Saving Face: 11 Ways to Recover from a PR Disaster

Netflix stock has opened like a poorly reviewed sequel for the past two weeks after reports that the online DVD/movie-streaming company lost 800,000 customers in the last quarter.

The irony is that new pricing and a hastily conceived change in business model, aimed at boosting Netflix’s stock, turned off customers, inviting reputation-drubbing reviews, and ultimately caused scared investors to dump shares.

There were three separate chances – the pricing change, the Qwikster announcement, the Qwikster demise – for Netflix to communicate effectively and help their customers adjust to change, yet the company seemed to bungle each opportunity, infuriating customers to such an extent that they unsubscribed from the service.

Why did communications go so wrong? And, once they’d created a problem, how could Netflix have handled communications to keep customers and investors happy? How do you successfully retract messages and deliver newer, better ones?

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a Netflix customer and have been for about seven years, though I don’t own stock in the company. I am probably what Netflix considers a Luddite user – I’ve always had a low-priced DVD-only plan. I was unaffected by most of this as a customer; as a communicator, I learned, and was reminded of, some valuable lessons about messaging change. Here’s what Netflix could’ve done before, during and after…

Introducing the Higher-Priced, Reduced-Service Business Model

In July, Netflix announced it would change its service offerings and price structure. Up until then, folks who had DVD-by-mail accounts also had the option to stream some movies for free from the Netflix library.

Here’s Lesson #1: When you give away a product or service for free, as the old joke goes, you’ve just established its worth. Netflix should have done a better job communicating why it was offering free streaming to begin with, and it should have been explicit about how long the free offer was going to last, so customers weren’t surprised when it went away. Even if they didn’t do this when they launched free streaming, there was still time to communicate before the price hike and service change.

Lesson #2: Explain your decision clearly and provide evidence. When you’ve offered something for free, then decide to charge for it, it’s going to feel like a loss to your customer. When brands and companies retract an existing feature, they need to make the case for change to the audience. The explanation – and any research backing it up – must be compelling enough to convince the audience to adapt to the change. The rationale can’t simply be about a company’s bottom line. (For an effective example of charging for an online service that used to be free, check out this NPR story on The New York Times’ paywall.)

Instead, Netflix choose to deliver the news about changes in pricing and service like this:

“Last November when we launched our $7.99 unlimited streaming plan, DVDs by mail was treated as a $2 add on [sic] to our unlimited streaming plan. At the time, we didn’t anticipate offering DVD only [sic] plans. Since then we have realized that there is still a very large continuing demand for DVDs both from our existing members as well as non-members. Given the long life we think DVDs by mail will have, treating DVDs as a $2 add on to our unlimited streaming plan neither makes great financial sense nor satisfies people who just want DVDs.”

Lesson #3: Know your audience. Buried inside this price-change announcement was the news that Netflix had plans to eliminate DVD-only plans. Essentially, they were telling customers with DVD-only preferences that they’d better jump on the streaming bandwagon quick-smart or they’d find themselves paying for a combo plan while using only one part of it. Kind of like paying for a surf-and-turf platter and only eating the steak.

If this wasn’t confusing enough – and if freaked out customers were still reading – Netflix abruptly reversed itself: “Since then we have realized that there is still a very large continuing demand for DVDs both from our existing members as well as non-members.” (Italics mine.) The language takes the form of a pronouncement: We’ve decided this for you in consultation with ourselves. With any change – and any decision that affects customers’ wallets is always going to feel like a big change – audiences like to feel as if they’ve been consulted, like they’ve had a chance to provide their point of view. This messaging is entirely one-way communication. It’s no surprise that customers took to social media to voice their complaints…and that Netflix remained silent in those channels for days afterward.

Lesson #4: Be human. Statements like “…treating DVDs as a $2 add on [sic] to our unlimited streaming plan neither makes great financial sense nor satisfies people who just want DVDs” reinforced what many Netflix subscribers viewed as a money-first, customers-second approach. This will happen when the words “financial sense” appear before “people who just want DVDs.”

When communicating about change or any difficult subject, always, always place human beings before any other issue. And try to make those human beings your audience, your customers or your stakeholders, not you and your investors.

With each of its decisions, Netflix failed to indicate if they’d done research into what customers wanted and needed and the price points they were willing to pay. How difficult would it have been to poll customers, invite them to focus groups, or engage them in social media channels before making a business decision?

But, companies on the brink of change are often ruled by fear – of what customers really think, how they’ll react, and what any hint of change will do to Wall Street. Decisions based on research into stakeholder perceptions – part of the due diligence of change management – are a lot more strategic than ones based on assumptions. When we engage stakeholders, we start to think of them as individuals and spend more time with them in two-way conversations, listening and learning. As a result, our communications become a lot more relevant, relatable, human.

An Apology Minus a Strategy

It took until mid-September for Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to jump into the fray the company had caused.

“I messed up,” he began. “I owe everyone an apology.” It was such a promising start, seeming to acknowledge the problem. Unfortunately, this was also the email that begat Qwikster and foisted the awkward two websites/two passwords/two credit card charges business structure onto baffled customers.

Lesson #5: Demonstrate that you’re sincere. Apologizing was the right move for Netflix, and the CEO was the right person to deliver the communication. The apology itself was well-worded; it didn’t resort to any “I’m sorry you thought I said that when I really said this” shenanigans.

Hastings went on to provide some context, pointing to companies, such as AOL and Borders, which had failed to adapt to change. “Companies rarely die from moving too fast, and they frequently die from moving too slowly,” he wrote.

Then, he added, “When Netflix is evolving rapidly, however, I need to be extra-communicative. This is the key thing I got wrong.” But, when he tried to re-explain the pricing and service changes, the language again turns a deaf ear on customers:

“So we realized that streaming and DVD by mail are becoming two quite different businesses, with very different cost structures, different benefits that need to be marketed differently, and we need to let each grow and operate independently. It’s hard for me to write this after over 10 years of mailing DVDs with pride, but we think it is necessary and best: In a few weeks, we will rename our DVD by mail service to ‘Qwikster.’”

“We realized….we need…we think it is necessary and best…” I’ve included the link to the full email so that you can see for yourself that, besides the apology, there’s little in the way of an explanation that takes into account the needs of and what’s best for customers. Really, it’s not about you, the email essentially says, it’s about how hard this is for me.

“For me the Netflix red envelope has always been a source of joy. The new envelope is still that distinctive red, but now it will have a Qwikster logo. I know that logo will grow on me over time, but still, it is hard. I imagine it will be the same for many of you. We’ll also return to marketing our DVD by mail service, with its amazing selection, now with the Qwikster brand.” [sic]

Lesson #6: Pinpoint the issue and address it directly. In its haste to announce and explain Qwikster, Hastings and Netflix lost sight of the real issue at hand: customers were upset over a perceived loss of service combined with a price hike. They weren’t clamoring for Qwikster as a solution. This lesson goes hand-in-hand with the previous one – it’s impossible to be (or sound) sincere when you’re addressing the wrong subject.

For this to feel like a genuine apology, Netflix needed to clearly state its rationale for the price changes and back up its words with tangible improvement to existing service(s) that demonstrated a benefit to customers despite the price increase. The Qwikster announcement merely changed the subject, it didn’t make the issue go away.

Lesson #7: Unless you can poke fun at yourself, don’t try to be funny when communicating difficult information. “There are no pricing changes (we’re done with that!),” Hastings added to his email, striving to be jocular. Humor is tough under the best circumstances; it never works when your audience is angry (actually, it works to make them angrier) because it sounds like you’re missing the point. Which is exactly what Hastings was doing.

The About-face

Customers weren’t the only ones left scratching their heads. Investors, the audience Netflix was preaching to all along, became equally irate as the missteps shone a spotlight on an utter lack of strategic thinking in the executive suites. Stock price reflected this loss of confidence, plummeting some 70 percent in three months, after visiting $300 a share in mid-July of this year.

R.I.P. Qwikster.

On Oct. 10, a terse email from “The Netflix Team” – rather than the CEO this time – announced that Qwikster had imploded on the launch pad.

The note reiterated its pricing messaging without acknowledging the customer outcry that had led to Netflix’s disastrous business model revamp: “While the July price change was necessary, we are now done with price changes.”

The brevity of this communication was designed to get the whole thing out of the way quickly. Yet there are still lessons to be drawn:

Lesson #8: Don’t market, explain. With every announcement, Netflix felt the need to market some additional service. Here it’s a giant paragraph (far longer than the space allotted the slap-dash demise of Qwikster) devoted to their streaming services. It’s random, it’s off-topic, it’s just not helpful. Mainly, it suggests Netflix is just going to keep hammering away at their messages and not listen to or care about what the audience has to say or needs to know.

Lesson #9: Enlist back-up. Work with industry pundits and influencers among your target audience in advance of any big announcement. Explain what you’re about to do, demonstrate the research you’ve done to support the change, detail how you plan to message about it, and listen to their reaction. Adjust your message accordingly, then ask for their support when traditional media come calling with questions and on social networking sites, before chatter gets loud. Netflix should have enlisted industry analysts and techies before its first announcement; it was an absolute requirement by the time they retracted their position on Qwikster.

Some final lessons that may help brands and companies avoid PR disasters like this:

Lesson #10: PR can’t solve everything. You gotta feel for Netflix’s spokesman, who was sounding mighty beleaguered by the time announcement No. 3 rolled out. This was one of those PR disasters where Netflix basically revealed that “the Emperor has no clothes.” There was no strategic thinking or planning behind Qwikster – it was a knee-jerk reaction to a deluge of angry customer comments – and no PR can dress that up.

Lesson #11: Focus on the future. This is where your customers and Wall Street want you anyway. It’s clear Netflix had a vision of a future where clunky old DVDs – easily damaged, slow to mail – were no longer part of the business model. Instant streaming seemed to be the way of the future. But, the company needed to do the work to get customers to share the same vision, understand the value proposition, overcome any technology gaps or fears, and adopt the new way of accessing the Netflix library.

To be visionary, you have to know how to lead. In this case, Netflix needed to invest time, money and, goodness, yes, communications to educate the portion of its customer base that wasn’t in that magical early-adopter space. Teaching, sharing knowledge and information, is always preferable to pronouncing. And, like two-way communication on social networks, it puts you squarely in touch with your most valued constituents and helps you understand what they’re thinking, what they need, and when they’re ready to make the leap with you.

Does Timing Affect Engagement on Facebook and Twitter?

At a webinar today on “The Science of Social Timing” with Jay Baer and Eric Boggs, the two speakers shared data showing that both B2B and B2C companies are still posting content to social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, when they’re at work, rather than focusing on the customer’s schedule. They also pointed out an important opportunity that most companies are missing.

Baer, social media consultant at Convince and Convert, presented several hypotheses, and Boggs’s Argyle Social crunched the data from 250,000 posts (two-thirds of which were from Twitter, one-third from Facebook), examining the highest engagement times on these social networks.

Often we want research to generate “oh wow!” results, but findings, like Argyle Social’s in this study, which show that engagement levels remain steady Monday through Friday, can be just as valuable to your business. A key discovery, that Baer highlights in a follow-up blog post, is that “there may be a large opportunity for B2C marketers on Facebook on Sundays.”

“We found that few companies publish status updates on Sunday, yet engagement (clicks divided by audience) is 30% higher than Saturday, and even higher than versus weekdays.”

Baer and Boggs believe Sunday posts to Facebook are a big, overlooked opportunity because the audiences for both B2B and B2C companies tend to drop off Twitter as the end of the week approaches and ramp up their use of Facebook to plan weekend activities. Even if you schedule Sunday Facebook posts in advance, Baer believes there is a strong chance for greater engagement.

Note that they are using clicks to determine engagement, not retweets, likes, comments or conversions.

The bottom line? Baer (@jaybaer) and Boggs (@ericboggs) recommended that brands and companies should beware of social media “rules of thumb” because every business is different. They encourage devising your own hypotheses (i.e., what’s meaningful for your business, your customers) and running your own experiment (rather than using historical data to justify a conclusion) to determine the best times for engagement with your audiences.

You’ll find the complete infographic here, which shares the main findings about the effectiveness of social timing, and you can listen to the free, one-hour webinar on the Argyle Social website.

NPR Hosts Book Club for Younger Readers

Hot on the heels of Teen Read Week and just in time for Halloween, NPR presents a book club for kids age 9 – 14 and, right off the bat, members will be reading Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.

A couple of extra-cool features about this club and its first selection: You can watch this video on Mouse Circus, Gaiman’s website for young readers, of the author reading his book. This offers young readers the opportunity to gauge their own impressions, then see how the author interprets his writing. And, on Halloween (Monday, Oct. 31), NPR’s afternoon news program, “All Things Considered,” will chat with Gaiman about The Graveyard Book and answer listener questions.

Full details are here, including a link to submit your questions and thoughts about The Graveyard Book.

Why is the PR-Blogger Relationship So Fraught?

Why on Earth do public relations people keep blowing it with bloggers? It happened again last week, causing a massive social media backlash.

To recap: A vice president at BrandLink Communications (let’s shorten that to BLC) presumably received a forwarded email from an employee. The forwarded email was originally sent by The Bloggess, declining a BLC pitch. The decline was sharply worded, and used a few examples of language a lot of us would consider inappropriate in business transactions, but clearly intended as snark. The BLC VP tapped out some vulgar language to describe what he thought of the blogger. He intended to share the email with his employee, but hit Reply All instead, delivering the note to the blogger, too. When the blogger pointed out what he’d done, the VP aggravated the situation by typing a follow-up email that lacked any sense of accountability and piled on further demeaning statements about the blogger.

All this turned into a juicy blog post (includes language NSFW) for The Bloggess and ultimately a social media traffic jam for BLC.

Words about the Whys

This brought to mind some obvious questions:

  • Why does anyone still mistake the Reply All button for Reply in this day and age?
  • Why do PR people get so hot under the collar about declined pitches from bloggers?
  • Why can’t people apologize – quickly, simply, genuinely and without excuses – when they’ve done something wrong or hurt somebody?

The social media ‘verse jumped on all three of those bandwagons last week. This week, these are the questions still pinging my brain:

  • Why is a vice president – or any manager, for that matter – expressing himself to an employee using foul language?
  • Why is this person in PR?

Strangely enough, this incident sent me back to my college textbook, Effective Public Relations. The very first thing authors Scott M. Cutlip and Allen H. Center have to say about the practice is this:

“Public relations is the planned effort to influence opinion through good character and responsible performance, based upon mutually satisfactory two-way communication.”

Reading that solidified everything that troubled me about the BLC-Bloggess episode (and all-too-similar incidents).

What shocked me is that this derived from the thoughts and actions of someone who’s risen to the role of vice president in the PR industry. Yes, it’s worth asking how someone gets to be a manager, much less a VP, if they think using vulgar language is appropriate in the workplace – when they feel so comfortable with it that they commit it to email, where it will live forever.

Many companies scan employee messaging for inappropriate language for the express reason that it creates an unpleasant and sometimes downright hostile work environment. Even if you’re tempted to use swear words at work, IT scanning is reason enough to hold back.

More to the point, if you’re managing people, you’re a role model. And, if you manage staff in the PR field, you’ve got a double role-modeling going on. Employees not only look to you to help them understand the kinds of behavior appropriate in the office, including civility and professionalism, but they’re picking up clues about how to interact with the client and with the media on the client’s behalf. I’m not clear where emailing a junior staffer a derogatory note about a blogger – even one meant as commiseration over not getting a hit – fits in. That email influences opinion among the people who report to you, but it doesn’t demonstrate good character or responsible performance. And the blogger who received it by accident clearly didn’t find the two-way communication mutually satisfactory.

A Passion for PR

PR is a profession for people with passion. We love what we do because we’re inspired by what our clients have achieved, and we want to tell the whole world (or various niche audiences) about it.

Sure, we get excited over media hits, but that shouldn’t necessarily translate to plummeting into despair when pitches fail. Or cursing reporters and bloggers. Is this really where you want your staff focused?

Let the excitement of your efforts carry you forward. Encourage your team to turn their attention to the next media outlet or blogger on the list. Remind them that every “no” gets them that much closer to the person who says “yes.” Better yet, have them talk with the reporter or blogger about why the pitch didn’t land, ask what would work in the future, and how she or he likes to receive information (you’d be surprised, a personal approach can even – sometimes – turn a “no” into a “yes,” but if it doesn’t, you still wind up with a better sense of how to be a hit with this person next time around).

Why Do Bloggers Enjoy the Special Ire of PR Pros?

In his second email – the one that was intentional – the BLC VP was quite clear that a blog was barely a blip on his impressions radar, so why the elevated blood pressure?

Have we drunk the Kool-Aid that suggests blogs in some magical way influence consumers more effectively and thus equal the Holy Grail of “engagement” in ways that mass media can’t?

Are we so desperate to prove we “get” social media? And, if we do understand it, why are we relating so rottenly with bloggers. Any PR person with a dash of social experience on the side could have predicted the social media fallout that resulted from refusing to apologize and suggesting that a blog was irrelevant.

Here’s the thing: bloggers can be influencers just as much as reporters. But, a pitch that gets picked up by a blog is an impression, just like any old media impression. If you want true engagement for your client, you need to help them establish their own relationships, whether B2B or B2C, and set up their own social experiences with the audiences they want to reach.

Why Work in PR?

The heart of the professional-behavior issue for me is this: As a PR person, we’re supposed to be hard-wired to understand that everything we say and send must be on behalf of the client and reflects on the client. It doesn’t matter whether our clients have B2B or B2C audiences, or if they’re internal business leaders and we’re helping them message to employees, board members or other stakeholders.

If we’re not acting on behalf of our clients, we’re in the wrong job. But, let’s say we forget every once in a while. We’re human, after all. Then, why aren’t we acting on behalf of the company? We’ve been in a lengthy period of recession; losing a client over something like this has repercussions for the agency and all the people who work there and would like to continue bringing home a paycheck.

When we lose a sense of joy – about this or any other profession – other things slip, too, in our practice. When that happens, perhaps it’s time for some reflection on what we’re doing and whether we still find passion in it.

The best PR practitioners lead with their hearts, their values and a clear understanding of and passion for the purpose of this work. They are happy to come to work every day and thrilled when they make things happen for their clients. It’s how they remain professional, ethical and effective in their communications amid even the most intense crises and why clients and media people (traditional and new) respect them.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Public relations defines itself by what it does.”
~ Cutlip and Center, Effective Public Relations

Forget Flat Abs in Seven Days, Can You Write a Novel in a Month?

NaNoWriMo commences bright and early on Nov. 1, giving us ink-stained wretches about two weeks to clear our schedules and say goodbye to loved ones.

For the uninitiated, November is National Novel Writing Month – a theme month whose acronym can make you feel like Mork from Ork when trying to explain to skeptical friends what’s caused you to shun sunshine, shopping and TV while holed up in your apartment for 30 days and nights.

There’s plenty of debate about what it’s possible to create in a month – and what of that might be salvageable for a later draft – but, the purpose of NaNoWriMo is to write the first draft of a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, to keep your hand moving across the keyboard or page with nary a backward glance for editing or second guessing. “To write,” as the NaNoWriMo website puts it, “without having to obsess over quality.”

The endeavor encourages participants to start from scratch (rather than waste time agonizing over a partially developed outline or manuscript) and accept that almost every writer on the planet produces, to paraphrase Anne Lamott, crummy first drafts.

The NaNoWriMo website offers plenty of support, resources, advice and meet-ups in your area. It’s completely honest about expectations and the fact that you shouldn’t set yourself up to unleash the next Pride and Prejudice on the world come Nov. 30.

They understand how difficult it is for writers to shed the burdens of the workaday world and dedicate their schedules to creating – even if it is only a month. They’re realistic that at the end of 30 days, your spouse, partner, parents, children and/or boss are going to expect you to reappear and spend more time in their lives. But, they also believe that, if you’re a writer, one month isn’t too much to ask for.

The discipline it takes to write every day forms good habits and strengthens muscles we sometimes don’t even realize we have.

NaNoWriMo is kind of like the room of one’s own that writers need in order to imagine and create.

I’ve had good intentions in past years about doing NaNoWriMo, going so far as to make pacts with writer friends who planned to do it, too. One thing I’ve discovered about those previous (all unsuccessful) attempts was that the moment we let Day One slip by without churning out our 1,667 words (50,000 words divided by 30 days), we’d lost the game before it ever really got started.

I’ve also thought long and hard about whether it would be more helpful to bang out a novel in 30 days or to nail down one, fully realized short story. Perhaps NaShoStoWriMo is more my style. Because once you get in the habit of writing your own stuff, just for you, it’s a lot easier to keep going. And, after all, you can always designate any month of the year your personal NaNoWriMo, NaShoStoWriMo, NaPoWriMo (for poets), NaScreWriMo (screenwriters), NaBloWriMo (bloggers), etc., if November, with that pesky Tryptophan-laden, out-of-town-relative-packed holiday at the end of the month, doesn’t work for you.

So, NaShoStoWriMo is what I’ll be doing with my November evenings and weekends, when I’m not focused on clients.

How about you? Have you tried NaNoWriMo before? Are you tempted to join in this year? Have you ever given yourself a month (or six, or 12) to achieve something that really mattered to you? Share your thoughts in the Comments.

Ignore the Name and Share the Adventure of Reading during Teen Read Week Oct. 16 – 22

I was an avid and eclectic reader in my teens, devouring everything from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to The DriftersThe Beatles’ Illustrated LyricsOn the RoadThe Pump House Gang, and the Foxfire books. Yeah, it was the ‘70s.

The only trouble with being a teen, besides just about everything, is that there’s a tendency to roll one’s eyes at things that are organized around this age group. Especially when the actual word “teen” is invoked, people of that demographic tend to get a bit stroppy.

The problem, I think, is not so much the effort put into such things as the drastic differences within the age group – between 13 and 19 (middle school and college), a lot of changing and trying things on for size and growing out of things takes place. Most of it completely out of your control, or so it seems.

Still, this should in no way undermine the genuine care put into these events and the age-appropriate benefits that can accrue from (holding your nose) and joining in.

All this to say, a theme week kicks off this Sunday, Oct. 16 – 22, called “Picture It @ Your Library,” and it’s about encouraging teenagers to check out graphic novels and other types of creative or illustrated literature (I think the latter implication is comic books…).

Sponsored by the Young Adult Library Services Association, the earnestly named Teen Read Week is now a teenager itself, having been around for 13 years. Libraries offer special events for teens to encourage reading and utilizing library resources for fun, study and exposure to new worlds and ideas.

For parents, aunts, uncles, godparents, family friends, teachers and anyone else who has the great good fortune to spend time around humans of the teenage persuasion, the American Library Association reminds you that Teen Read Week is also an opportunity to let libraries, schools and other community organizations know how you feel about the need to support programs and services for teens.

There’s a ton of resources and additional information for Teen Read Week on the YALSA site.

Join the Short Story Tweetathon and Tell a Tale with Fewer than 700 (Twitter) Characters

For the past four Wednesdays, the Society of Authors has sponsored a short story tweetathon, giving willing writers about an hour to continue a tale begun by a published author, such as Sarah Waters, Simon Brett and Joanne Harris. This week, the opening line comes from author and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman.

Once the guest curator has selected the winning contribution, it’s posted, and scribes have an hour to come up with the next line. And so on. The final story is available on the SoA website.

The final tweetathon starts tomorrow at 11 a.m. – that’s Greenwich Mean Time for folks based outside the U.K.

Contributors have less than the usual 140 Twitter characters, since the tweet must be submitted with the #soatale hashtag. Here, for example, is crime writer Ian Rankin’s Week 1 opener:

“I woke up on the floor of a strange bedroom, clutching a single bullet in my right hand. I couldn’t see any sign of a gun.” #soatale

SoA organized the tweetathon after the BBC made cuts to the amount of short stories aired during regular programming. As with cutbacks in magazines, like the Atlantic, this reduces the options for short story writers and restricts the exposure that readers might have to this important storytelling form, practiced by writers as varied as Tobias WolffHelen SimpsonErnest HemingwayLorrie Moore, and Ian McEwan, to name a very small handful.

For specifics on the tweetathon and SoA’s protest, visit the Society of Authors website.

Writing Your Entry: How to Make Your Work Competitive this Awards Season

Maybe it made you chuckle…perhaps it seemed harsh, but that comment by Steve Martin, made during his acceptance speech at an awards show, has bearing on every professional PR, communications, marketing and advertising awards program. Ensuring that your entry has a competitive chance is what this post is all about.

Too many entrants make the same simple mistakes, leaving sections of the entry form blank because they haven’t documented and measured their work. It’s like shooting yourself in the foot – and after all your hard work this year!

Don’t make the mistakes “all the other nominees” make. Give your work a fighting chance and put yourself in the winners’ circle.

In this post, I hope to shed some light on the judges’ perspective, when we’re in the room evaluating entries – what thrills us to the point of wishing we’d worked on a campaign with you and what makes us anguished to the point of wanting to tear our hair out, when great work doesn’t have the measurement and supporting documentation to back it up. I also promised a worksheet to help you write a strong entry (you’ll find info about that under Award Entry Smart Chart toward the end).

First, a pop quiz:

True or False? 

  • The client was ecstatic with our results, which makes this campaign really award-worthy
  • Media impressions are metrics, and we’ve got millions, so we’ll definitely score
  • The CEO thought our all-staff meeting was the best he’s ever seen – that must be worth an award

If you answered True to any of those statements, and you plan to submit your work for a professional award this season, I encourage you to read on.

Last week, I offered some truisms about awards:

  • You can’t win if you don’t enter
  • Far too many entrants don’t give themselves the time to write a thoughtful entry
  • You must be in the right category

Let’s add three essentials for your entry:

  • You must have measurements that support your objectives
  • You must tie the success of your program (as measured by data) to your objectives
  • You must fill in (unless it really doesn’t apply to your program and isn’t a required section) every section of the entry and provide as much supporting detail as possible, even if it’s just planning emails exchanged with the client

Now, let’s get started. This post is divided into two parts: general advice on writing style for your entry and a section-by-section guide to completing a competitive entry form.

Writing Tips

Be Brief: One of the biggest issues entrants struggle with is word or page limitations. The trick here is not to panic. Allow yourself plenty of time to write because for most writers, writing shorter takes longer. If you’re submitting hard copy, read font size/style and page margin instructions carefully. Reducing font size may enable you to cram in more details, but remember that the judge has to be able to read your entry, and you don’t want to make it difficult for him or her. Online entry forms typically allow you to save your work and re-enter the system at a later date. Take advantage of this and read the entry form completely. If you’re worried about 150-word limits on every section of the entry, read through to see, for example, if you’ll be covering things, such as Communications Environment, Business Rationale, Research, Strategy, Objectives, Plan, and Execution, separately. If there are individual fields for these, don’t waste space and time covering specifics about program Execution under the Plan section.

Bring Your Campaign to Life: Whatever your entry consists of – an event, a product launch, an employee newsletter, a 15-second Superbowl spot, a fundraiser – guide the judges through the groundswell of excitement that led to your successful execution. This includes that moment of realization once you’d read all the research; the inspiration behind the campaign; the back-and-forth with the client, gaining their approval. Using an active voice will help, rather than writing in a way that makes your event feel like it happened at the dawn of time. Don’t write, for example: “We had realized…” “Additional research had shown that…” Put the judges in the room with the team as the program unfolds.

Do Not Rewrite the Press Release: Writing in an active voice does not mean rehashing taglines, marketing speak or language used in the press release. Remember, you’re not trying to sell the judges on your product or client, your focus is the campaign. If you’re looking at the press kit while writing your entry, it can be easy to confuse the two. Also, avoid supplying your own hyperbole about the campaign: never call your own work “groundbreaking,” “revolutionary” or “game-changing.” (You want reporters and target audience members to use this language – and you want to tell the judges if they actually did gush about your program, but in the Results or Evaluation sections, not in the sections where you’re describing your work.)

Mind the Jargon: Judges understand marketing- and PR-speak, but they may not be familiar with jargon and acronyms in your particular industry. You want the judges to have a clear understanding of your program from start to finish; if that means explaining something in plain English (even when you wouldn’t have done so for your target audience), use your writing to give them clarity.

The Entry Form

Each award program has its own categories and entry form, so here I’ve imagined a generic entry to cover as many sections as possible.

OVERVIEW
Sometimes it’s best to leave this section for last. You want to step back and describe the program from a 30,000-foot level. Often this requires that you get all the details out of your system. This is where you want to encompass The Big Problem, The Big Idea, The Big Effort, and The Big Result without driving down to the facts, figures and timelines required in the next sections.

You’re often given a very tight word count in this section, so be clear, be brief and share your excitement for creating a program that truly had an impact on its intended audience.

Questions to ask as you write:

  • Have I provided enough context about the product, client, company or audiences and the need or opportunity, to write a clear case for the way this program solves the problem?

BUSINESS OR COMMUNICATIONS ENVIRONMENT/SITUATIONAL ANALYSIS
This is where you begin, as one award program judge aptly described it, “threading the logic needle.” Everything you write from this section on must have a logical flow to it. Your strategy and plan must deliver the business or communications results reflected in the opportunity or challenge defined in this section.

You should describe the insights that led to the program. It’s okay if the insights came from your client and not your agency – the point is, What problem are you solving for? You don’t want to leave the judges with the feeling that there was no real business case for the program (say, you produced a special anniversary edition of the newsletter because your department has done one every year since the company was founded) or little understanding of why the program matters to the audience.

If Research isn’t a section unto itself on the entry form, this is where you can share the work your team did, for instance, to understand the market and your competitors or benchmark with other companies to learn how they’re managing the adoption of social media.

Questions to ask as you write:

  • Are you being specific about the challenges or opportunities for your business, in the market, or internally? Why do they matter for this product, company or your audiences?
  • Does the audience look at the situation differently or similarly to your organization – have you included their perspective?
  • Is there a clear and logical connection between the communications environment and the campaign you designed to address the problem or opportunity?

RESEARCH
Award-worthy programs have the whole package: there isn’t a section left missing or undocumented. Judges like to see more than one example in the Research section to indicate that, say in a marketing category, there was a reason certain consumer segments were included in or left out of your plan.

The research you conducted may have helped define the brand’s problem, clarified the competition, focus groups may have identified a need for employee recognition programs or that older alumni still prefer to be solicited via snail mail. Your research might indicate exactly how you need to measure your results (perfect for threading that logic needle!). Research provides those light-bulb moments or it can confirm what you already assumed about the market.

It’s perfectly acceptable if research came from the client – your job is to show how it shed light on the business environment and how it informed your Objectives, Strategy, choice of Audiences, etc.

If there is no section on the entry for Research and your plan relied on a lot of it, find a way to share the salient points in other sections, like the Overview or Situational Analysis (for any “A-ha!” research insights) or under Strategy to show why you devised this program to meet your client’s needs.

Questions to ask as you write:

  • How did our research unearth a need or an opportunity?
  • Where did it confirm existing opinions?
  • Have I clearly described how we used the research to create the strategy and identify the audiences?

AUDIENCE
If you worked with large demographic segments, you may want to tier your audiences on the entry and include something like a table or spreadsheet in the supporting documents section (always be sure to indicate when you’ve placed details in the support section, including the name of the tab, for hard copies, and the title of the document).

If you’re dealing with a general audience, like All Employees, it’s helpful to provide the judges (if space allows) with details about the types of work they do, their educational level, and whether they work at one or multiple locations. Go on to explain how these factors affected your strategy, planning and execution.

The key to this section is to give the judges the sense that real strategy was behind the choice of audiences and how you intended to target each segment. You also must demonstrate that you took into consideration the audience’s perspective as you developed your Strategy, Plan and messages.

For example, Netflix can contend that their new tiered pricing scheme was initiated as a convenience and benefit to customers. Whether their customers believe this and consider the new pricing a “benefit” is another thing. And the customer is just one audience; another audience, Netflix’s shareholders, may have a vastly different opinion. Customer service employees who have to field angry phone calls and emails all day are a third audience impacted by this program. If Netflix were to submit an entry, judges would expect a program that identifies each of these audiences and their concerns, and addresses how the plan was created to direct specific messages and tactics to each.

Questions to ask as you write:

  • What did the research tell us about the audience in terms of need and opinion and how can I show this in this section of the entry?
  • Have I clearly and specifically analyzed the audience concerns?
  • Can I explain how we selected messages and media to reach our audiences?

OBJECTIVES
I’ve seen a lot of people describe an objective as a “To statement.” In other words, the statement is a sentence fragment that begins with a verb. This is less than helpful when trying to explain your plan on an award-entry form with a limited number of words.

Yes, objectives can be “To statements.” Yes, you can list them like bullets. But, there are two important takeaways here for the entry-writer: Your objectives must directly relate to the business challenge or opportunity and you need to explain each one, why it will have an impact, and how it will support the needs of the audience.

Note that you can have one business challenge and multiple objectives to address it; what judges will be watching (and grading down) for is objectives that don’t align to the challenge or opportunity. At this point, you may want to assign numbers to your Objectives because, when they get to your Tactics and Results sections, you’ll want to direct the judges’ attention to the relationship between Tactics and Objectives and, ultimately, Results and Tactics and Objectives.

Judges expect programs to be well-rounded. If you’ve got a product launch, a satellite media tour, a social media campaign, or an internal change management program, it’s not going to be enough to say your objective was: “To increase awareness among target audiences.” You’ve got to explain why and how you’re going to measure that increased awareness.

Likewise, going after media placements won’t pass muster. You must define the specific hits you want to get, why you’re targeting those media outlets, which messages you want to see in stories, and how those media outlets will reach the target audiences.

Perhaps most important: your objectives have to be measurable. While adding “Likes” to your company Facebook page, increasing Twitter followers, or achieving 5 million media impressions is a kind of measurement, these are generally closed loops, as they don’t take into account what those numbers mean in terms of audience mindset or impact. A more measurable set of objectives is something like this:

  • To grow our donor base among women age 18 – 39 by 12 percent using our first social media campaign
  • To solicit contributions from targeted donors in the $1 – $10 range during a six-week campaign

This is a well-rounded, measurable campaign: by the end, this nonprofit will be able to show whether they met, exceeded or fell short of 12 percent new donors in their targeted age bracket and they’ll be able to define the level of contributions.

Questions to ask as you write:

  • Have I “threaded the logic needle” and explained how the objectives align with the client’s business challenge/opportunity?
  • Do objectives support the audience’s needs?
  • Are objectives reasonable and achievable (and not too easy to hit) for the scope and budget of the campaign?
  • Are our objectives a closed loop (i.e. are we just racking up numbers) or do they measure something meaningful and produce tangible campaign results for the business or client?

STRATEGY
This section is where your program can really shine. Your campaign isn’t required to be as novel as Scotty’s engineering tricks when the Enterprise was stranded inside a tractor beam, but judges will be looking for creative responses to the client’s or company’s business challenge/opportunity.

The strategy is where the business challenge or opportunity meets your research and understanding of the audience’s needs. You need to demonstrate how you analyzed each of these factors to create a solution that reached the hearts and minds of the audience.

An interesting side note: judges are professionals; they do the same work you do. If you have the space to discuss the paths not taken and the rationale for choosing a different path instead, as long as it’s grounded in your analysis, they will appreciate the discussion, and you’ll have given them a deeper look into your process.

The most important thing: don’t lose steam. You’ve done a lot of writing to get to this point. You don’t want your strategy to read like it could be cut-and-pasted into any other entry. It should be original and focused on your business challenge/opportunity and all the research and analysis you conducted.

Questions to ask as you write:

  • Have I described how we intended to achieve objectives and reach our audiences?
  • Does this section sound like The Big Idea or more like a list of tactics?

PLAN/EXECUTION/TACTICS
Think of the Plan as your Strategy in action to achieve your Objectives.

For marketers, check the entry form instructions or with the program coordinator, because this section can be more heavily weighted for your campaigns – and earn you more points – than for PR or communications programs. This is where you bring your program to life, like playing a film for the judges, and give an overview of your outcomes.

Your Plan or Execution section should describe how you set out to achieve your Strategy, including any surprises (good or bad) along the way. If you ran into a roadblock, you need to describe it and how you got past it. If you haven’t been asked to describe your messages, this is the place to include them, along with an explanation of why and how they addressed the target audience’s needs.

Tactics are the step-by-step mechanics of your campaign. Which media did you select? What internal channels did you use to communicate to employees? Why did you use an electronic press kit instead of a website? These, too, must thread the logic needle, so you need to show (don’t assume the judges will see it if you don’t call it out directly) the direct correlation between your Tactics and Objectives. Again, you can have multiple Tactics aligned to one Objective – just make sure you connect the dots between them.

Many entrants choose to use a table to provide all of this information, including audiences, to show how the plan was executed in detail. You may choose to list the audiences along the left side and have columns running across the top of the page for media outlets or channels, messages or talking points, timing, and even a brief overview of the result.

Questions to ask as you write:

  • Have I included the key messages and rationale for messaging by audience?
  • Is it clear why we chose specific media outlets or to use certain internal channels for our program? Does this tie back to the challenge/opportunity in the communications environment?
  • Have I provided enough information about the surprises we encountered and how we handled them, including any additional strategies or tactics devised?

TIMELINE/RESOURCES/BUDGET
The Timeline is a rundown of the important tactical pieces of your plan and when they took place, such as when long-lead magazine outreach began or when you conducted stakeholder analysis on a change program. Depending on the length of your program, you can list Tactics by week, month or quarter.

List resources by name, job title, agency or client, and responsibility.

Judges typically evaluate programs to determine whether the Budget was efficiently used. If your agency, company or the client won’t disclose this information, award programs often allow you to use a range rather than a specific dollar figure. Be sure to indicate why you are using a range instead of the exact budget.

Talk with the program coordinator to ensure that this is the correct way to handle budget and any other information you aren’t allowed to disclose (such as sales figures).

Whatever you do, be honest about your budget or range. You must be clear about the budget you were given to execute the program you’ve described, and you should expect to demonstrate ROI in your Results.

If you received additional funding from elsewhere in the company, from an ad agency as part of a PR program, or from a joint collaboration, you need to account for those extra dollars and how they were utilized in the campaign. Judges will spot discrepancies, such as collateral that cost far more than the budget allowed or an ad, executed by an agency, that boosted audience awareness far beyond what a PR campaign could accomplish.

Questions to ask as you write:

  • Have I given an honest account of the budget and resources? Do either seem too large or too small for the program described?
  • Is it clear the team listed in the Resources did the work rather than another agency or department?

RESULTS
I can’t stress this strongly enough: Your Results must clearly relate to your Objectives – you must point out the Objective you are measuring at the end of your program. For example:

  • An Objective to boost sales by 5 percent must show a dollar and/or percentage increase over the previous year (if your client won’t release dollar figures, you’ll need to ask permission to use the percentage increase – you need a measurable result against this Objective)
  • An Objective to increase attendance at an annual event must demonstrate by number of attendees or percentage growth in headcount the achievement of this Objective
  • An Objective to increase employee awareness of an annual giving program must demonstrate how great awareness was before the program launched as well as after and how the program impacted giving, by a dollar or percentage increase

You will be judged not only on Results that match your Objectives, but on the quality of your Results overall. Wherever you exceeded your original Objectives, make sure to highlight these additional Results for the judges (and tie them back to Objectives or the Business Challenge/Opportunity, even if they weren’t intended Results).

Avoid writing around missing metrics. Judges spot this instantly when an entrant writes something like: “Clearly, we had an unprecedented turnout, unmatched by any previous year.” Especially when there are no attendance figures to back up such a statement.

Also, you will lose points if your metrics are merely related to tactical execution of your program, such as: “We mailed out 2,500 copies of the alumni newsletter” or “We produced 20,000 copies of the annual report.”

Many of us who’ve judged awards programs over the years have shaken our heads over the dearth of data needed to support entries. We’re talking exciting, innovative, professional work that has nothing to back it up – nothing to indicate the work had some kind of impact on the audiences the client hoped to reach.

Let’s review the answers to that pop quiz for a moment:

An email from your client, saying they are ecstatic with the campaign, is a great pat on the back for any agency. It is not a measurable achievement. You can place the email in the footnotes of your award submission as backing documentation, but it is no substitute for providing evidence of, say, an increase in sales.

A spreadsheet and a large stack of magazine and newspaper clippings aren’t metrics either. I know this will shock many of you. But, even a spreadsheet that demonstrates millions of impressions doesn’t make a campaign awardable. If your campaign rests on getting media, you must show that you:

  • received coverage from the specific outlets indicated in your Objectives that you targeted because they were key to reaching your audience
  • have clear examples of your messages in the coverage (if you can’t afford to have TV and radio coverage transcribed, then call it out yourself in quotation marks); for hard copy entries, use a highlighter marker over the messages
  • can demonstrate some connection between media hits and audience response – whether it’s an increase in sales in certain markets, greater attendance at an event, or sign-ups on a website or for a coupon or contest, your media should have resulted in some tangible impact on the audience

I was on a panel many years ago, judging PR programs. A large agency submitted a store opening promotional campaign with a hefty budget, stunning collateral, and millions of media impressions (no messages or key outlets highlighted). The notebook with their entry could’ve broken a foot if someone had dropped it. Competing in the same category (because in those days, categories weren’t segregated by budget) was a small nonprofit community awareness campaign with almost zero budget, strong strategy and messages, impressive media hits with clear examples of their message platform highlighted throughout, and evidence that their campaign had brought other nonprofits on board to educate the public.

I know the competitors, and the professional organization sponsoring the awards, were shocked when we gave the top prize to the nonprofit. As a panel, we were ahead of the curve in not being swayed by impressions alone. In that case, it was clear that the agency hadn’t efficiently used the enormous amount of funding it had received, while the nonprofit, with minimal budget, had spread their message far and wide and exceeded their original objectives by pulling in support from other nonprofits and community groups. Today, these programs wouldn’t compete against each other, but if the submissions – and the results – were the same, the nonprofit’s would still be a competitive entry while the PR agency’s would not.

For internal programs, you may understand how hard it is to garner approval from your CEO, but the judges will not. As with a happy client, a happy CEO isn’t a tangible result that can be traced back through your Tactics, Objectives and Business Challenge/Opportunity. If your audience is employees, your measurable results need to come from their response to your program or the action they took as a result of it. As a judge for employee communications programs, I’ve seen empty Results tabs in award submissions and I’ve seen paltry amounts of emails from staff, responding to an article or series of articles, including emails that say things as unenlightening as, “Wow!” What you need is something with statistical significance: you need an audience survey to determine whether your program realized its original objectives and shifted mindset or inspired action.

If you don’t have backing data for a program you’re thinking of entering in an award program, there’s still time to gather it. Go back to my previous post and review some of the suggestions there. If you have no way of collecting measurements for a program, or no budget to do so, you should pass on this year’s awards season. It’s heartbreaking, but your time will be better spent building the case – with your department, your agency, your clients – for building measurement into all future programs, so they have a fighting chance during awards season.

Questions to ask as you write:

  • Can I trace my measurable Results to my Tactics and back to Objectives and the Business Challenge/Opportunity? Is there a logical sense that each one relates to the others?
  • Have we measured the correct thing? Have we measured the program’s outcome? Do our measurements demonstrate a change in audience behavior or action?
  • Am I reporting numbers, dollars, or percentage changes or am I writing around the subject because I don’t have statistics?

EVALUATION
Do a real evaluation: don’t assume a spreadsheet of media hits will suffice. Judges will be looking for genuine analysis of the effectiveness of your program, tied to your Objectives, and the impact it had on your audience.

Questions to ask as you write:

  • Am I continuing to thread the logic needle (even if I feel like I sound like a broken record) and have I tied my evaluation to the original Business Challenge/Opportunity for this Audience using these Objectives?

SUPPORTING DOCUMENTATION
Honestly, judges don’t look at everything you submit; they simply don’t have the time. You need to be judicious in figuring out the supporting material to upload or include in the tabs of a binder.

It’s not necessary, for example, to submit every issue of a paper newsletter for the last five years – it’s the entrant’s responsibility to “narrate” the story and provide the appropriate context. If you want to show how you revamped a newsletter, then pick examples that demonstrate the Business Challenge and the Opportunity you created in your makeover.

Other critical points:

Highlight, highlight, highlight. You don’t want a sea of neon yellow on the page, but you can’t assume that a judge knows why you’re including a document in a subsection of your entry. Draw the judges’ eyes to the message or metric or information you want them to incorporate in your score.

Note where things are. Whenever you have a supporting document that’s not part of your main entry form, indicate this in the appropriate section, letting the judges know the title of the Supporting Material, where it can be found, and why it’s being included.

What am I looking at? Do take the time to properly scan collateral so you’re providing clear examples of your creative.

Award Entry Smart Chart

I’ve developed a free and simple guide for preparing competitive award entries that enables you to track the correlation between Business Challenge/Opportunity and Objectives, Tactics and Results for almost any award program.

I’m happy to email it to you, and you can request one by:

  • leaving a request with your email address* in the Comment section on the blog
  • sending me your email address via DM on Twitter @NoBadLanguage
  • contact me at vickie@vickiebates.com

*All email addresses will be kept private and will not be saved or used for anything other than this one-time exchange.

Some final words of advice for those planning to enter a program in more than one category: Read the category descriptions and instructions carefully and write a separate entry specific to each category. It will be painfully obvious if you submit a generic entry, and you’ll probably lose points for not providing all the information required for the category.

Remember to give yourself time to write your best and most competitive entry possible. You will likely feel like you’ve had a crash course in the professional organization’s accreditation program once you’ve completed your entry. And, in a way, you have. These organizations are dedicated to standards of practice in the marketing, PR, advertising and communications industries. They’re rewarding creative excellence to be sure, but the judges are also honoring adherence to standards and ethics in the execution of programs. When you receive a gold, silver, bronze or honorable mention, you know your work has been held to the highest standards, judged against the best in the industry, in a fair and rigorous competition.

Good luck!

For further information on making your entry competitive and helpful links to resources provided by the award programs, check out my two previous posts: