Borrowing a line from Pope Francis, the answer, at least as far as the Public Relations Society of America is concerned, is that I am someone to judge, but only so far as the annual Silver Anvil award competition. Whether I actually am qualified is a question for a higher power, but having done this for a number of years, I am at least qualified to comment on the experience.
Above all else, I have to say that the PRSA team that runs this award competition is truly heroic. There were 843 entries this year, among the highest number of entries ever submitted. To receive, organize and coordinate the evaluation of that many submissions is surely no small task. Yet somehow each year, the PRSA team makes it look easy. One can only imagine the hard work and long hours required just to get to judgment day, so to speak, and yet the PRSA-ers all are uniformly professional, friendly, and genuinely fun to be around. Maybe it’s because they know their job is over at that point. Now the blood, sweat and tears must be spent by the judges. Regardless, if you ever have entered this competition, you owe a debt of thanks, a hearty handshake, a warm hug and probably a drink or two to the PRSA awards team. Theirs truly is a show of devotion to our industry.
For the judges, the job requires a willingness to read and assess programs that can range in scale from the very modest to the monumental. How can an effort supported by millions of dollars be compared with one that likely had little or no special funding of any kind? Yet that often is the challenge and just as often, the smaller program is more elegant, creative and successful than the campaign that ate the gross national product of Wales. Considering the programs I had the chance to review this year, I was struck by the range of the challenges they addressed, the intelligence they reflected, and the integrated nature of their tactics, at least among the better of the entries.
At the other end of the spectrum, some submissions seemed just a random grab at a prize, perhaps on the assumption the judges would be too tired to notice the deficiencies. My team was indeed tired by the end of the day, but we were determined to make our best consideration of the merits of each.
Recognizing the characterization above may be unfairly harsh, perhaps another way to think about the weaker submissions is that the entrants lacked a clear understanding of the criteria the judges apply. With that in mind, I offer the following four ideas that future Silver Anvil contestants may wish to consider:
The Silver Anvil program has a total of 16 categories and multiple subcategories into which campaigns can be entered. Surely one of those is spot on for your program. If you enter that one and only that one and then win, you will enjoy the satisfaction of knowing yours is the best program of that type. If your campaign is entered in additional categories simply because you think you might win multiple awards, you could be right. But is that in the best interests of the competition, the industry and even your program? What actually happens is that judges very quickly recognize that a program is not in the category it should be. As soon as that assessment is made, a negative pall hangs over the entry. Judges may even complete their review of the entry and conclude it was an excellent program…in the wrong category. No Anvil for that one. And before one concludes I am, again, being especially harsh, this was a common refrain among the judges I spoke with throughout the day.
Tell a Story
Every entry is required to begin with a two-page summary of the program. Judges start every assessment by reading this narrative. If it is poorly written or even just plain vanilla, judges are left struggling to understand the dimension of the challenge and the value of the approach. Begin with a compelling lede. “Call me Ishmael” is taken, but your entry can at least strive for intrigue and eloquence. This year, there were more than 30 entries in the category I judged. The submissions were binders full of material that required review. Yet, every one opened with that two-page summary. If it was dull or pedestrian, judges were left thinking the problem was really no big deal. Those that scored highest were the ones that made the program seem necessary, inventive and focused on a requirement that was truly daunting. Judges will often say to one another, “This is good, but is it really Anvil-worthy?” What they are saying in effect is “Did the entry speak to us?’ “Did it tell us something interesting and compelling?” “Will other professionals learn from this?” Tell the story as if you are answering those questions and your entry will rise in the rankings.
Be New not just News
If I have learned anything over many years of entering the competition and judging it, it is simply this: Winning programs demonstrate invention and creativity that PR professionals can learn from. Programs that are submitted solely on the basis of the massive volume of news coverage they generated are rarely winners. When the binders contain creative materials, insightful research, strategic plans and, yes, good press, they are well rounded and complete. When the binder is nothing more than a compendium of clips, judges won’t read every one in order to gain the same level of joy you experienced in securing the coverage. By all means, share the best coverage rather than every clip, but more important, share the idea or approach on which the program hinged and which made that coverage possible and your program a success. That is far more important not only to judges, but to those who review the entry as a learning opportunity in the future.
Judge for Yourself
It is dispiriting to see how many PR professionals still use impressions and ad equivalency as their measures of success. This year, one entry in my category stated flatly that the program achieved 10 billion impressions. Really? Are we truly still locked into such meaningless metrics and do we honestly believe a judge will buy into that? Judges want to see that minds were changed, perceptions improved, tonality went from negative to neutral or even positive. There are innumerable means for assessing media content not just quantity. Similarly, social media programs are measured more effectively by detailed analyses rather than number of “likes.” Yet those metrics were trumpeted time and again. Look carefully at your program and say clearly what you believe it accomplished that correlates with the organization’s business objectives. Show relevance and impact not raw numbers. Before you submit, be a judge and try to think like one. Very likely you will be able to present results far more genuine and meaningful than saying you reached 10 times the population of China.
Silver Anvil judges this year impressed me as discerning, serious and very selective. If your program wins an Anvil or Award of Excellence this year, you are entitled to feel especially proud about what you accomplished. Keep up the good work and help others in your organization enter future competitions with programs that prove the importance of what the best professional communicators do…..
…..Or ignore all this because, “Who am I to judge?”