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Inside guide to PR

Cannes Lions Awards Director Simon Cook answers all the questions you've always wanted to ask

What Simon and his team don’t know about the Lions isn’t worth knowing. We decided it was time their knowledge was shared with the world.

created on Monday 27 Feb 2017

The "puuuurfect" new PR by Simon Cook 

"The discussions we’re about engage in will ultimately forge the strongest global statement about public relations today."
Lynne Ann Davies, FleishmanHillard

The 2016 PR jury enjoy a moment in the sunshine

“We’ve got it!” Fiorenza declares triumphantly - all sparkling teeth and immaculate blow-dry. “…we’ve reached a consensus on the PR definition. It’s puuuurfect, and let me tell you why…”

I’ve worked with Fiorenza Plinio for many years now and her ability to deliver every fragment of information in dramatic monologue never fails to amuse. I smile encouragingly as she continues to give me an exhaustive account of her recent experience, delivered in her Italian-inflected English at breakneck speed and replete with fruity Roman vowel sounds. 

As the Head of Awards Development at Cannes Lions, Fiore works hip-to-hip with the wider creative community. She diligently seeks out advice, feedback and insights from a broad cross-section of creative disciplines and we incorporate these valuable stories into our patchwork picture of the industry landscape. These very important insights allow us to further galvanise the integrity of the many Lions in our pride. 

Most recently, Fiore has been working in consultation with the global PR elite and together they have crafted, edited and agonised over every word of our official PR Lions definition in preparation for the forthcoming Festival.  

When it launched 2009, the greater PR community have embraced the PR Lion as their own. Today they’re not shy about holding us accountable for its success - and rightly so. The level of participation, diligence and attention that PR folk pour into the Lion is proactive, hugely valued and warmly welcomed. They guard it fiercely and it shows.

“Can you give me the gist?” I ask Fiore gently, as she breaks into what appears to be the final act of her one woman show. “Ok, ok, this is the most important bit,” she continues (in a single breath): ‘So the PR industry’s biggest perceptual challenge ahead is convincing the marketing world that PR means far more than merely doing publicity and media relations. The ‘new PR’ is about bold ideas that earn attention, provoke action, change minds and enhance a brand’s reputation. So we’ve come up with some appropriate wording that really reflects this. It’s faaaantaaaastic.” 

The PR crowd really do care. Their continued diligence and investment reminds me that we are only the custodians of the Lions really. It is the industry – the global creative community - that shape and breathe life into them. Their level of dedication and spirit runs like a thread throughout every aspect of the judging process too. Sure, the definition sets the scene and forms a solid foundation – but it’s the level of thoroughness throughout the awarding process itself that really sets the bar. Every year, without fail, our PR juries devote a considerable amount of time to carving out an impermeable and robust criteria; a set of sophisticated lenses through which to judge the diverse breadth of work. 

People often ask me why we don’t impose a criteria. The answer is simple. It’s not our role. We strive to source the very best creative minds on the planet to judge the work. A set of experts who are familiar with the industry zeitgeist. An evolving and fluid criteria ensures that the winners – a body of work - capture a moment in time that sets the tone for the future. The criteria they so carefully build ensures that they do justice to the nuances of the industry they represent. 

It’s a fascinating process to witness. 2015 was no exception. Lynne Anne Davis of FleishmanHillard was chairing proceedings and setting out the momentous day ahead: 

“Every step of the way we've been true to the principals we collectively laid out at the beginning of this journey. The principles, that we believe, define new public relations today. Let’s be mindful of this carefully crafted criteria as we go into the awarding of Lions. Let’s also revisit the Cannes Lions PR definition and use these tools to anchor our decision making. Let’s be clear on where the bar sits right here and now. This is so much bigger than us. The discussions we’re about engage in will ultimately forge the strongest global statement about public relations today. 

“Our decisions today will serve as a commentary on where we think the industry is going and will define the PR community’s next steps. The responsibility is huge. The choices that we make today are going to set a very high standard for all agencies across many different disciplines. Countries. Continents. Let’s do this.”

It was a stirring speech, and over the whoops and cheers, I see Fiorenza observing from the back of the room. I can see she thinks this is “puuuurfect”.

In 2016, Forsman & Bodenfors won the PR Grand Prix for 'The Organic Effect' for Coop. See the credits in the Cannes Lions Archive 

The PR Lion: essential information

"PR practitioners are now picking up Lions outside of the PR category and starting give the creative agencies a run for their money."
Simon Cook

CANNES LIONS: Let’s kick off with the official definition of the PR Lion...
SIMON COOK: “Here goes… 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.”

CL: And what does that mean in reality? 
SC: “Well, we spent the last six months developing a new definition with a hand-picked committee of global PR industry leaders. It’s been designed to explain the kind of highly creative work that is suitable for the category, taking into consideration the breadth of modern PR briefs and at the same time highlighting what differentiates the discipline from advertising.” 

CL: Give us a brief history of the PR Lion
SC: “It was introduced in 2009 as part of the Festival’s ongoing mission to recognise the entirety of the branded communications industry. It was originally conceived to assess the creative use of reputation management but has undergone significant change over the years to reflect the fact that PR had become increasingly multi-faceted. New categories have been added over the years including Social, Brand Voice & Strategic Storytelling, Research, Data Analytics & Insight Generation, Territory Marketing, and more.”

“Last year, winners showcased the breadth and depth of what the industry can do with creativity at the core. Several themes emerged that illustrate the power of PR to lead large engagement, particularly with the use of social and storytelling at the core - campaigns are now increasingly driven by engaging content that people want to share and talk about online. We expect the frontiers to continue blurring, not only between public relations and other communications disciplines, but also between PR practices and specialties. A new ecosystem seems to be emerging. I’m excited to see where it will go.”

"Don’t restrict yourself to just the PR Lion. The ‘creative idea’ is not the only ingredient for PR Lions, as work is also judged on the strategy, execution and results."
Simon Cook

CL: What sort of work can win in PR? 
SC: “The award-winning work should demonstrate how a bold, creative and effective PR strategy was central, from idea to execution, and how this ultimately impacted the client’s media outputs, target audience outcomes and, ideally, business outcomes. Creative PR is more than just generating a series of news stories! Last year we saw the innovative development of data-driven insight in winners such as PRIME Sweden’s ‘House of Clicks’. We’d like to see more winners emerge from traditional PR specialisms like public affairs, corporate communication and crisis communication.”

CL: It looks like a lot of creative agencies win PR lions. Are they better at PR than PR agencies?
SC: “Here’s what I think is more interesting - PR practitioners are now picking up Lions outside of the PR category and starting give the creative agencies a run for their money in other disciplines. I think it was Andy Polansky, CEO of Weber Shandwick that told me that this is a reflection of how the PR discipline is maturing and evolving.” 

CL: What’s your key piece of advice for anyone entering the PR Lion? 
SC: “Don’t restrict yourself to just the PR Lion. The ‘creative idea’ is not the only ingredient for PR Lions, as work is also judged on the strategy, execution and results. Our PR committee has helped us to improve the written submission questions, which now include industry specific information. Results are weighted at 30% of the final score, so it is really important to clearly explain the outcomes in context.”

“The jury will be expecting result that relate to media outputs, target audience outcomes or business outcomes. Finally, clearly link results back to the original goals, strategies and objectives to illustrate effectiveness!”

CL: Last year’s Abfab movie was set in Cannes. Would Edina and Patsy make good jurors?
SC: “There’s a scene in the show where Edina’s daughter Saffy presses her mother to explain what she actually does for a living, and all Edina can come up with is: “PR… PR! I PR things! People. Places. Nice things.” 

“That would be fun, but alas, I think they’d be disappointed. For a start, there’s less Bolly and caviar and more pizza and beer. I’m also not sure what they would contribute to the fast-paced chat about earned versus paid, hits, clicks and ROI…”

“I’m also not entirely convinced they’d cope with the early starts following many a night out, and inevitable failed attempts to gate crash yacht parties. Sweetie.”

Leo Burnett Toronto and MSLgroup won the PR Lions Grand Prix in 2015 for ‘Always #Likeagirl: Turning an Insult into a Confidence Movement’. See the full credits in the Cannes Lions Archive.