If adland had been told ten years ago that PR agencies were to be awarded silverware at Cannes, the news would probably have sparked outrage. And many still see PR as advertising's poorer cousin, bereft of its creative craft, strategic rigour or sizable budgets.
But PR is coming to Cannes. And when it makes its debut next week, don't expect advertising's old guard to be too vocal in its criticism. "This is the same watershed moment that digital experienced five years ago," one former ad agency chief executive reflects. "No adman feels easy speaking ill of PR at the moment for fear they'll be seen as an out-of-touch Luddite."
It's not difficult to see why. The economic downturn has slashed marketing budgets, while compounding public cynicism towards brands. At the same time, digital technology has evolved, fuelling conversations at a rate that most clients have struggled to keep pace with. Brands now find themselves in need of 24-hour attention, with Domino's Pizza and Amazon among those already taken to task this year.
But it's not just corporate reputation that has given PR a new lease of life. Media fragmentation and the influence of the blogosphere have liberated the discipline from the shackles of "hit-and-hope" press releases and allowed a new control of messages that journalists never guaranteed. Borkowski PR's relaunch of Cadbury's Wispa was just one of numerous campaigns that galvanised momentum online before resorting to more traditional tactics, with Publicis' ad campaign playing a supporting role.
Done well, PR can rob territory once owned by experiential marketing and amass coverage most media buyers would charge millions for. Taylor-Herring reckons its floating of a polar bear on an iceberg on the Thames to launch the natural history channel Eden generated the equivalent ad value of £2 million in coverage. And MasterCard's agency, Weber Shandwick, gained a high profile for the PayPass cashless payment system when it covered London's Millennium Bridge with a vinyl carpet of coins and cash.
It's not surprising there is a detectable smugness in the PR industry, many of whose practitioners see Cannes as a sign that PR is finally commanding respect in advertising circles. Now campaigns from around the world are stating their case for inclusion. Tourism Queensland pulled off a spectacular coup in April with "the best job in the world", a contest which, though part of a mere £840,000 marketing spend, generated £50 million worth of free publicity. Elsewhere, Barack Obama's election victory is thanks in no small part to a shrewd publicity campaign with powerful outreach.
But this new era of communications also raises new challenges. Digital advertising and social media are quickly converging and, while PR is reaping the rewards inside this new space, how long will it be before others muscle in? Already, Beattie McGuinness Bungay, DDB and VCCP are among UK agencies fine-tuning PR and social media offerings and others will quickly follow. "PR has moved from column inch creators to corporate brand strategists, event co-ordinators, stunt developers, film-makers and almost anything that can advance their clients' cause," Tim Delaney, the chairman of Leagas Delaney, says. "They, along with everyone else in the communications industry, are scrapping for every inch of territory they can. Like the rest of us, they'll be as good as their last strategy or idea."
But are these "ideas" measurable at a judging table? Division among the judges illustrates the difficulty of assessing a medium that is still nailing down its role. "PR is the last uncharted territory of the communications industry," Penny Furniss, the managing director of Sputnik Communications, says. "Will judges talk about ideas? Or will they, as they tend to do in PR, still talk about stunts and deliverables?"
Mark Borkowski, the Borkowski PR founder, rejects the proposition of judging PR campaigns by the same yardstick as advertising. "Advertising has long talked about processes and ideas, but those are outdated fallacies. The old order is breaking down and giving way to a multi-faceted world, where the reductive nature of planning goes against the tide towards brand truth, integrity and open conversations."
Little wonder that an increasing number of campaigns have seen advertising more closely tied with PR, with T-Mobile, Sony Bravia and Honda among the notable success stories. But Ben Fennell, the chief executive of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, believes the relationship can still lead to "predictable punch-ups", particularly when analysing results: "The difficult thing is for PR agencies to prove that what happened to a product did so because of the PR behind it, rather than just the strength of the ad alone."
There will be undoubted challenges as the judges wade through the global submissions across 20 categories. "Articulating the idea and demonstrating its success to an international panel of jurors will be one of the hardest challenges," Lord Tim Bell, the PR Lions jury president, says. "There'll be mistakes and disagreements. Some great ideas may even get lost in translation."
Astrid von Rudloff, the chief executive of Weber Shandwick Germany, concedes that the first year of judging will be difficult. "Not only are national conditions so very different, but PR has numerous legal and media differences in each market that will need to be taken into consideration."
If the contest comes off, it could be the final sea change for the way PR is regarded. But some remain sceptical. "PR, by its nature, has a duty to remain out of the spotlight," Borkowski says. "Awarding us at Cannes feels little more than a trick to appease holding companies that have acquired PR agencies with no idea what to do with them. Why should we be grateful that a festival created for the advertising industry has finally legitimised the work we do?"
THE JURY PRESIDENT - Lord Tim Bell, chairman, Chime Communications; president, PR Lions jury
The definition of advertising is "the use of paid-for media space to persuade and inform" and the definition of public relations is "the use of third-party endorsement to persuade and inform".
As you can see, the two disciplines only differ by methodology, not intent. An idea in public relations can be just as effective as an idea in advertising. The problem is that an advertising idea is immediately obvious; not so with public relations. The entries will be judged on their merits, with particular regard to idea generation, and hopefully the jury will make awards with particular regard to creativity. This is important because Cannes is all about creativity. It is also long overdue that public relations work should be celebrated in the same way that advertising always has been.
I understand there has been a huge number of entries and we will have to see if the proposed judging system works well. One thing I am determined to do is lead in favour of persuasion, not manipulation. Impact is also very important, as is the power of a single-minded proposition.
Whether an array of international entries can be compared, given the different cultures, media environments and economic situations, will remain to be seen. I think the prospect is very challenging. But a chance to judge best practice in many different markets is an exciting one. I hope that the outcome will be awards given for ideas that have captured people's imaginations and resulted in real attitude and behavioural change. Most of all, ideas that have worked.
This article was first published on Campaign