Cannes Musings: Thriving in Complexity

Posted by Elise Mitchell on August 15, 2018

navigationHow Public Relations Helps Brands Navigate Uncertainty and Create Buy-In

This is part of a series featuring highlights from the 2018 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Elise represents Mitchell in her role as president of the International Communications Consultancy Organization. As ICCO president, she sat down with colleagues at the ICCO House of PR to discuss current trends and issues. She shares highlights here.

As the business environment becomes increasingly more complex, public relations is proving to be indispensable in helping brands navigate uncertainty and find a new way forward.  

This was the headline from my conversation with industry colleague and friend, Andy Polansky, CEO of Weber Shandwick. Andy and I covered some of the most pressing issues facing leaders in PR today including:

  • The importance of integration and the expanding role of public relations
  • The best counsel on tackling CEO and brand activism
  • The power of engaging employees

Here are some highlights of our conversation.

Importance of integrated work

The PR industry is playing a bigger role at Cannes than in years past. PR is being recognized not only in our own category, but also across the board. And it’s not just because of our creative chops. Agencies have an increased focus on integrated campaigns.

“Public relations is central to the thought process of any major marketer in today’s world,” Andy said. “Clients are recognizing the importance of earned media and the credibility that comes with it. As a result, it’s a business imperative for our industry to think more holistically and on an integrated basis.” 

CEO and brand activism

Social issues and their impact on brand reputation is a growing topic in board rooms. Consumers care what brands think and want to see companies take a stand, particularly if the issues align with the company’s core business. Obviously, this creates complexity and uncertainty for clients. It underscores the importance of having wise counsel at the table. It’s a dynamic and extraordinarily complex time that puts PR professionals front and center.

“You can’t consider a marketing strategy in this environment without understanding the context,” said Andy.  “It’s critical to know how issues inform strategy and to consider stakeholder input in that equation.”

Increasingly, PR professionals are helping boards and CEOs navigate this difficult environment. They’re enabling companies to know when and how to engage on what issues. Andy and I discussed a few essentials for success:

  • Understand expectations– Consumers and key audiences expect brands to have a positive impact on society and take a stand on issues that are important to them. Brands need to be prepared to engage if social issues or incidents call those values into question.
  • Get clear on your values– Start now. Evaluate the mission, vision and values of the organization. Ensure you know what resonates with your employees and customers. Armed with the right information, you can be prepared to act appropriately either in response to a situation or as an intentional strategy.
  • Be authentic– Live those values. Take action that reflects who the brand is and honor those values.
  • Have confidence– People won’t always agree with what you do, but if it’s authentic to your brand, they will respect you.
  • Understand the role of a leader– Customers care about the leaders behind the brands they choose. Think about your own values as a leader and determine when it makes sense for you to personally speak out.
  • Know that customers vote with their pocketbook– Sam Walton famously reminded his associates of this principle, which encouraged them to remain customer focused. It’s important to recognize the power of the pocketbook.  “We used to talk about boycotts, which can still be an effective deterrent at times,” said Andy. “But what we’re seeing now is a ‘buycott,’ which is purchasing from companies when you see an alignment with your values.” 

 The power of employees

Employees care deeply about social issues, too. Topics such as diversity and inclusion are important to them. They want to work for an employer that lives out their values and cares about them. Employees, especially Millennials, have heightened expectations of their employers.

“Our research shows that the vast majority of Americans – 93% – identify a civility problem in society,” said Andy. “Most classify it as a major problem.”

Where’s a safe haven?

“That can be the workplace,” he said. “Employees feel more comfortable in their work environments than they used to.  That’s another important stakeholder group communicators must stay focused on. And by the way, they also buy your products and are influential brand ambassadors.”

I invite you to watch my entire conversation with Andy.



Elise is the Chairman and Founder of Mitchell Communications Group and CEO, Dentsu Public Relations Network

President, ICCO

2014 PR Lions Jury Member


Topics: Authenticity, inspiration, change management, Cannes