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The jury’s still out when it comes to PR awards

Sunil John is CEO of Asda’a Burson-Marsteller

“As everyone in the communications industry knows, we do most of our work far from the spotlight – developing strategies and solutions for our clients that will make them shine.

The Dubai Lynx awards and the Cannes Lions are among the highest-profile such accolades offered by the communications industry. These festivals, dominated by advertising, have recently introduced public relations  awards categories. I am concerned, however, that these events do not do full justice to the PR profession.

Look closely at the shortlist and winners of the Dubai Lynx PR awards: the roster of names is impressive, but they are nearly all advertising agencies. Look harder at the teams behind the award-winning work: you’ll see dozens of creative directors, art directors and designers. And the key ingredient in the majority of the winning work is the ubiquitous advertising tool: the TVC. The development of television commercials is not, of course, a core service of PR agencies.

When I read recently in Campaign about the appointment of the members of the PR jury for the Cannes Lions, I experienced a similarly sinking feeling. Although I was proud to note that, for the first time in history, our region will be represented by two jurors, the title of the PR juror caught my notice: “chief creative officer”.

I have absolutely no reason to doubt the skills of this particular individual – who has been described by his own firm as “having worked on some of the most iconic advertising to come out of the region.” However, I question why we select advertising industry professionals to judge the work of public relations firms.

All of this surely explains the peculiar geographic mix of regional entries for PR awards at the 2012 Cannes Lions. Just five entries were submitted this year from the UAE, the Middle East’s PR hub – while 18 were submitted from Lebanon, a country where the public relations sector is still somewhat nascent.

This isn’t about sour grapes, not by a long shot. I’m delighted to see hardworking individuals and smart agencies recognised for their achievements – but only when they are judged for their work as public relations professionals, ideally by public relations professionals. In the PR business, which mostly operates below the radar, we will continue to face the challenge of distinguishing our profession from the more publicly recognised work of advertising agencies. That’s a fact.

Industry awards should help bridge that knowledge gap, not create further confusion in the market. Until they truly do so, our industry will have little reason to celebrate – or even enter these awards.”

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