PR Comes to Cannes… At Last

Tony Burgess-Webb
Chief Marketing Officer, Hill & Knowlton

PR finally joins the party at the Cannes Lions Awards Festival

So, after 55 years, Cinderella gets to go to the ball. Better late than never perhaps but why has it taken so long for PR to break in and why now?

Cannes, on the French Riviera, has a reputation for hosting the swankiest of all film festivals and is the place where a few weeks later, the global advertising industry celebrates its creativity in what has been dubbed the ‘Oscars of advertising’, The Cannes Lions Advertising Festival.

Pride in participation

Cannes Lions has built a reputation for bringing together the world’s top creative commercial minds, strategic marketers and most innovative advertisers. Last year’s event had around 9,000 delegates from agencies and companies worldwide. And it attracted 28,000 international award entries.

It has also developed a reputation for excess, a festival of networking and long nights fuelled by alcohol and ambition. But it’s not all schmoozing and boozing. The week-long festival features seminars and workshops with some of the world’s leading talents, film screenings, exhibitions, galas, award ceremonies and unique opportunities to pursue new business.

Joining the big cats

Over the years, the festival has opened up to communications disciplines beyond traditional advertising: eg Promotion, Direct and ’Cyber’. In 2008, Design became an official awards category for the first time. This year Public Relations officially joins the party with its own awards and even one seminar, featuring Twitter , with co-founder Biz Stone (see Social Media take Cannes by Storm) which Hill & Knowlton is hosting.

Why has it taken so long and why now? Partly it’s the fault of the PR industry, partly the advertising business and partly clients.

For years PR was the Cinderella of marketing because it deserved to be: insecure, over-sensitive, undisciplined, lacking in substance and, above all, not visually creative. And in the marketing world, PR lacked a research-based approach or a real ROI to which marketers could relate and thus remained dependent on ‘impressions’ or the dreaded, misleading ( and demeaning) ‘advertising equivalent’.

It has also suited most advertising firms to keep PR in the back room or at best a junior partner. The PR consultant has seldom been a direct competitor for budget – but perhaps as alternative trusted advisor …and definitely as a source of different ways to communicate other than a massive TV campaign.

But many clients have, until relatively recently, kept PR apart from the marketing mainstream . With honorable exceptions PR is seldom deployed alongside other communications disciplines in ‘loop’ teams but usually well behind it. And in many companies PR is about reputation…not about brands.

Going for the kill?

So is this the year that the marketing ‘conversation’ starts in earnest with PR at the table?

Philip Thomas, CEO of Cannes Lions, thinks it may be: “Cannes is a reflection of the communications industry and it’s critical we are covering what clients are demanding of their agencies. We have been preparing to include PR for the last few years and now the timing feels just about perfect.”

In truth, it is probably still early days. The key drivers behind the current renewed interest in PR are the recession and the rise and rise of ‘social’ media.

The former is leading to tactical marketing responses like switch-spending and debates about the relative value of paid re ‘earned’ media…even as traditional media diminish and disappear. The latter is a more fundamental and longer term shift with the success of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and others showing the Cluetrain has arrived.

These new communications platforms define the human dimension to Web 2.0 and have fundamentally changed the way people interact with brands. No doubt the Great Recession will be a temporary accelerator – by reducing the ad budgets that support traditional media models – but these changes are permanent and most of the marketing communications world is still way behind.

This should be the opportunity that the PR industry has longed for, a world where all communications is genuinely public relations. But we all need to step up to the challenge. We must first hire and nurture the right talent and then provide not just the theoretical framework but the solutions clients need now… and will increasingly demand: practical, results-driven – and creative.

Can we do it? Yes, we Cannes!

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