Transcript of Bulgaria on Air TV Channel’s Ganiela Angelova interviewing PR expert Maxim Behar about how we can protect ourselves from fake news during a pandemic.

G. A.: Good evening, Mr. Behar!

M. B.: Good evening! Be safe and sound, stay home and don’t get sick!

G. A.: Great message, you also be safe and healthy! Very often, especially in the last few weeks, we see fake news that might be even dangerous because medicine use is involved. How do we recognize fake news so that not to be confused?

M. B: There is no universal formula on how to recognize fake news, there is not even a specific formula on believing one or other news, no matter if they are semi-fake or completely fake. We need to check correctly the information from several sources and be very aware and careful. I see that there is ridiculous news and they are terrifying many people, especially in social media. That creates panic and makes the blood of many run cold. So when we can see the source of the information, we have to check it out very well. If someone reports information and it seems overly appealing, we should immediately search Google or another search engine so that to be sure about the authenticity of it.

D. A: We have seen that in the course of this hysteria, profiles of popular personalities have been hacked, calling people out to use a certain medicine. Then it turns out that this is fake news but people believe the information.

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M. B: Many accounts were hacked even before the pandemic. Of course, the two most popular social media in Bulgaria – Facebook, and Instagram undertake pretty serious steps to limit hacking or impersonation. If someone reads the blog or the wall of someone’s profile and takes seriously such a call to use medication, he should be angry at himself. I understand that it is a crisis and some people are worried or are even panicking, but when it comes to medicines and taking them without consulting a medical practitioner – that becomes silliness and absurdity.

D. A.: In Germany, there are already two such cases of people who used medicines that have not been prescribed by a doctor and are now dead.

M. B.: I’m sorry to hear that but we must have a very careful approach to any information. Of course, if a recommendation is given by a doctor or a medical practitioner it is more likely that the information is real and in such cases, it should be taken more seriously. However, if someone tells you that you should take a particular medicine and you do it without thinking, then that becomes pretty reckless and irresponsible.

D. A.: How important is the information being properly served by the authorities? How’s the crisis headquarters doing so far? We see that there are briefings several times a day.

M. B.: There are different opinions on that question. Some say that authorities fool and deceive us, others are glad and grateful that there is so much information, even over-information. I think the information that comes to us is very good at the moment. It is even more than some can take. I welcome both the headquarters, the Medical Board, and the prime minister, as well as all those whom we watch from morning to night. It is a much better option to become bored and annoyed than not to have information at all and make all kinds of speculations and interpret things by ourselves. For sure, our interpretations will not be accurate and true. However, it cannot be otherwise in the world of social media. If someone does not say it on TV or if General Mutafchiiski, Boyko Borisov or anyone else does not appear, the information will be submitted by other people in social media. In any case, it will be more inaccurate, false or misleading than if someone would say it with the authenticity of their face, authority and with the responsibility that their words bring. I believe that the government, mainly prime minister and Deputy Prime Minister Tomislav Donchev, are making quite good efforts so that all of us know what is happening in the state. Nowadays that is super important.

G. A.: Yes, people must get accurate information. Have we learned how to cope with crisis PR?

M. B.: We are still learning. In our business, we learn every day. What you call PR is something extremely dynamic and nowadays it is so rapidly changing and evolving that if last Tuesday we solved a crisis, next Tuesday that crisis might have completely different dimensions, requirements and quite diverse ways of reaction. Of course, we’re becoming better.

I believe that in Bulgaria, the PR market is well developed and colleagues react very quickly and adequately. Both they and our company are constantly learning. It’s nice to work from home, from a distance a person sees a lot more things that he can’t see in the office, being there from morning to night. Yes, we kind of miss this whole atmosphere of lunches, dinners, discussions, and meetings together but that is life. We need to be able to adapt easily and become better professionals. Now, especially to us – the PR specialists, are given extremely favorable opportunities to advance in the profession and to get to know things that we will remember for years to come. I take nonstop pictures with a protecting mask and helmet. Someone asked me why I took those pictures and I told him that I wanted to remember this moment because after 2-3 years when we come back in our memories to that period, we’ll probably not even believe that this happened. But it did, still is happening.

G. A.: Mr. Behar, what will we learn from this crisis? Are we going to take the lessons from the situation or will we move forward as usual when it passes?

M. B.: No, it’s a cold shower for everyone and we will remember this situation at least a few generations ahead. I hope it never happens again. We will rethink our values, see and appreciate the important things in life, maybe even find new ways to practice our profession. Something very important – we will realize that nothing lasts forever.

I remember a conversation with a big client of mine who built the Sofia Airport Center, this large office building that is located not far from your TV studio. The man who built it is named Alan Levy, he is the CEO of a large American company. The story I’m about to tell happened about 16 ago – we were at his house in Beverly Hills, by the pool, drinking some drinks, and he said, “Max, you have to be ready for a crisis.” It was only 2003-2004 at that time. Of course, I answered him with disbelief that it was possible.

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I thought it was a total absurdity – the year 2007 Bulgaria was about to become part of the EU. I believed that the whole EU would be with us, therefore – money, funds and opportunities for business development would be expected. He looked at me while taking a sip of his drink and said: “Max, you’re wrong, every 10-15 years there’s a crisis, you should be ready for it.” Well, I didn’t believe him then, but it’s a fact that 2008 begun the big crisis, which is still the most serious one for the Bulgarian business. The conclusion is that nothing lasts forever. We have to be honest, honorable, do business properly and be ready for the next time when another crisis happens. Of course, we hope that this situation with COVID-19 will never happen again, but in the meantime, we must be prepared for the economic crisis that will follow.

Today, right at that moment we have to start thinking about how to overcome it and how to become better. These are lessons that nobody, anywhere can give you. Even at Harvard University, which I graduated last year or Princeton or any other great university. These are the lessons of life and we have to learn them and learn from them carefully.

G. A.: Thank you, will be looking forward to meeting you again! Maxim Behar for “ONAIR Day”

M. B.: Thank you, be looking forward to meeting you live in the studio next time!

Taken from Bulgaria on-air Friday evening talk show, March 2020. Full video (in Bulgarian) here.