A View From the Judge’s Bench: A Seven Step Guide to Winning Awards

April  4,  2012 / By Bryan Harris

Photo Credit: PRSA

It was one of those perfect early spring days that felt like we got a free pass right into June. But the calendar said March 23 – judging day for the PRSA Silver Anvil Awards — so I was confined to a crowded hotel ballroom in lower Manhattan. Despite missing out on the 72-degree weather and brilliant sunshine, I found the experience quite valuable. As with the PRWeek Awards, which I’ve been privileged to judge as well, you get a good feel for the variety and quality of work in our industry, gain some best practices in how (and how not) to present your work, meet a dynamic and diverse group of industry executives, and even sharpen your skills of debate and persuasion.

But unlike PRWeek, the PRSA does not require you do not review entries in advance nor are you aware of the category. You just show up and dive right in. Welcome to Speed Judging. Just minutes after meeting my fellow judges, we began pouring through a total of 35 entries (in a consumer product category) in just over five hours.

Do the math. That’s an average of seven per hour, or roughly eight-and-a-half minutes per entry — if you don’t take a single break or check email. It’s grueling, exhausting and actually, not a bad sponsorship opportunity for 5-Hour Energy. Realistically, even if you work over lunch, as we did, you’re actually spending an average of seven minutes or so per entry. For those of you who’ve labored for weeks developing entries for the Anvils and other recognition programs, frantically populating those massive ring binders with reams of data and artwork and media placements to support the fruits of your labor, you may be wondering: seven minutes? How is that possible? How is that fair?

Well, it is possible, albeit challenging, and maybe it seems a bit unfair, but that’s the reality of the judging process. So, knowing that you have so little time to make a first and only impression, here is a seven step guide (one for each minute that you’re entry is likely to be scrutinized) to ensure that your program, be it for a Silver Anvil or another prestigious award, will have a fighting chance to be duly recognized as a case study of excellence in the public relations discipline.

1) Ask yourself these questions before composing the entry: does my program truly merit consideration among the very best campaigns across the industry? Is it uniquely creative? Does it address an overarching business challenge? Does it have a powerful social media component? Only submit work that you feel is exceptional – the very best your agency or organization has to offer. Anything less, no matter how well it is presented, will not likely pass muster.

2) Your entry summary, squeezed and condensed to just two pages for most award programs, is THE most critical component, despite how much blood, sweat and tears you produce developing the supporting material. If the summary falls short, you will lose the attention of the judges very quickly. Compose the summary like you’re telling a story. It should build and flow and culminate, leading the reader to a logical and satisfying place. That’s a more daunting challenge than merely regurgitating facts, tactics and meaningless data. Don’t ignore the supporting material, but keep it manageable and user friendly. Even if you’re on the judges’ shortlist, your binder may not get more than 60 seconds of attention. Whatever you want the judges to see, call it out and make it shine.

3) Demonstrate upfront a clear understanding of your client’s business objectives – not simply their communications objectives. This will reinforce the valued role PR played as a strategic counselor to the brand.

4) The quality of the research, and an ability to analyze and dissect it, will separate your entry from the pack. Too many campaigns rely on tired secondary research, media audits and E-Poll ratings to set the table for the planning and execution phases. The most powerful and impactful programs are grounded in primary research that uncovers deep consumer insights.

5) When presenting the planning phase of the campaign, articulate how your research informed the development of your creative platform. In the 35 entries reviewed, only two even used the word inform to create a seamless transition from research to planning. Just two. And please avoid bombarding the reader with a slew of tactics. Focus on the core tactics that drove the program execution, especially those grounded in social media. How and why you developed a blogger influencer program is far more captivating than when and to whom you distributed an ANR or press release. In fact, do yourself a favor: don’t even mention the words “press release” in your summary. You’ll gain points for that.

6) The final evaluation of your results is often a deal-breaker; it’s where a seemingly well crafted often entry slides off track. Firstly, do not proclaim victory by stating that your program was a “huge” or “outstanding” success. Let the judges make that assessment. Secondly, results must ladder up directly to objectives, and aligning results with business objectives, not simply communications objectives, will resonate. Furthermore, success metrics weighted too heavily on media impressions will take the air out of any presentation. Demonstrate a shift in brand awareness and consumer attitudes; measure and monitor social media conversation; show a lift in sales and market share – these are the things that underscore the true impact and value that public relations delivers.

7) Your campaign will likely be judged by people who do not know you and will not be familiar with your program. So before you submit an entry, simulate the judging process and allow someone outside of your team or even your organization review the entry summary. Their input will ensure that your entry is properly road-tested for the intense scrutiny of some very experienced, difficult to please, time challenged judges.

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