CANNES — Corporations are becoming increasingly nervous about speaking up for fear of political backlash, said Richard Edelman in Cannes yesterday, requiring communicators to tread more carefully when it comes to balancing risk and reward.

Edelman's comments came as brands such as Bud Light, Target and Starbucks have found themselves drawn into culture wars that are increasingly characterising the political divide in the US and beyond.

Speaking to PRovoke Media, Edelman said that his conversations with clients during the Cannes Lions festival suggest that reputation and brand are now "inextricably linked," in part because right wing activists "have developed the muscle of collective action through digital in a way that I don't think we had appreciated outside of politics."

"Clients are really nervous about politics," he said. "They are really nervous about disinformation and the speed with which things get around."

Despite their fears, Edelman said that he is advising clients to not retreat in terms of their ESG and inclusion commitments. Instead, he is focusing attention on the risk vs reward equation for stunts that might once have appeared relatively harmless, like Bud Light's recent giveaway.

"I expect brands to speak up, but about what and how is the art," he said. "You have to know who your core constituency is. The tradeoff between attention and risk is something we have to be quite explicit about as communicators."

While ESG policies have been under sustained attack from conservatives in the US, Edelman continues to make the case to clients that "people are still buying shares on the basis of ESG ratings."

Ultimately, Edelman believes that companies must bring the debate back to pragmatic business values. "We’re telling companies, stand up to this. Why are you doing sustainability? Why are you doing diversity and race? Talk about what you’re doing and stay the ground, stay the course. Make it about business."

In terms of geopolitical tensions, meanwhile, Edelman added that China remains "an unresolved issue."

"On China, companies still believe it’s a massive market and are still trying to figure out strategies for being as local as possible while keeping within our global values," he explained.

Edelman's own firm is not immune to these issues. Clean Creatives continued its campaign against the firm at Cannes, targeting Richard Edelman on the Croisette and calling for the firm to stop working with fossil fuel clients.

"Some groups may question our commitments to addressing climate change, but we strongly disagree with this characterization of our work," said an Edelman spokesperson in response. "Edelman is committed to supporting our clients on their sustainability journeys, including those in the energy sector. Our climate principles are a core foundation of our vetting process, and we only work with businesses and organizations who are aligned with the Paris Agreement and have published net-zero plans. We have parted ways with several clients and regularly decline new business opportunities because of this principled approach."