PR firms flop again in Cannes Lions PR Grand Prix – so what?

trash isles

Yet again PR firms have ‘failed’ to make much of an impact in the Cannes Lions. I read this in the report from Paul Holmes headlined AMV/BBDO’s ‘Trash Isles’ takes Cannes PR Grand PR as PR firms struggle again. My initial reaction was, so what? And then I read this tweet by Brunswick partner Marshall Manson:

He’s right.

Too many people forget what the Cannes Lions are about. The full title is the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. It’s about celebrating creativity. That’s a wonderful thing to do. But it’s absolutely nothing to do with celebrating the very best public relations and communications. The best PR is PR that works. It helps sell products. It improves employee retention or recruitment. It supports the share price. It defends against damaging legislation. It protects reputations in a crisis. It’s about an organisation’s licence to operate.

A Cannes Lions PR Grand Prix winner is always very creative and makes you go wow. But it’s not always great public relations. In fact sometimes it’s awful PR.

Take last year’s winner. The Fearless Girl. Lots of people, especially in PR and advertising, remember the Fearless Girl. Who can forget her standing up to the male bull**** of Wall Street. But as Sir John Hegarty says in his AdWeek interview:

“Last year the talk was all about Fearless Girl. There doesn’t seem to be a corollary this year.

I’ll get provocative here again: Fearless Girl did what for the brand? I don’t know what brand it was associated with. We’ve lost connection. We’ve confused persuasion with promotion.”

Fearless girl photo
Photo by Anthony Quintano under Creative Commons licence.

But it’s even worse than Hegarty says. The brand that he couldn’t remember, and I suspect many of you couldn’t either, was State Street Global Advisers.  The same company that just three months after its International Women’s Day stunt was forced by US courts to pay $5 million to about 300 women employees who were paid less than their male counterparts. Fearless Girl was a lie. I analysed State Street’s hypocrisy in an article last year.

The point is that if it’s simply about celebrating creativity then Fearless Girl was a brilliant publicity stunt. But it wasn’t good public relations.

In retrospect it’s questionable if Fearless Girl should have won at all as the category description says:

“The PR Lions celebrate creative work which successfully builds trust and cultivates relationships with credible third-parties, utilising mainly earned-media tactics or channels to influence public dialogue and ultimately change perceptions and behaviours in ways that protect and enhance the reputation and business of an organisation or brand with its target audiences.”

I’m not convinced a stunt to celebrate diversity, equality and women… while failing to practice equality for women yourself does much to build trust. It probably does more to damage trust.

The previous year’s Cannes Lion PR Grand Prix winner also had questionable trust. The ‘Organic Effect’ campaign by a Swedish advertising agency for Co-op in Sweden attracted lawsuits accusing the company of false and misleading advertising. It was a viral video campaign about a family that switched to an organic, pesticide-free diet for two weeks with before and after urine samples to show the reduction in pesticide traces.

But it was accused of ‘bad science’ because it used dodgy data. Organic farming does use pesticides, just different ones, which the campaign didn’t bother to test for.

A chart of pesticide levels from the Organic Effect video photo

I like science communicator Kavin Senapathy’s description of this in Forbes:

“Most people don’t realize that organic agriculture uses pesticides too, albeit different ones. And the experiment didn’t test for pesticides used in organic agriculture. This is like assigning a group of people to drink screwdrivers (that’s OJ and vodka for our teetotalers), then having them swap the screwdrivers for rum and cola, and concluding that rum and cola drinks lead to zero vodka levels in the body.”

Trust problems with the 2018 and the 2016 Grand Prix winners aren’t exactly a ringing endorsement.

So when Marshall says “Who cares?” and asks “Why are we measuring ourselves by an advertising yard stick?” he’s absolutely right.

Good public relations and communications is what works to help achieve real organisational and business objectives. It’s absolutely right we should celebrate creativity, but it’s more important that we celebrate effectiveness.

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