Judging By the Entries …

February 27, 2009

Awards season is in full swing.  The glamour.  The dresses.  The paparazzi.  Yup, next week hundreds will gather in New York to find out who this year’s winners of the PR Week Awards are.

Over the past decade or so, the PR Week Awards have taken their place alongside the Silver Anvils as the most prestigious public relations industry awards. Not exactly the Oscars, but they are a big deal to those who make their living in PR. 

For reasons I can’t fathom, I was invited to help judge the PR Week Awards this year.  While I was delighted to be asked, it turned out to be far more work than any other industry awards competition I had ever judged.  It’s no stretch to say that I had three full days into the judging process, from reading entries, to a full day of discussing and selecting finalists and winners in New York.  The investment of time was well worth it, however, as I had the opportunity to meet some sharp people and do a deep dive on the latest PR case studies. 

To win top PR awards, you have to show measurable results against overall campaign objectives.  There’s a premium placed on showing how research guided strategy, as well as creativity in tactical execution. Having recently judged the Effies, which is the ad industry’s highest award for effectiveness, I can say with with conviction that the PR industry continues to have more rigorous standards for its top awards. While I think in some ways all of these competitions are flawed, and some firms have made an art form of exploiting those flaws, these beauty contests do have value, especially for boutique firms like ours.  We contend size does not matter in a creative industry.  Nobody buys what we do in bulk, and awards competitions are a way to prove that the playing field is quite level.

So, fresh off judging the best the PR has to offer in the category of New Product Launch of the Year, allow me offer a few random observations:

  • The Media Relations Box — The vast majority of the entries I judged in the New Product Launch category employed media relations as the key driver for building awareness and generating sales.  It confirmed for me that Public Relations is hopelessly stuck in the media relations box while the traditional news media are slowly declining in relevance. In this new, increasingly digital marketing environment, PR clearly has a positioning problem. 
  • Celebrity + Charity = Media Coverage — That was the PR formula when I started my career at a big PR firm in 1989.  It was still the formula in 1999.  And it apparently remains the formula in 2009.  A good marketing campaign should include a little star power and perhaps a cause element, as they are great ways to establish relevance and build brand equity.  But it seems PR agencies overwhelmingly still default to those old stand-bys as a means to generate media coverage.  I’m not saying this is a bad approach. I’m simply saying it’s a tired approach.  Creativity has always been at a premium in the PR industry.  It remains so today.
  • A Seat At the Table — Public Relations still does not seem to have a seat at the table when it comes to brand strategy.  The discipline has always come in at the tactical level, and has had very little to say in how a product or service goes to market.  It’s not because there aren’t some great strategic PR minds out there.  Quite the contrary.  I think it’s because the function at the corporate level is mostly marginalized to media relations.  PR can be most effective and creative when brought in early.  Enlightened CEOs, CMOs and brand managers get that.  The results are obvious when they don’t. 
  • Big Budgets Do Not Necessarily Equal Bigger Results — Some of the best work still arises out of the sparest of budgets.  In marketing, necessity has always been mother of invention.   These tough economic times will certainly breed more creativity in PR, and I think that will be a silver lining for agencies and corporate communications departments facing big budget cuts in these tough economic times.
  • PR Can Move the Needle — For those who doubt the effectiveness of the PR discipline, I invite you to curl up with a nice mug of Earl Gray tea and spend an afternoon reading award entries.   Some of the best minds in the business are producing amazing work for their clients, and are finding some really innovative ways to cut through the marketing clutter to make a positive difference on the bottom line. Some of that work will be honored in New York next week at the PR Week Awards ceremony. Good luck to all the finalists!