#50over50 Nelly Benova

About the author

Ann is a co-founder of PR Academy. Her special areas of interest are internal communication and project communication. Ann leads the CIPR internal comms certificate course. MSc, Dip CAM, MCIPR

When Nelly Benova turned 50 this year, there was the usual celebration with family and friends, but what Nelly didn’t expect was the Public Relations Society of Bulgaria to mark the occasion too.

It’s evidence of the impact that Nelly has had on practice in the country that her birthday was marked in such a special way – with a 47 page newsletter charting her achievements!

I don’t think I have met many people as committed to professional PR practice as Nelly. Our paths first crossed when she was delivering the CIPR qualifications in Bulgaria. She was determined to bring a fresh perspective to practice in the country and brought in tutors from the UK. I was lucky enough to be one of them and we became good friends as well as colleagues.

It’s hard to imagine now that for the early part of Nelly’s life she was living under a communist regime. The People’s Republic of Bulgaria existed from 1946 to 1990 and it was ruled by the Bulgarian Communist Party. It helps to explain why PR is still a young discipline in the country.

Following a degree in philosophy and psychology, Nelly was working as the assistant to the CEO of a large company when a friend gave her a novel to read. The heroine worked in PR – something completely new to Nelly, but she knew that this was what she wanted to do.

One thing Nelly is very clear about is the importance of being properly qualified in what you do and she discovered that Sofia University offered a PR programme so she signed up.

She was promoted to a PR role and after a while decided to get more experience and joined a tech company. Its where she first began to get interested in internal comms. It’s an interest that increased when she joined a company that had recently gone through a merger. The company made computer games, software solutions and provided services for telecom industry so she also had to learn about those! The CEO set her the task of addressing the company culture, some weren’t happy about being merged. Before Nelly arrived, most internal communication was simply through the grapevine. This inspired her to give the same name to the internal comms awards that she established in Bulgaria that ran as part of her ‘Successful Communication Starts from Within’ conferences.

This was followed by a strategic role with the European Commission to Bulgaria which was a complete contrast and from there Nelly decided to set up her own consultancy. Her clients were private sector companies and NGOs.

CIPR qualifications

About this time, Nelly heard about CIPR qualifications. This was 2004 and the PR Diploma was being offered in Kiev, one of the first overseas centres, and she asked to enrol. She was a bit surprised when the college said no because they thought that she didn’t need it! She wrote again making a convincing case and they said OK.

Nelly picks up the story: “I learned so much. It was a wonderful programme and I thought I would like to run it in Bulgaria. Our university programmes weren’t very good and there were a lot of PR people with no qualifications or training. I still think it’s the best programme there is.” (Of course, we’d agree!)

Nelly went on to invite Kevin Ruck and myself to Sofia to teach on the CIPR Diploma and run the CIPR Internal Communication Certificate which was really innovative for the region at the time with delegates travelling from other eastern European countries.

Throughout this time, Nelly has contributed to the development of professional PR practice in Bulgaria. She chaired the Bulgarian PR Association when it was first established and continued for four years. In this time she established their awards and worked to make the links between theory and practice. She also chaired their Ethics Commission and wrote the first Ethical Code of practice. It led to her being made an Honourable Member of the Association.

So, how is PR in Bulgaria now? Nelly explains: “The trend if very much to merge with advertising and other marketing disciplines. Many have moved into offering digital communication but some have decided that this is the only way to communicate with their publics – which of course it isn’t!

“In terms of internal communication, nobody really talks about it now. The trend in recent years has been all about employer branding.”

In fact, it’s all change for Nelly too. “To be honest, I was exhausted and felt it was time to do something new. I went to a masterclass in screen writing and realised that I could continue to tell stories, but not stories for clients, but stories that are the fruit of my imagination.

A class about production showed me that many of the skills that I needed to run a PR campaign were the same as those needed for staging a production – ideas development, planning, budgets, relationships, suppliers.

Nelly has set up Oxymoron Factory and her first production has been a great hit. ‘To Her, With Love!’ tells the story of the greatest pop star you haven’t heard of – Emil Dimitrov. When he played a concert in Russia in 60s, his 80,000 audience was bigger than the one for the Rolling Stones a month later!

I can’t wait to see what Nelly does next! But, what about the book that started it all? Chasing Shadows. On her 50th birthday Nelly decided to re-read it and was amused how things had moved on – the world the PR heroine inhabited had no mobile phones or social media! “They had time to think” says Nelly.