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PR Breaks Through At Cannes. Or Not.

PR.awardPR agencies were celebrating this year at the Cannes Lions, the annual ad tech extravaganza that honors creativity in advertising, marketing, and (sometimes) public relations. 2015 was a good Cannes for PR, which has been persistently overshadowed by splashy paid marketing campaigns submitted by global ad agencies.

PR jury president Lynne-Anne Davis noted a “dramatic elevation of force” for public relations, and it’s true. Many of the winning campaigns had powerful social and earned media components. The PR Grand Prix went to the much-lauded Always #Likeagirl campaign from P&G, which broke new ground with a 60-second spot during the Super Bowl – certainly a first for a feminine care brand – and amplified its message of female empowerment with an iconic hashtag campaign.

The only problem here is that #Likeagirl, which looks to change the meaning of the phrase from a jibe to an affirmation, debuted as paid advertising, and the concept was created by ad agency Leo Burnett, which handles creative duties for the Always brand. And it’s not unusual. As AdAge reports, of the 17 winning campaigns for PR at Cannes, fewer than five were entered by PR agencies.

So the natural question is, are these lionized campaigns examples of great marketing with a PR component, or do they represent concepts truly birthed and executed by PR teams? Shouldn’t the top PR award go to a PR agency, or doesn’t it matter?

It’s open to debate. The global PR firms and ad agency parent companies who spend beaucoup at the festival want very much to claim credit for the PR awards, since they elevate their agencies in the eyes of the community and may help them crack the big marketing budgets. But as they say in Cannes, the jury is still out.

The strength of PR – broadly defined – at the festival points out a few things for sure. First, the industry is still an underdog. PR budgets are a fraction of paid media campaigns, and PR rarely leads in conceiving integrated programming. But like the girl in the Always spot, we’re determined to crash the club. A handful of global public relations agencies are clearly ready to step up, invest in Cannes, and take ownership for what Davis calls “earned trust through influence and authenticity.” And most importantly, it shows that the lines between PR and brand reputation and the disciplines of advertising, marketing, and digital are hopelessly and permanently blurred.

For the business of public relations, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

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