Posted by Tom Gable
Judges from throughout the U.S. convened in New York City on March 22 to review a record number of entries (923) in the annual Silver Anvil competition of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). The most popular categories in this most coveted of PR awards contests were integrated marketing in both consumer products and non-profit/associations/government, events and observances (seven or fewer days), business/products and marketing consumer products (food and non-alcoholic beverages).
Having judged in many different categories over the years, I continued to see consistent patterns in the most brilliant PR programs and, of course, the less than brilliant, no matter what the category. In hopes of providing ideas for future planning and programming, the following offers a few insights found this year in my personal experience plus in talking to veteran judges in other categories.
The scoring system is fairly straightforward and awards 10 points each maximum in the categories of research, planning, execution and evaluation for a total of 40 possible points. Those that get considered for awards have scores typically ranging from 36 to 40, although some judges are hyper critical and never give a score of 10. Thus, their top scores can fall in the 30 to 36 range.
As with brilliant PR plans, the judging categories follow an integrated and strategic continuum. The biggest shortcomings tended to arise where entrants failed to develop solid research that led to measurable objectives, which were validated in the evaluation. A program could have scored 10s in planning and execution, but came up short on total scores because of weakness in research and the evaluation. I judged several that had solid 8, 9 and 10 scores in the planning and execution, but came up around 30 or lower in total because of poor research and evaluation. This leads to the following quick overview on the differences between successful and unsuccessful approaches in each category.
Winners – Those in the top 20 percent conducted primary research (hiring outside research firms, conducting their own telephone surveys, using online polls and surveys, competitive research, social media metrics, etc.) and often enhanced it with secondary research (media coverage, academic surveys, trade association research, census and other public demographic data, trend information from economists and futurists, government projections and industry reports). A few with big budgets would hire outside research firms to delve into the demographics, motivations and other details that would help in the positioning and planning. The research became the foundation for developing specific goals and objectives in the planning phase and established benchmarks for measuring results at the end.
Losers – Most relied on limited secondary research for setting vague objectives. One of the funnier research tactics used in an official submission: “reviewing old PR plans.” The same entrant didn’t take it to the next step of even identifying new media targets, raising awareness by specific metrics in different categories or other basic elements. Another used an on-line survey of agency employees and relatives to identify attitudes toward a brand.
Winners – The best had well-defined and measurable objectives, often in multiple categories. A couple of the best in my category had programs aimed at reaching every link in entire distribution chains. The programs connected with the target customer wherever he or she turned (print, broadcast, social media, local events, direct mail, advertising, contests, guerrilla marketing and cause marketing). The winners set specific measurable objectives, such as helping increase sales and market share, which they did. For launching new products or repositioning old products, some of the best programs had a combination of media relations, an educational component, advertising, Facebook, cause marketing, contests and an aggressive Twitter campaign to support all. One company used research to identify which types of celebrities and television shows to tie in with. This led to an integrated program involving special events, a contest, media relations, blogging, Facebook, YouTube and other integrated social media activities. You could hear an occasional muted “wow” from the judging chambers when one of these programs surfaced from the piles of three-ring binders containing the entries.
Losers – Those in the bottom quartile had one-dimensional plans, vague objectives or plans that didn’t flow out of the research. Strategies and tactics weren’t aligned. Shortcomings in the planning category where typically: no clear objectives; no metrics to be measured; one-dimensional categories such as “impressions”; creating increased buzz; increasing the number of “likes” on Facebook but without a baseline to move from; and very few tied into sales growth. One of the funnier planning references talked about how they were going to “set up regular all-agency calls.” Several of the entries were related to one-off events and had limited objectives. The programs were like Fourth of July pyrotechnics: there is a huge explosion in a short amount of time but nothing worth watching thereafter but puffs of smoke fading into the night sky.
Winners – The top programs rolled out with precision and gained momentum toward achieving their objectives. As a metaphor, think about building a spectacular new office building in Manhattan (image and reputation). What is it going to look like when done (a brilliant vision and objectives)? What are the elements needed to achieve the finished product and how are they orchestrated and managed for maximum efficiency and effectiveness (strategies, tactics)? Start with a solid foundation (positioning), then build the program with a solid core structure, the finest materials and distinctive design elements (differentiation that ties into the positioning).
Losers – The lowest-ranking entries executed against vague plans and objectives or had ordinary programs out of the PR 101 playbook, generating occasional audible sighs, rather than wows.
Winners – We loved the aforementioned programs aimed at driving results in every category: meetings and special events held, attendance, better product reviews, distribution, social media likes and followers, winning design awards, expanding promotional program results by a certain percentage, improving share of voice versus the competition, improving overall perception of the brand (based on follow up research that tied back to brand image measured in the baseline research), driving different website metrics, reducing calls to the 800 number in favor of website conversations and increasing sales and market share.
Losers – It’s not clips and impressions! Those at the bottom of the pack tended to provide abundant clips but never tied the results back into the research and planning. Most lacked any qualitative analysis. Did the coverage move the needle in the right direction? Was there a benchmark for different social media metrics and objectives for increasing numbers? What were sales trends and did the program change the trends for the better? A few in my category had no evaluations, just copies of favorable clips, blogs, Facebook posts and Tweets.
One terrific community relations program combined grants, tying in with celebrities, engage local volunteers, and events with local elected officials, supported by media relations, public affairs, advertising, social media, and other activities. Unfortunately, the plan didn’t include clear objectives and was missing post-event analysis or other metrics, such as trying to drive sales.
Fellow judges and PRSA staff felt the overall quality of the entries had risen along with the sheer numbers of entries. I took notes on many good ideas for use for Gable PR clients. We saw another important indicator for the PR profession in one major category I judged: the rise of the PR as the driving force within major corporations and organizations undergoing change to plan for and deliver game-changing results. You will be impressed with the results when the winners are announced on June 7 in New York City and PRSA posts the entries for all to see.