Smoke signals set to rise out of Cannes

An expectant PR industry is once again heading to the South of France for its annual pilgrimage to try and crack the code of winning in the PR Lions.

The PR industry is heading to Cannes full of optimism for the 11th year of the PR Lions, which are this year chaired by Edelman’s Michelle Hutton.

So, prepare for the usual naval gazing about PR’s performance in its "own" category, debates about whether the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity is truly relevant or not, and PR pros (and journalists) on the Cote d’Azur desperately trying not to be too obvious with their social media posts from the Carlton Terrace and other glamorous locations on Le Croisette.

Hutton vowed to prioritize celebrating the craft of PR as something businesses, brands and society really needs rather than reinforcing previous views of PR as simply a channel.

Last year’s jury chair Stuart Smith ended the 2018 PR Lions press conference with an exhortation to the PR community to double down on Cannes and commit even more resources to entering, especially in our eponymous category. Hutton agreed that it’s a numbers game and "you’ve got to be in it to win it."

However, the early signs are that this call to action has not been heeded. Cannes Lions MD Simon Cook told PRWeek’s Sean Czarnecki that entries to the PR Lions are down 12% this year, from 2,111 to 1,857. He added that this is in line with the trend in overall entry numbers Cannes is seeing across the board in 2019.

Ad agencies are still heavily featured in the PR Lions entries, and PR firms are also continuing to spread their efforts across other categories, especially the newly launched Creative Strategy Lions.

It’s a continuing process and the organizers persist in courting the PR sector as it is still relatively new to the festival in comparison with other disciplines, which have been attending since 1954, and remains slightly in thrall to the whole Cannes experience.

Certainly the work that won in PRWeek’s U.S. Awards this year and the Brand Film Festival was as good as I have seen and I expect some of those campaigns to show well in Cannes too, both in the PR Lions that will be handed out on Wednesday and in other categories.

Aside from the awards there is plenty of other stuff going on in Cannes, from the official program in Le Palais to numerous fringe events and fixed activations, in the latter case especially from technology and consulting brands.

PRWeek will be broadcasting from a podcast studio on the Spotify Beach and other locations around the town, so let me know if you’re attending and want to have your say, especially if you are an in-house communicator or marketer at a brand or corporation.

One interesting element to the Cannes content stream this year is a couple of sessions involving tobacco giant Philip Morris International, including a main stage activation titled ‘Facts, Fads and a Fugee: Creating a Smoke Free Future,’ featuring Wyclef Jean, Bonin Bough and PMI’s VP of scientific and public communications, Moira Gilchrist.

But the session that is attracting more attention and that seems slightly egregious is the decision to include PMI on the Festival’s Good Track, alongside more familiar names such as Greenpeace, World Food Programme, UNWomen and Sesame Street.

The stated aim of the track is to "shine a spotlight on life-changing work and initiatives which make the world a better place." Whether a company that still manufactures 800 billion cigarettes a year should sit alongside those worthy causes is moot, and one wonders what those organizations feel about being grouped together with the tobacco giant.

With business models under pressure and competition intense, this has become a conundrum for media companies and agencies of all types.

Cannes took PMI’s dollars last year, when the tobacco company paid for a large installation on the beach along Le Croisette. The Wall Street Journal regularly takes dollars from PMI, including a content channel at Davos this year during the World Economic Forum.

Other media brands have also joined in and, full disclosure, PRWeek had discussions with PMI late last year about doing some joint activations, with which we ultimately decided not to proceed.

The tobacco behemoth numbers well-known and respected PR names including Marian Salzman and Aaron Sherinian amongst its comms executives, so the discussion around the issue clearly has different layers.

Despite this, most PR firms PRWeek spoke to recently about working with e-cigarette companies put little to no daylight between vaping and Big Tobacco, and they are as reluctant to work with them as they are with tobacco manufacturers.

If PRWeek ever did get involved with PMI, any activity would be predicated on a full and frank discussion about the ethics of proclaiming a smoke-free philosophy while continuing to sell billions of cigarettes every year, as well as a close analysis of the health risks involved with the vaping technology that underpins this "smoke-free" future.

But, ultimately, placing PMI in the Good Track seems misguided at best, potentially ruinous to the whole content stream at worst.

Anyway, I digress. No doubt there will be many other controversies ahead of us over the next week in the South of France, as well as lots of stimulation, innovation and networking.

Anyone who goes to Cannes comes back inspired, reinvigorated creatively and, to be honest, exhausted. For those who can’t be there in person, be sure to follow PRWeek.com/cannes-2019 as we bring you all the news, analysis, trends, case studies and opinions that matter from Le Croisette.

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