The changing role of comms: The view from Cannes

Insights from the Ragan + Muck Rack Communications Leaders Roundtable.

Diane Schwartz is CEO of Ragan Communications.

The timing was perfect to convene a cohort of communicators. Elon Musk had taken the main stage at the Cannes Lions Festival the day before and snubbed PR.

Musk spoke of the rapid acceleration of AI (20 billion robot companions are coming our way) and he apologized to advertisers whom he famously told last year to “go f-yourselves.” “I do shoot myself in the foot from time to time but at least you know it is genuine, not some sort of PR department deciding things,” he said last week.

Those attending the Communications Leaders Roundtable hosted by Ragan + Muck Rack at Cannes on June 21 knew, unlike Musk, that PR is more influential and impactful than ever before. As I noted in my coverage last week, communicators are gaining influence at Cannes and are finally being recognized more overtly for their role in the campaigns and initiatives being touted throughout the weeklong festival.

Yet among the roundtable participants, there was a recognition that communicators must step up and address critical issues facing their brands, employees and the world as a whole.

The changing role of comms

“So much of what companies deal with is reputation-focused,” said Mary Elizabeth Germaine, chief data and strategy officer at Ketchum. “There’s definitely a blurring of the lines between marketing and PR and a breaking down of the silos. That is very exciting to me.”

Even as newsrooms shrink and the reputation of the media continues to take a hit, participants were optimistic about breaking through the noise with their journalistic counterparts. Julia Monti, SVP of global communications at Mastercard, noted that “earned media is a more valued KPI” than ever before at her company. Muck Rack’s 2024 State of PR report, which launched earlier this month, reported that 88% of PR pros believe that leadership understands their work.

While much of what is highlighted each year at Cannes centers around paid media efforts, Monti and others noted that in panel discussions and in the Lions Awards presentations, the earned media coverage around a campaign was spotlighted more frequently.

Especially for consumer campaigns, PR departments are getting a bigger budget slice for influencer marketing. Rebecca Roberts, director of client services at Powell Communications, noted that LinkedIn influencers are becoming more prevalent and a focus of many of her clients’ B2B campaigns.

Stephanie Graves, CEO of the Lee Andrews Group, said that many of her government clients, ranging from municipalities to airports, have an annual budget spend for influencers. “This is a relatively new thing,” she said.

The AI talk

Conversations around AI always include at least one person rolling their eyes and others cautiously optimistic about the potential. Mastercard’s Monti summed up the utility of AI by noting that it “removes the drudgery from human life.”

AI usage among PR pros jumped from 28% in March 2023 to 64% in December 2024, according to Muck Rack’s 2024 State of AI in PR report. All agreed that employees need to be trained properly on prompt writing and on brand safety/privacy issues, but according to Muck Rack’s study, only about one in five companies are training their employees in the proper usage of AI.

Johna Burke, CEO of AMEC, warned of the bias and lack of standards in AI. At the same time, she sees this as a moment for communicators to shine. “I’m most excited about the changes coming our way,” she said.

Margaret Taylor Tuskey, PR account supervisor at Peter Mayer, spoke excitedly about PR being brought into the creative RFPs and pitches from the start. Germaine pointed to the “emerging tension between AI and creatives” which opens up an opportunity for the comms team to serve as counsel on brand safety and reputational issues.

Experience with and interest in the latest technology, whether it’s media relations platforms or the latest AI tools, are key requisites in hiring communicators. And just as important is hiring emotionally intelligent team members, said Rebecca Loveridge, Ketchum’s EVP, managing director of financial and professional services. “We need to build a communications team that is empathetic,” she said, with people who understand how to connect with other humans.

And amid all the tech talk, it was conversations around simple, human connections that generated buzz at the roundtable. Kellyn Smith Kenny, chief marketing and growth officer at AT&T, during a separate session at Cannes, offered a simple tactic to build stronger bonds with other people at events: Don’t look at badges when you meet other people. Look them in the eye and just meet them for who they are, not what their name tag implies about them.

Amid the high-level conversations and high-tech focus of Cannes, that was a simple, classic strategy for us all to incorporate in our lives.

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