty space.
In my company I started to hire more and more graphic designers, web developers, social media experts. We already have all competencies required in modern public communications. I am sure that in 2-3 years almost all account managers will be replaced by social media representatives. Therefore, this specialization should dominate in my team.
Apart from social media, what can you point out as an important element in the idea of modern PR?
- I think there are three most important things that we should pay attention to and I write about them in my book "The Global PR Revolution".
I call them the "Three S's": Speed, Simplicity, Self-confidence. Speed - this is the speed of decision-making and how fast you can adapt to any crisis, the speed of saying "thank you" and "sorry". Simplicity - second come the priorities, because when we get a thousand messages and we have a thousand things to do, we have to prioritize our tasks every day, week or month. I often say something very simple: "Okay, I have to do this and that first. And when I am done, I can do everything else. Self-confidence – third comes the self-confidence, although in fact this is the most important thing. I do not know anyone who is successful in their business or personal life or who leads a successful project for a client without believing in their own skills. Your confidence is essential in making your clients trust you and your advices. I keep telling my team, "We're not selling strategies, creative ideas, or media tactics, we're selling trust."
On your opinion what is the main opportunity for the development of your business?
- The reason that speaks of our leading position in the widely understood communication industry is our ability to make decisions. Advertising agencies usually work with marketing directors, digital agencies, most often with brand managers or lower-level professionals. Only PR agencies communicate directly with the CEO and this is our undeniable advantage!
Therefore, we have the ability to communicate faster and spend less time on deciding our further actions - this is a key change in the PR business. In the past, crisis management was very easy. For instance, when a negative article was monitored in the national daily newspaper, we had enough time to meet our client for a coffee and discuss it together before prepare a press release or statement, invite journalists to a briefing and explain where we stand. We had to get in touch with about 20 chief-editors. In general, we had at least one day to respond properly. Today, that time has been reduced to 10 minutes. When a negative comment about any of our clients appear on the Internet, it spreads faster than a pandemic. To react quickly, you need to be perfectly prepared and go through often crisis management trainings. We used to do a big crisis simulation once a year, today we have such training with clients every two or three months. That is the only way to get ready for immediate reactions, to step out of the role of prompter and move into the role of someone who takes responsibility and makes decisions instead of only consulting the client.
Today's PR experts have completely different skills and knowledge, new competencies. Our business and management methods have changed, so it is natural to update the organizational structure of the agencies. I write about this in my last book, which I already published during the pandemic - The Morning After.
How do you think PR agencies will change?
- At the congress of the International PR Organization ICCO in Paris in 2016 I predicted that by 2020, or perhaps by 2025, 20-30 percent of employees will work remotely, sitting at Starbucks or on the couch at home. Meanwhile, change has come much faster, and all of us now, almost 100 percent of us, work from home, so a completely different style of governance is needed.
In the past, in my company we were having team meetings once a week, usually every Monday, sharing our tasks for the week. Now the decision of what to do in a given situation can be made at any time. I just ask if we can meet for a Zoom call in 10 minutes and it happens right away. We shorten the decision-making process and meet people much more often. I gather my team of 20 or 30 people and look all of them in the eyes virtually. It was not possible in the conference room and I could only make eye contact with a few people. Today I can see everyone's reactions on the screen because the system shows me their faces simultaneously.
The most important lesson I learned during the pandemic was that there should no longer be vertical structures within the agency. Everyone should be a leader nowadays. Having meetings on Zoom with clients while I am in the kitchen or the living room requires much more independence from the team members. It is no longer possible to enter the room of the President or the CEO and ask him to make a decision for you. Now the leadership is horizontal.
This management model has been working for the last year in my agency, and despite the crisis, we hired 5 more people in our team and attracted 7 more new clients. This proves that we have adapted well to the changes. In PR agencies we work on the "secondary" market, as well as lawyers or real estate brokers. The primary market is where our customers work. Our success determines the success of our clients and this is part of our job.
How will horizontal management affect employees?
- It is very important how the responsibilities are spread among each member of the team, and this requires constant development and further qualifications. The positive effect of working at home is that today we have much more time to do our work. We save time from traveling to the office and looking for a free parking space. We no longer have business lunch and dinner meetings, which sometimes, let's face it, are just unnecessary and boring. We work much faster and much more… internationally. I used to get a plane to South Africa for three-hour meetings, which took me two days overall. Today, such trips are not necessary, and instead I can join an online conference at any time. And the time we save is worth using in reading – these days we have so many sources! I have subscribed myself to about 20 different newsletters, and I start my mornings with a cup of coffee and at least two articles.
Is there a difference in the way PR specialists from different parts of the world define the changes and adapt to them and where? Is there any distinctive way of thinking?
- Local habits are what cannot be seen at first glance. For example, in Europe and the United States, we are much faster at making decisions than in Asia, Africa or Latin America. I am the President of the World Communications Forum Association in Davos, which comprises of 11 people from different countries on the Board, there are people from Vietnam, China, of course from Europe and the United States, Mexico, Malaysia, South Africa. When we have our regular Board meetings, I try to convey what I have to say in an understandable way to everyone. Sometimes, however, especially during online meetings, there is miscommunication and some things can be perceived differently. That's why you have to be very careful. Now that we've all moved on to online communication, it's harder to understand the intricacies. The success of the project depends on the culture of the employees who serve foreign clients not from the office, but from home. In my company we have many Chinese clients, and their culture and habits are different from ours and this complicates the work process. I myself have worked with Chinese for so many years, I have been there many times and I have friends in China. I am also an Ambassador of the Chinese International PR Association (CIPRA), and we meet each other online every month.
However, despite certain cultural differences, we think of PR on a global scale, not locally, thanks to social media. We use the same tools in a global language.
What is the state of the PR industry in the CEE region today? How do you rate Eastern European agencies compared to the rest of the world?
- We are extremely diverse. In Central and Eastern Europe, there are still one man show companies that entice their customers with lower prices. I often come across such clients and ask them: "Would you choose the cheapest dentist?" You shouldn’t choose your PR based on lower fees and risk your reputation. If a dentist ruins your teeth, another dentist can fix them. But destroying your reputation cannot be fixed so easily these days. You can build your brand in 20 years and lose your good image in 20 minutes, and sometimes even in 20 seconds.
It is important to remember that in our markets the number of customers is limited and at the same time there are a large number of communication agencies. Agencies in the Central and Eastern European region are bolder to cross the border of their own country. It happens that we send our proposals to our client's headquarters and get an answer back: "Well done! It's great that a small country like Bulgaria with seven million population can do something like that!” So, first of all, today we have a chance to go beyond our territory and fight for projects in very competitive (western) markets. Second, we can expand this territory while struggling with the advertising and digital business.
I am glad to work in such a rapidly changing market. Central and Eastern Europe are dynamic and competitive. It's different in the West - you have clients and you work in an office from nine to five (and you always have days off). We must do more to succeed in such a dynamically developing and very competitive business!