Paul Holmes Shares His “Personal Favorites” From The 2015 PR Awards Season

In this issue, 360PR CEO Laura Tomasetti interviews longtime PR industry guru Paul Holmes about the most creative campaigns of the year and what makes an award-winning campaign.

Paul Holmes, one of the most poignant advocates for creativity in the PR industry, shares with PROI Americas what impressed him most about the body of work in 2015 Cannes Lions and elsewhere – and why the term “public relations” is here to stay.

Which campaigns really stood out this year and why? Were there any hidden gems?

PH: I think the Always #likeagirl campaign, which won SABREs in both the US and EMEA and was the Grand Prix winner in Cannes, stood out for a lot of people. It’s a great example of what I think is a growing trend: if brands want consumers to become advocates, then brands have to advocate for their consumers, and this is an issue that really resonated with Always’ core audience.

My personal favorite in the US, and our Best in Show winner there, was the CVS Quits campaign, because at the end of the day I think good public relations is about doing things rather than just saying things, and this was a massive change in corporate policy that obviously impacted the company’s reputation and its category leadership.

I still think there are bigger, bolder ideas in Europe, where my favorite was an Avon campaign called Speak Out Against Domestic Violence. The company introduced a new line of cosmetics designed to help domestic violence victims cover up their bruises, and then waited a week – allowing social media arguments to rage – before revealing that the product was fake. As a result, there was a dramatic increase in calls to domestic violence hotline. I just can’t imagine any company – even Avon – doing something so bold in America.

We’ve certainly seen an increase in digital work across our industry in recent years. Are we doing a better job today than a year ago, when it comes to integrating digital in broader engagement strategies? Put another way, have we gotten beyond digital as the icing on the cake?

PH: In general, yes. In the marketing realm, I think digital and social media are now often the central element of the campaign as companies and brands come to recognize that the most interesting and engaging form of marketing either starts or joins in a conversation. If not, they are certainly being integrated during the planning stage. In fact, a bigger concern for me would be that some clients are so enamored with digital and social, that traditional media is being overlooked, or viewed as a way of amplifying a digital/social message. On the other hand, I think corporate communicators are a lot less comfortable with digital and social than marketers. It’s ironic, because people from a PR background ought to be more comfortable with transparency, dialogue, and even criticism, but I think they are so used to playing defense that they react defensively – particularly if it’s something close to the CEO’s heart.

Pardon the play on words coming off of Cannes, but it seems consumer brands have gotten the lion’s share of attention for creative work. There are, without a doubt, some very strong B2B campaigns. What can B2C marketers learn from the best B2B campaigns of the past year?

PH: At the risk of generalizing, I do think there’s more substance to B2B work in general. It is more issues-driven. I am thinking of SABRE winning work like the Shale Gas Europe campaign or Dow’s World Water Day work in the US. Or it is using content to connect directly with business customers in the way that editorial case histories used to do, like the Ricoh campaign that won in the US.

On the other hand, I think that a lot of the work coming out of the tech sector is very pedestrian, very formulaic. It’s amazing that a world built around innovation is so derivative in the way it uses PR; it’s all about getting the CEO’s face and story into a handful of publications that reach a handful of potential funders.

There are some great insights to what it takes to win a SABRE on The Holmes Report. Would you be so kind as to share with us here a nugget or two of what impresses you most?

PH: One of the things we have been emphasizing for the past couple of years is the idea of courage. Did it take courage to suggest the idea to the client; did the client take a risk when he or she signed off? I think the best campaigns – Avon, CVS, or the Honeymaid campaign last year, a “heartland” brand embracing a non-traditional definition of marriage – stand for something, which means there will always be people who don’t like them, or don’t agree with the message. The thing that really factored heavily into our thinking this year was the insight. Was there an original, compelling insight into the brand or its audience, and where did it come from? I believe that this is where data comes in, including the kind of “soft” data PR people can gather just by being immersed in the client’s communities. The person with the best data will have the best insight; the person with the best insight will have the best strategy.

PR had a bigger presence at Cannes this year but, as Ketchum’s Rob Flaherty pointed out, the PR industry is a “challenger brand” that represents a relatively small slice of the $500 billion marketing pie. If you were going to transform The Holmes Report into a consultancy, would you call it a PR firm? Or would you call it something else?

PH: On the one hand, I have lost count of the number of times people have told me how smart it is that we don’t have PR in the title of the company or the publication. But on the other hand, I like the words “public relations” because I think they capture what this business is about – managing the relationship between an organization and the people with whom it needs to care about. There’s nothing in there that says we have to use media relations as the primary tool for relationship-building; there’s nothing in there that presumes earned media rather than paid or owned. I don’t like the term “communications,” for example, because I think PR should be advising companies on what to do, not what to say. I suppose we could shift to something like “stakeholder engagement” but that sounds like jargon to me, and I suspect that if we all did that tomorrow we would soon see newspaper articles about “SE ploys” and “it’s just SE.” I guess I would prefer to see us work to rehabilitate the term PR by doing it the right way.

Read the newsletter here: Paul Holmes Shares His “Personal Favorites” from the 2015 PR Awards Season.

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