Why we skipped the PR Lions

The disconnect between the PR industry and the Cannes Lions judges is very real, and it results in great advertising work, but not great communications work, winning awards.

Two years ago, we strolled the Croisette and checked out Cannes for the first time. Last year, our agency was thrilled to win a PR Lion. While we skipped the trip, back in Chicago, we greeted the win with celebratory beers and proudly displayed the trophy in our lobby. If you work in brand marketing, it’s hard to not have reverence for the words "Cannes Lion," and we’re not immune. That’s why we went there in the first place.

But when it came time to enter again this year, we passed.

As exciting as it was to win a Lion, even a cursory look at most of the "PR" work that is – and isn’t — being honored makes it plain that there is a sizable gap between what we’re seeking to do for our clients and what Cannes is seeking to honor. And given that only five PR agencies were credited among the 84 PR Lions winners, it seems the disconnect we sensed is very real.

Let me explain: 

The festival says the PR Lions celebrate the "creative use of reputation," which is not really what PR does. PR doesn’t "use" reputations so much as it builds, protects, and enhances them. The shift to this new definition this year struck us as ominous. Beyond a strong PR agency showing by Weber Shandwick and a few other leading agencies, the results for PR firms largely confirmed this confused definition.

Great PR, for the most part, is fueled by relevance, for which local nuance is critical. This is often lost on global juries. Skilled communicators rely on timeliness and relevance to a degree that advertising often doesn’t, and through methods that differ greatly from digital marketers. Anyone who saw Jean Claude Van Damme’s Epic Split recognizes it’s really cool. PR often is not that internationally obvious. Take Edelman’s wonderful REI #OptOutside campaign, the sort of effort most PR people can look at and say, "I wish I’d thought of that." It reportedly won a Bronze Lion rather than a Gold because many judges didn’t understand what Black Friday is. PR, at its best, seizes on cultural relevance that seems obvious to the audiences for which it is intended. Even if an entry explains a concept like Black Friday, it’s doubtful someone unfamiliar with the term can fully grasp the extent to which the concept is fully saturated in American culture from a line or two in an award submission.

A lot of incredible PR is executed reactively, which the PR Lions mostly ignore. Based on both the submission form and the work that wins, the Cannes PR Lions juries seem to be partial to PR work that is produced like advertising: slowly. The expectation is that a major strategic lift informs a long-planned creative execution. And a lot of awesome, publicity-generating work is indeed produced this way. Ad agency Leo Burnett’s amazing work for the Art Institute of Chicago certainly qualifies. But much of the best PR is not so scheduled. News is, by definition, unpredictable and many of the most powerful and effective campaigns aren’t methodically flowing from formal strategy departments. They hinge on specific events and snap decisions on whether and how to seize a platform by creatively engaging. Or, sometimes, they involve unforeseen developments that pose real risk to a company’s brand. So much of contemporary PR is executed like this, and so few of the PR Lions winners reflect it.

 It’s a microcosm of a larger issue: to the extent the PR Lions honor PR at all, they are focused on a narrow and atypical slice of the discipline. Yet the massive investment by global firms in attending and elevating the Lions has had the effect of making the PR Lions appear as important to public relations as they are to advertising. That’s a mistake. 

Virtually anyone working at an ad agency can look at Cannes and see an idealized version of the work they are doing: a "best-case scenario." But for most effective PR professionals, the work preferred by the Cannes jurors is, while not totally irrelevant, mostly so. Some of it is PR, perhaps, as imagined by modern day Mad Men, but not PR that seizes on timeliness and relevance to drive engagement and measurable business results. 

The latter is what we and the best PR practitioners are out to do. We’ll come back to the PR Lions when they start celebrating the same. 

Bryan Specht is president of Olson Engage.

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