CANNES — One of the most encouraging trends at Cannes in recent years is the way in which public relations issues have taken center stage. In recent years, brand purpose has been a hot topic. This year, it was brand activism — an issue that sits squarely at the intersection of marketing, public affairs and employee engagement, requiring the kind of expertise in stakeholder communications that is PR’s sweet spot.

But one of the most discouraging trends at Cannes — and a warning for PR firms in the real world — is that while the conversations have shifted to public relations topics, public relations agencies are on the sidelines. Of the agency-led brand activism discussions that took place at the Palais last week, one was led by a content marketing company, the other by Omnicom, which saw fit to invite two ad agencies — Wieden+Kennedy and TBWA — to participate in the discussion but apparently did not believe any of its PR agencies might have anything to add.

That may be why much of the discussion around the topic was either superficial or reminiscent of conversations that took place in the PR industry four or five years ago (some of the pioneering research on corporate involvement in political issues, from New York public affairs firm Global Strategy Group, dates back even further). But what is interesting is the way these conversations are now taking center stage — literally — at a festival about creativity.

Helen Job, head of insight for UK-based TCO, which began life as an independent publisher and has moved into content marketing in a big way, presented some of her firm’s research at a session entitled, “Beyond Brand Purpose: The Future of Brand Activism.” The firm’s report on the topic seeks to define the difference between purpose and activism.

“Brand purpose is not necessarily a social purpose…. Brand activism is when a company seeks to have an impact on a social, economic, environment, or political problem. As the mechanisms of two-party politics fail to move at the necessary speed, or focus on the most pressing issues, it can fall to brands to step in….

“Activism is trying to change mindsets and effect or social or policy change. It is not a campaign.”

(At our client roundtable at ICCO's House of PR, Mars director of external communications Kimberly West made a succinct argument for activism: “Brand activism is the only antidote to purpose fatigue.”)

Jessie MacNeil-Brown, head of activism for The Body Shop, explained her company’s evolution from purpose to activism: “The Body Shop has been a purpose driven brand since its beginnings. But last year was redefined the brand purpose for The Body Shop and I was asked to lead a discussion on activism. Our brand purpose is what we do day-to-day but activism goes above and beyond that/.”

The Omnicom session, “Stop Holding Your Breath: Brand Activism in a Hyper-Charged Society,” expanded on that theme. “Active is they key part of the term,” said Colleen DeCourcy, co-president and chief creative officer, Wieden+Kennedy. “If you call yourself an activist, at the end you have to have something major that you’ve changed.

“You can be an advocate, or a cheerleader, but if you are going to be an activist you need to be prepared to say things that will lose you some of your customer base, and have confidence that the people who share your passion will find you.”

There is clearly a generational aspect to the current enthusiasm for activism. “Millennials expect brands to speak out on issues,” explained Tiffany Warren, SVP and chief diversity officer at Omnicom, founder and president of Adcolor, explaining why the issue is taking on such urgency for marketers. “That generation is extremely vocal and extremely passionate about social issues, It is starting social movements. If you are going to support them in that, it requires courage and empathy and comes with great responsibility.”

Troy Ruhanen, president and CEO of TBWA\Worldwide, underscored the point: “This generation coming through will not sllow you to not have these conversations…. The bigger risk today is not doing something.”

Kenya Barris, creator of television comedies Black-ish and Grown-ish, said companies will nevertheless require courage if they are going to be genuine activists. “Real activists, people in the civil rights movement for example, go into it understanding that I might lose my job, I might lose my life. That’s’ what activism is. It can’t be performative.”

Barris recalled that Black-ish built an entire episode around “The Talk” that African-American parents need to have with their children about how to behave in order to survive an encounter with the police — an issue that Procter & Gamble addressed in its advertising (and is now following up with an ad focused on “The Look,” the way in which the world regards and reacts to black men).

He also praised his new home, Netflix, for scaling back production in Georgia following the passage of draconian abortion laws in the state. “Companies have to take responsibility,” he said. “You can’t make a decision that is all about saving money and then turn around to consumers and claim there’s another part of your company that really cares.”

The TCO panel provided additional concrete example. Dorothy Shaver, global sustainability lead for Unilever’s Knorr brand, said that with the company’s products sold across 90 countries, “we asked, ‘what can we do with that reach.’ We were launched to democratize healthy food for the masses. Today, our focus is on creating a more healthy food future. The biggest damage we are doing to the environment is through our food choices—the foods we choose to eat and the way we grow them. Seventy-five percent of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and five animal species, and that’s not good.

“What we set out to do, with a variety of partners, to identify 50 foods we could eat more of, based on their nutritional value and their impact of the environment, including their ability to grow in a variety of different environments and soil conditions. We want to get these foods—the Future 50 Foods—into our products and recipes.”

Pascal Van Ham, head of marketing for Tony’s Chocolonely, a brand founded by three journalists with a mission to “change the industry from within” and make all chocolate slave-free, added: “We are an impact company. We use chocolate as a change agent, to address social issues in the chocolate industry, particularly child slavery and child labor. The mission leads the company: there was first a mission and then there was a company.

She said the company had a particular commitment to measurement, and more important, to transparent measurement. “It’s really important to measure, particularly if you have a big and bold mission. We have 12 non-financial KPIs that are evaluated by PricewaterhouseCoopers every year. It’s equally important to communicate those KPIs and be transparent, even when it is not all good news. If you take your audience along the road and share the journey with them, they will remain engaged.”