Everything You Need to Know about Awards, But Were Afraid to Ask…

Early-bird deadlines for several major PR, marketing and communications award programs are looming.

Give your work a fighting chance. Make sure you’re ready to write the best entry possible, with all of the supporting materials necessary to make it awardable.

To get yourself going, check out these helpful, tip-heavy posts written by someone who has both judged PR, marketing and communications awards programs and received awards from some of the major programs. I recommend reading these in the order presented here:

Crafting a Strong Award Program Entry for Your Work

Getting yourself prepared, reviewing award-worthy work, filling in missing metrics and feedback, and taking a hard look at whether your program stands a chance.

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

Section-by-section view of standard entry forms, guiding you through the information you need to include to support your program effectively. Includes a FREE worksheet to help you organize your entry, enabling you to show the judges what they want: clear connections between research, objectives, tactics and results. This is a long post, best read as you tackle each section on your entry.

AVEs and AVE Nots: Major PR Awards Programs Will Reject Entries Using Questionable Measurement Practice
If you think I’m a stickler about meaningful measurement, it’s worth noting that many of the prestigious awards programs (i.e. the awards that actually mean something in the industry and on your resume) no longer accept shaky measurement practices like AVEs.

And for writers:

Writing Your Writing Award Entry
Making the most of your writing talent to highlight the key program areas judges want to see in your entry.

Additional Resources

The IABC Gold Quill Awards website offers you tips for writing an effective entry, shares the judging score sheet and provides a download of their webinar, “The Midas Touch,” with advice on completing an effective entry.

Early deadline for the Gold Quill Awards is Jan. 31, with final deadline March 5, 2013.

The PRSA Silver and Bronze Anvil Awards site provides the excellent “Anvil Thinking” video, featuring judges discussing what it takes to win one of these prestigious awards.

Early deadline for the Silver Anvil Awards is Feb. 8, with final deadline Feb. 22, 2013.

Tis the Season to Plan Your Awards Submissions

Dear fellow communicators, PR people and marketers:

I’m sure visions of a holiday break are dancing in your head right about now. You’re swamped with year-end reviews, next year’s budget, holiday parties, and what to give your administrative assistant so she or he will put up with you for the next 365 days.

If you’re feeling especially spent, perhaps it’s because you did such stellar work in 2012. That means now is exactly the right time to start thinking about how those programs might be recognized by the industry.

Give your work a fighting chance. Make sure you’ve got all the supporting materials your entry needs to make it awardable by checking out these helpful, tip-heavy posts.

To get yourself going, I highly recommend reading them in the order presented here:

Crafting a Strong Award Program Entry for Your Work
Getting yourself prepared, reviewing award-worthy work, filling in missing metrics and feedback, taking a hard look at whether your program stands a chance.

Writing Your Entry: How to Make Your Work Competitive this Awards Season
Writing tips and a section-by-section view of standard entry forms, guiding you on what you need to write to support your program effectively. Includes link for a FREE worksheet to help you organize your entry, showing the judges clear connections between research, objectives, tactics and results.

And for writers:

Writing Your Writing Award Entry
Make the most of your writing talents to highlight the key program areas judges want to see in your entry.

Additional Resources

IABC Gold Quill Awards offers you tips for writing an effective entry, shares the judging score sheet and provides a download of their webinar, “The Midas Touch,” with advice on completing an effective entry.

Early deadline for the Gold Quill Awards is Jan. 31, with final deadline March 5, 2013.

PRSA Silver and Bronze Anvil Awards provides the excellent “Anvil Thinking” video, featuring judges discussing what it takes to win one of these prestigious awards.

Early deadline for the Silver Anvil Awards is Feb. 8, with final deadline Feb. 22, 2013.

IABC Revamps Gold Quill Awards

I write regularly about awards programs in the PR, marketing and communications industries, so I was thrilled to receive an email last week, announcing significant updates to one of the major honors – IABC’s Gold Quill awards.

Full disclosure: I’m a member of the International Association of Business Communicators and have served as a first-tier judge for the Gold Quills several times in the last two decades. Perhaps that makes me biased, but I’m convinced these changes will lead to a program that offers greater ease of entry and even better judging.

What’s changing and what does it mean for you? I’m working from an Aug. 30 email, from IABC Chair Kerby Meyers, which notes several important updates:

Online entries! – Yes, that deserves an exclamation point! The Gold Quills were the last major program to require a mailed entry. Sure, I’m an advocate of advance planning for award entries, but the reality is that most entrants are prepping their materials up to the very last minute. Relying on overnight delivery – and cramming everything into a giant notebook that had to meet a long list of requirements for how it looked and how it was organized – made the process that much more fraught. Now, every entry will be standardized thanks to online forms, and entrants have an extra 24 hours to double-check their submissions.

Longer entry period – There’s little excuse to be copy-and-pasting your entry into the online form five minutes before the deadline. According to the email, the Gold Quill program will open in October and entries will be accepted through the March 2013 deadline.

Standardized training for judges – Starting with the 2013 Gold Quill program, judges will be required to complete a training that ensures they are International Awards Evaluators in Good Standing, according to IABC. This, I think, will make the Gold Quills an exceptional awards program. In my experience (and not just as a judge for IABC), there’s a range of expertise in the judging room that includes long-time judges and newbies, 30-year marketing pros and new graduates in their first communications role. I don’t draw these distinctions to say that one is better than the other – judging should never be based on who’s been a judge before. What’s most valuable to the program and entrants alike is a consistent, fair, standardized set of judging criteria and a formalized way of training judges to understand and apply those criteria. For those interested in becoming an Evaluator in Good Standing, IABC will be communicating further information next month.

Those are the biggies. Additional changes include:

Eliminating first-tier evaluations – Now all entries will be judged by the aforementioned trained evaluators serving on a blue ribbon panel in one of five countries: the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Australia, and South Africa.

Introducing a new scoring sheet – This ensures even more feedback on each part of the entrant’s workplan, which should be a welcome addition for everyone submitting work.

Adding more guidance for entrants – IABC already offers comprehensive guides, webinars and social media chats related to entry preparation, as well as a mentor program for members who haven’t won a Gold Quill. It’s always highly recommended that entrants make use of these; you’ll find a list of opportunities here, as well as under the Resources tab in the Gold Quill section of the IABC website. (Note that these will be updated with the just-announced program additions as the 2013 program gets under way in the next month.)

The IABC email mentions that the 2013 call for entries will be announced in late September, and available on the IABC website.

Related posts on writing a competitive entry for all of the major PR, marketing and communications awards programs:

Table of contents of No Bad Language posts on awards
Advance planning for writing a strong award program entry for your work

AVEs and AVE Nots: Major PR Awards Programs Will Reject Entries Using Questionable Measurement Practice

Planning to enter your work in one of the major PR awards programs?

Then you’ll want to acquaint yourself with an important change in the rules, encouraged by the International Association for Measurement and Evaluation (AMEC), which has been endorsing the 2010 Barcelona Principles, new measurement standards for PR and social media.

Now that we have measurement standards, how do we get them adopted? That’s the question PR/social media measurement expert Katie Delahaye Paine posed in her most recent The Measurement Standard newsletter. Like the sponsors of some of the industry’s leading awards, Paine believes the answer is to bar AVE measurements from award programs.

The only way to prevent PR practitioners from falling back on bad measurement habits – like Ad Value Equivalency – is to use “fear, greed, or force,” says Paine in her post.

She was half-joking about force (I think…there is a reference to inventing a drone that could deploy “Shame on You” stickers when someone uses AVEs), but she talks tough when it comes to recommending that clients “shun firms that offered them” in measurement reports and “pushed for a rejection of any entry to an awards program that included AVEs.”

PRSA, AMEC and PRWeek now “categorically reject” entries that include AVE as a metric, she notes. Some refuse to give them up, but other distinguished programs, like the Cannes Lions Awards banished AVE measurement this summer thanks to AMEC.

Should AVE Known Better

AVEs (Ad Equivalency Value), like impressions, are considered by many leading PR and measurement experts to be an outmoded form of quantifying the success of a public relations campaign. Although AVE relies on a mathematical formulation – measuring the media coverage garnered on behalf of a client, frequently using a multiplier, and then calculating the value of coverage as if it were paid advertising – the data derived is viewed as unscientific and specious.

Why remove an established albeit old-fashioned measurement from an awards program?

In the past decade, the major PR industry awards programs having been moving toward a standardization of their own. It’s a lot harder to win an award just because the CEO liked your meeting-in-a-box. Judges review entries for quality of work and quantified successes, for content as well as results that link directly to the original objectives for the campaign.

The drive toward standardization is about promoting professional standards of practice in the PR industry, from accreditation to ethical behavior, measurement, and rewards.

If I Can’t AVE You

Now to the important part – what it means for you if you plan to enter 2012 work in a PR awards program that has disallowed AVEs. The good news is that you still have time to “measure what matters,” as Paine puts it.

This means gathering data about the program’s impact on the audience. You should be able to draw a straight line to the measured results from the original communications need through the strategy, objectives and tactics developed for your program.

Doing this kind of follow-up should be simple for corporate and institutional communicators (who tend to have direct access to the audiences they’re communicating with), but even agencies may be able to survey their clients’ audiences with the goal of gathering metrics on campaign effectiveness. There’s certainly an incentive for clients who want the kind of third-party endorsement that accolades offer: Spending a little extra on an audience survey could turn an unacceptable program into an award-winner.

I’ll AVE What She’s AVEing

Paine, CEO of KD Paine & Partners, a PR, brand relationships and social media research and measurement company, is a tireless advocate for accuracy and standards in measurement.

If you’re a “you do the math, I’ll do the words” kind of PR or communications person, you’ll love her take-no-prisoners approach to writing and talking about data. (“Clearly there are still a lot of PR pros clinging to AVEs as a measure of their success,” she writes in her post on adoption. “The best we can hope for in their case is early retirement, since sooner or later the C-suite will see behind the façade and fire them.”)

In just a few years, with the arrival of social media, we’ve witnessed the upending of industries and practices. Paine’s efforts – and those of the measurement brigade – are just as exciting and transformative.

“In reality, AVEs and multipliers won’t go away until clients demand a better solution,” says Paine. “The good news is that it is starting to happen. More and more clients are waking up to the silliness of a chart that indicates that the number of impressions you received last month is three times the population of China.”

We’re about to enter an era when PR measurement is transparent – far beyond impressions, AVEs, Likes, Smiles, and Hits on a newsletter article. Because the tools are already out there, and clients won’t need us to interpret data anymore.

No professional, ethical practitioner should fear this kind of openness. Having these “drill down capabilities,” as Paine calls them, will allow us to demonstrate the ROI of our programs, making our work and thought leadership even more valuable to CEOs and clients. Even more important, it will enable us to refine PR programs so they’re more targeted, effective and meaningful to the audiences we’re hoping to reach and engage with.

For more background:

Katie Paine’s “Everything You Need to Know about the Dublin Summit and the New Measurement Standards” shares tons of links, including one to a glossary of social media measurement terms.

Check out No Bad Language’s posts on writing competitive awards program entries.

What to Expect When You’re Entering (Award Programs, That Is)

I’ve focused previous posts about awards on how you, the applicant, can frame your submission to meet the expectations of the judges.

Today, in light of my most recent experience as a 2012 judge, I thought I’d pass along some thoughts about what applicants have a right to expect from award programs. After all, they wouldn’t exist without you and your work.

Prompt responses to your questions – None of the major PR, marketing, communications, and advertising award programs are free; some cost upwards of $300 per entry. I’ve never experienced a situation where a representative didn’t email me back within one business day, but if you’ve paid your entry fee and don’t get a response, get in touch with the sponsoring organization immediately and let them know. There may be a simple explanation (such as the person responsible for answering is out sick and no one else has the password to his email), but professional organizations don’t want you to experience this kind of customer service any more than you do.

Clear answers about judging categories – While we’re on the subject of answers, it’s time to do away with the stipulation that the applicant is responsible for figuring out the correct category for his or her submission and bears the risk of entry disqualification for making the wrong choice. That’s too much money to waste, especially when some category descriptions barely extend past a single sentence. Organizations know what these categories mean when they offer them, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to disqualify entrants for being in the wrong category. Applicants can and should weigh in on rules like these and ask for change when they seem unduly unfair.

Fully functional online submissions and tracking – We’re a dozen years into the new millennium and well past the days of browser and file incompatibility and upload-bandwidth limitations. Yet some heavy-hitter award programs still don’t offer online submissions or their entry systems freak out when they discover you’re using Safari. You should not have to pay additional funds to overnight or second-day-air a bulging notebook to program headquarters. Entry fees for award programs add a comfy windfall to the annual budgets of these organizations; applicants have the right to insist that some of their monies be reinvested in effective online tools to support their entries.

Consistent advance preparation for judges – Judging is typically administered by volunteers. Many, like me, have been serving for years. Generally, though, there’s a mix of old and new. Seasoned isn’t necessarily better than new, but it may be time – given how much money goes into these programs – to establish some ground rules for judges. A mandatory workshop, for example, to go over what’s expected and get some hands-on experience with practice entries in multiple categories. I’m loathe to suggest that judges be accredited, but that’s mainly because accreditation isn’t standardized in the PR/marketing/communications professions. The organizations that offer accreditation each have their own process and their own certification (that’s why there are ABCs and APRs). Until there’s industry-wide standardization, certifications like these don’t carry the weight they could – and that’s as true for serving on award programs as it is in carrying out professional duties within an organization.

FeedbackFeedback – Realistically, you enter award programs in hopes of a win, place or show. But, programs can be a tremendous source of objective, third-party feedback on your campaigns and creative work. It may take all of the following year to put that feedback into action on the next program you tackle, but the reward may be a stronger campaign for your client and an award for truly great work. Feedback may also serve to help you validate certain aspects of your program or your creative with clients and senior leaders. When judges aren’t prepped to understand that helpful, constructive feedback is expected of them, they often don’t provide it or write a few, general comments that aren’t very meaningful for the applicant. If you’ve been on the receiving end of vague feedback, you have every right to ask for more specific feedback on your entry this year and to encourage the organization to set standards around feedback: tone, length, constructiveness, focus on both concept (or strategy) as well as execution, with specific details about what works and what could be stronger.

Promotion – At the very least, winners should be announced on the organization’s website and in its main print publication and promoted to industry trade magazines in a press release. A number of organizations offer galas or award celebrations and showcase winning entries. Be wary of any award program that merely sends you notification that you’ve won and doesn’t invest the time in promoting its honorees.

Relevant/updated award categories – We’re a half-decade (or more) into the use of social media in PR, marketing, advertising, and communications campaigns. There are social platforms for mass audiences and different ones for internal or employee audiences. Encourage the addition or updating of award categories to reflect the ever-changing nature of the work we do.

While it may carry a bit more weight to be a member of the sponsoring organization, award programs exist because of your participation and that can and should include providing feedback on your experience as an entrant. Be constructive in the same manner you’d like your own work reviewed, but don’t hesitate to share your thoughts. You’ll contribute to making these programs even better and more relevant and informative for everyone.

Related articles:

Crafting a Strong Award Program Entry for Your Work
Writing Your Entry: How to Make Your Work Competitive this Awards Season
Writing Your Writing-Award Entry

Writing Your Writing Award Entry

You’re a writer. You excel at your job. Everyone in the office pats you on the back when you’ve turned in an especially creative piece. Now, you’re ready to nominate that work for an award.

No problem, right?

You’re a writer – you’ve got writing this award entry sussed.

It’s open season for many major awards programs – the Silver and Bronze Anvils, Gold Quills, Bulldogs, and EX awards spring immediately to mind – and, if your office tends to get quiet or even go dark around the holiday season, this is the perfect time to start planning your entry and organizing supporting materials.

This February, along with dozens of my fellow pros across the United States and around the world, I’ll be judging the writing category for one of the professional communications organizations.

Judges volunteer their weekends, read each carefully compiled entry from cover to cover, make their assessment, then work with another judge who’s read through the same entry to ensure fair and objective scoring. If we don’t finish on the first weekend, we spend as many weekends as it takes.

Here are three things you might want to know about last year’s writing category (respecting, of course, the confidential nature of submissions and the judging process; all examples are composites):

  1. The field wasn’t as crowded as you might assume.
  2. At least half didn’t provide strategy or measurement.
  3. The communications projects were professionally written, but not especially creative; the entries got very creative covering up missing information, but were not especially well written.

What Does this Mean for You?

It’s worth the effort to submit good work
View those awards websites, and you’ll often see a photo of entries piled from floor to ceiling. This was not the case for us last year, and we were judging all English-language submissions (U.S., U.K., Canada, and India); it took a single Saturday, and a few entries were the only examples in their category.

Don’t assume your work will be buried by the competition. You can only win an award if you’ve entered and, in busy years, it’s worth noting that your competition may be too swamped to invest the time.

Being the only entry in a category doesn’t guarantee an award, though. Give your work a fighting chance. Make sure you’ve got all the supporting materials your entry needs to make it awardable. My post, “Crafting a Strong Award Program Entry for Your Work,” will get you prepped for this.

Take the time to complete every question on your entry (and never assume judges won’t spot what’s missing)
This is crucial because you’ll lose points for every unanswered question. The strategy and objectives you declare at the top of your entry must be backed up in the measurement section. You need to prove you achieved your strategy, and your objectives must be measurable. I discuss this in detail in the post, “Writing Your Entry: How to Make Your Work Competitive this Awards Season.” (This is a very long post; it guides you through the most important questions on an entry form with advice for writing a complete and compelling entry.)

Sometimes writers (not you, of course!) try to write their way around missing information and metrics. Trust me, we judges spot this every time. For one thing, measurement generally shows up numerically, while fudging an answer takes the form of words with lots of adverbs and adjectives thrown in.

In the day-to-day churn of producing content for websites, intranets, executive presentations, newsletters, press packets, and social media, we all run into cases where we’ve skimped on the up-front creation of strategy. Having a written strategy for your communications can pay you back, though, when it comes to measuring and proving the success of your program. And this is what you need to win awards.

Likewise, measurement for vehicles, such as internal newsletters, often amounts to intranet metrics and what’s in the Comments section. “Counting just adds things up and gets a total,” as Katie Delahaye Paine notes in Measure What Matters. “Measurement takes those totals, analyzes what they mean, and uses that meaning to improve business practices.”

In the case of measurement that wins awards, you’ll need metrics that prove your objectives. Saying “300 employees read this article” is counting, but “85% of the target audience could identify our three messages in a survey that followed publication of the article” is measurement.

Preparing your entry allows you to spot the gaps. If you can overcome them – maybe send out an audience survey or gather feedback from key members of your target audience, since there’s still time – you’re well on your way to understanding how successful your strategy was to begin with and how your communication met its objectives.

What won’t be successful is writing an entry that claims that your editorial board or CEO loved your website content or that a speech received a standing ovation. These are not quantitative results, and without real metrics, your entry can’t compete.

Try to be objective about your work
I’m talking about the whole entry package here. If the communication you wrote was truly great, but there are holes in your entry where clear objectives and quantitative results should be, this is probably not the year for you.

The written materials I’ve seen over the years too often are serviceable, with writing suited to subject matter, but not necessarily anything that jumps out from the pack. And, I’m not talking about writing that stands on a chair and shouts, “LOOK AT ME, I’M BEING CLEVER WITH WORDS!” When you see the real deal, you know it.

More Quick Tips on Writing a Winning Entry

Pick a Consistent Style – And stick with it! Active voice, past tense, first person are all fine, but mixing and matching unsettles the reader. If you feel odd about praising your own work, know that you are not alone – many entries are submitted by the author. Odder still is reading an entry that suggests “we did this…we developed that…” only to find a single name listed under Resources.

Edit – Not just your entry, your original work. I’m not suggesting you cheat or pay for a whole print run just to fix a typo in a brochure. Many entries take the form of Word documents. Whether it’s a speech or a blog post, the Word draft may be the easiest or the only format available to someone outside your organization. You’d be amazed how many times judges find typos and grammatical errors in this type of entry. It’s worse when you’re presented with a screen grab of the blog, and can see that the copy was corrected before it was published. In other words, never enter a draft, and always assume that a document that was painstakingly edited five months ago has magically sprouted new errors in the meantime.

Take Advantage of Lists – Writers can feel obligated to use the entry form to showcase their writing. Bullets and lists seem like cheating. You have limited space on the entry: use (allowed) formatting to make your case clearly.

Share Themes – One project I worked on started out feeling like that movie “Apollo 13.” Much of our writing referenced the troubled moon mission. Another project adopted an inexpensive brand of wine with a twist-off cap as a kind of mascot after IT successfully got through integration testing; it was a metaphor for achieving a lot with limited resources. But, folks outside these project teams wouldn’t have understood those references, just as judges sometimes feel metaphors or phrases awkwardly leap out of writing entries. If your writing has references like this, add a sentence or two to your entry that helps the judge: “You’ll find references to [BLANK] throughout because that theme was part of our messaging.”

Tell a Story – Effective entries often weave a tale for the reader. For projects that play out over months rather than days or weeks, it’s fascinating to follow the trajectory from inception to launch to wrap-up. Remember, the judges are in the same profession, and we’re thrilled when you’ve spotted an unmet need, wordsmithed great messages, engaged your target audiences, and have the metrics to reflect that.

Don’t Be Afraid of Surprises – If you’ve been at this job long enough, you’ve encountered bumps in the road. It’s natural. If you can demonstrate that you responded to the unexpected using the same strategic approach, set new objectives, adjusted messaging, created new communications, and had measurable results, then write the whole story of your success. What you’ll show is that you’re strategic, not that there was a problem with your original plan.

Best of luck to you and your team this awards season!

P.S. For additional perspective, check out this terrific blog post, “How to write an awards entry that stands out,” from Econsultancy.

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.

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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:

Crafting a Strong Award Program Entry for Your Work

I promised a post for marketing, PR, corporate communications, and advertising pros interested in entering their work for awards. While that list corresponds to a broad swath of industries, award categories and potentially award-worthy programs, there is one thing they all have in common: the entry form.

The focus here is on creating a strong entry.

Out of necessity, this discussion is going to be on the long-ish side, so I’m dividing it into two blog posts: this first one covers Preparation and The Hard Truth, while the final one will offer tips on Writing Your Entry. For those truly serious about crafting a competitive entry, I recommend reading each section, though you may want to peruse the first post to see where you net out before tackling the actual entry-writing advice.


I mentioned in my previous post that, these days, judges are looking for quantitative results. There’s only one sure thing with today’s award programs: if you don’t have the data to demonstrate results, no matter how excellent your creative or campaign, you will not win.

Set Aside Enough Time for Your Entry
You’ve worked hard all year. You pulled all-nighters strategizing the best way to connect with target audiences. You flew cross-country in a blizzard to do print check on the annual report. You gave up weekends seeing to every detail of a spectacular launch or event. You felt like you’d developed an alternate personality after tweeting non-stop for months in your client’s Twitter style.

To paraphrase that lottery tagline: You can’t win if you don’t enter. It’s a sad truth that many, many worthy programs go unrewarded because the people who shepherded them through to successful conclusions moved on to new work and were too busy to submit an award entry.

Your work deserves the chance to compete. You and your team deserve it. Your clients deserve it – and an award has the potential to boost your reputation and your client’s.

Set aside the time you’ll need to complete the advance work – client permission to enter, legal approval regarding any proprietary information (if that’s relevant), gathering research and result metrics – and the time required to write a competitive entry. (It once took me 27 hours just to gather the accurate statistics and backing documentation needed to accompany an entry – and that wasn’t the half of putting the entry together!)

One reason I’m writing this now is that some of the bigger award programs launch early in the new year. This gives you time to review your 2011 programs to decide which might be suitable for entry; more important, it gives you time to collect additional data on well-executed programs that could be award-getters if only they had the kinds of details that back up your strategy. Doing follow-up should be easier for corporate and institutional advancement communicators (who tend to have full access to the audiences they’re communicating with), but even agency folks may be able to survey their clients’ audiences with the goal of gathering metrics or researching campaign effectiveness.

Take Advantage of Early-Bird Deadlines
Perhaps the best reason to start early is the reduced entry fees for early birds. And won’t it be nice, when all your competitors are scrambling come late February, to kick back and focus on your stacks and stacks of regular work?

Time to Reacquaint Yourself with Your Campaign
Now is the time to revisit everything you developed for your campaign – down to emails with the client. When you sit down to write your nomination, you may be asked to provide detailed descriptions of the Communications Environment, Business Challenge, Research, Planning Documents, Competitive Analysis, Market Share and Positioning, Strategy, Goals, Plan, Integrated Activation, and Execution of your program. In addition, you’ll be expected to provide a succinct evaluation of the impact of your efforts and, quite likely, a blurb that encapsulates all of the above in under 100 words (to be used in case you’re a winner).

If you conducted extensive research, used those insights to drive your strategic platform, wrote detailed program strategies, objectives and goals, and put together a spreadsheet of projected media hits, you shouldn’t have any trouble. But, let’s be honest, how often do programs get that kind of attention to detail? And what about a crisis program, where you just did it and didn’t have time to document it (much less plan it extensively beforehand)?

Now is your chance to go back over your notes and planning emails, to retrace your brainstorming, and develop language around each of the questions you’ll be asked on the entry. You can still find previous years’ entry forms on most awards websites; the questions won’t vary too much from year to year.

If you created a campaign this year that utilized a brand new technology or that focused on an entirely new category (a few years ago, most programs added social media campaigns and environmental sustainability categories, for example), now is also a good time to look over the 2012 programs to see if a new category has been added to cover your program. If you don’t see it, connect with the program coordinator ahead of time to see if there will be new categories this year or to figure out which existing category is best for your program.

Better to Kill a Tree than Kill Your Darlings
I completely understand how hard it can be to watch what appears to be a video at your desk for 45 minutes while everyone else in the office is working. But, several of the larger award programs offer live webinars weeks in advance of entry deadlines, featuring award program coordinators and previous years’ judges and winners.

Since every program is different – and some have their strange little quirks, like still not providing an online entry capability – webinars are especially instructive. If you can attend a live webinar versus taped, you’ll really develop an understanding of the mindset of the judges, and you can ask questions. Take advantage of this and remember: if you need to ask the question, chances are another 10 people attending the webinar want to ask it, too, but are afraid to electronically raise their hands.

A few programs provide podcasts while others supply downloadable guides to the specifics of their programs, categories and entries. Go ahead and kill that tree – download it, print it out, comb through it, highlight it, refer to it when writing.

IABC offers an entire webpage of resources, including advice on award categories. PRSA’s Silver Anvil site provides a Search feature of previous winning entries by year and category and there’s an ongoing Twitter discussion about the awards and entry preparation at #PRSANVIL.

All of these are essential viewing/reading/listening/tweeting.

Carefully Compare Your Campaign with Award Categories
This step is far more important – and confusing – than you might think. Where might your client’s campaign for an existing product fit amongst categories as specific as Event Marketing, Influencer Programs, Branding Campaigns, or Re-positioning Programs? Did you notice whether there was a single and a multiple Event category?

Category selection is critical because once your entry is before the judges, there are no do-overs. If, during the judging sessions, the panel decides your entry is in the wrong category, it will be eliminated – completely – from the award competition. They will not contact you during the judging session. For every professional award program I’ve looked at, the judges have no discretion to move an entry to another category. Programs consider it entirely your responsibility to select the correct category for your entry, which is one reason why you’re allowed to enter a single program in multiple categories. Note that if you enter the wrong category, you typically forfeit your (hefty) entry fee.

So read the category descriptions carefully and, if there’s any question, ask early and often. Take advantage of webinars and expert resources to find the right answer for your program. It will be worth it.

A side note: many organizations honor career, individual, agency, and student achievement. Sometimes these are given out as part of their main awards programs, but schedules do vary, so while you’re taking a look at award program websites, it’s worth the time to explore all of these options.

Study Previous Winners
A number of programs share examples and case studies of prior winners on their websites. These can be especially valuable to read when they include the entire written entry. It’s worth noting that if you are reading a short and snappy write-up about a campaign, this is typically not what the judges used to determine the winner; rather it’s the blurb or summary you’re asked to include if you win. Blurbs can give you clues to why a program was awarded a top prize, but they are often too superficial to be helpful guides to writing your own nomination.

Ask Questions
If you’re planning ahead, you’ll avoid that frantic, last-minute phone call or email to the award-program coordinator five minutes before the entry deadline. Ultimately, everything about putting together your nomination is your responsibility, my final tip in the Preparation section is this: some resources may be more helpful than others.

This is not a diss on the official Contact person for these programs – in almost every case, they are standing by till the very last nanosecond, typing at a furious pace to reply to every email query, and returning every last voicemail. They are responsive and diligent. They are also official representatives of this year’s program. As such, they typically won’t provide specific answers, such as which category to enter, in areas deemed the entrant’s responsibility.

While previous years’ judges and winners are usually members of the sponsoring organization, they may be able to provide more specific guidance. As always, remember this advice doesn’t guarantee that this year’s judges will agree. Also, these folks are under no obligation to respond – as the program coordinator is – to close-to-deadline emails and calls. But, it can be more reassuring to hash out a rationale for entering one category over another with someone who’s been there before than feel like your entry is taking an expensive blind leap into the wrong category.

The Hard Truth

Revisiting your program may have the unfortunate effect of highlighting its shortcomings. Awards season is expensive and can get even more pricey when you think about entering a campaign in multiple categories across different programs. (The lowest entry fee I’ve seen is about $160 per campaign; some of the highest are well over $400 per entry, with late fees up to $195 for missing early-bird deadlines.)

Two areas that will be crucial to helping you make your decision are metrics and the timing of your campaign.

The bulk of your campaign should have taken place in 2011:

  • If you had a short-term program or event, you should be fine.
  • If your campaign launched in late 2010, but ran through 2011, it’s always a good idea to confirm eligibility with the award program coordinator.
  • If your program is longer-term and still running – or will continue into 2012 – you will have precious little or no time to produce measurements. Talk it over with the award program coordinator; these programs are best left to the 2013 award season when your results and data will make them competitive.

The good news about timing is that these awards aren’t like the Oscars, where films released in January are forgotten by November. Judges are reviewing your whole program and measuring your results against your strategy and objectives; timing isn’t going to be as heavily weighted as metrics (unless, say, you launched your big 4th of July event in late August).

I’m going to spend more time on this in my next post, but if you discover, after looking over your campaign, that your results or metrics don’t exist, don’t reflect your original objectives, or actually contradict your objectives, you do not have a competitive entry.

If, for example, the goal of an event for a consumer product was to “increase brand loyalty,” and the only data you have to offer the judges in support of your program is the number of attendees at the event and the amount of media impressions you got, you do not have a competitive entry. Your metrics are not tied to your goals because you haven’t measured how the event induced attendees to buy more product or promote the product via word of mouth.

To reiterate, there is still time to gather data before the major award programs launch in 2012. The results you need must be tied to your original program objectives and goals, so review what you set out to do with this campaign, figure out the kinds of data that will back up your goals and how it can be measured.

Once you’ve defined the data needed, you’ll have to ask yourself the hard question about whether it’s attainable. Do you have access to the target audience? Will they be agreeable to having you use their contact information? Can you gather the metrics you need without further cost to your agency or client?

The hard truth may be that the data aren’t within your reach. But, that’s okay. Even though it eliminates this year’s program from award season, it will spur you to include well-defined measurements in every future program you develop. And that, in large part, is what these awards are all about: rewarding the application of rigorous standards to every PR, marketing, advertising and communications program we undertake.

NEXT WEEK: In Part 2, I’ll focus on Writing Your Entry. The writing required for award program entries is highly structured, so I’ll provide more than pointers; I’ll share a free spreadsheet that I’ve developed which you may find helpful in preparing your award entries.

Winning: What Awards Can Do for Your Career

Whether you write professionally or for your own satisfaction, you most likely at some point have considered entering your work in award programs or contests. (Awww, go on, you know you have.)

Later in September, I’ll offer tips and strategies for corporate writers interested in entering award programs sponsored by professional communications organizations. Today, a few thoughts on the value of validation and links to writing award programs, contests and fellowships for professional, fiction, nonfiction and screenplay/TV writers.

I’ve been on both sides of these equations: I’m a professional writer (going on three decades); I write short stories in my spare time and a novel is beginning to take form in the recesses of my computer; I’ve won awards from communications organizations as well as writing contests for my personal stuff; I’ve served as a judge for professional award programs.

I have a deep respect for people who believe that writing is its own reward whether someone else reads it or not, but I’m gonna have to admit it: my ego is not that highly evolved. A journal is the place where my unseen writing goes. Everything else I write not for self-aggrandizement, but with an audience and my own skill improvement in mind. It’s likely that writing professionally from the age of 19 has shaped my view that putting work out there for others to comment on teaches a writer more about writing and helps her or him learn how to incorporate feedback and grow more skilled and confident each time fingers hit the keyboard or pen touches paper.

As a result, I think awards and contests are beneficial for writers. Writing mostly happens in isolation: you, your mind, your computer. It’s a lovely boost to one’s confidence to receive acknowledgement for all your hard work. Some programs provide feedback, which is especially helpful and serves as a guide to the judging criteria for future entries.

Awards, Contests and Fellowships

For the writer or communicator who’s eager to find out where his or her work stands with respect to judging committees and colleagues in the industry, you’ll find links to programs below.

A quick word on entering your work into any program (I’ll expand on this further in my post later this month): read and follow the entry requirements to the letter. If, for whatever reason, your work doesn’t have the requested support materials (for example, a beat sheet for screenplay entries or some kind of audience survey for corporate communications pieces), there is no question your entry will lose points – often significant points, leaving it in the reject pile. When I first was asked to judge award programs, there was a bit of individual leeway if an entry was so well done that it would secure top place if it just had a bit more supporting material. Today, judging is based on numerical assignments for both content and execution – followed by some complex mathematical formulations that give me flashbacks to high school geometry class. In most cases, more than one judge reviews the material to eliminate bias.

It’s gut-wrenching when you read great writing, but have no support material to back it up, and have to eliminate entries from the competition. But, this will happen, and it’s better not to waste your money or the considerable time it takes to put together a winning entry by submitting something that doesn’t meet the basic requirements of the award or contest.

For corporate communicators: Organizations such as the International Association of Business Communicators and the Public Relations Society of America sponsor award programs that are respected in the industry. Most of the larger industry publications present awards, as well, including PR NewsPR Week, and Bulldog Reporter.

Novelists, short story writers, memoirists, literary-nonfiction writers: Rather than list every literary journal (and there are tens upon thousands!), I recommend subscribing to the Gotham Writers’ Workshops’ email newsletter. You’ll receive weekly updates on writing contests (and deadline reminders) for fiction and nonfiction writing.

For neighboring scribes in Hollywood: Likewise, there are numerous contests and most broadcast and cable networks offer development fellowships. There’s a terrific blog, “Amanda the Aspiring TV Writer,” which provides an excellent list of links for TV and screenwriting fellowships and contests in the right-hand column of resources.

Sorry, Charlie

“Winning” is not really what Charlie Sheen seems to think it is. It’s not about using your laurels as a chaise longue or a soapbox.

Certainly, there are some awards, like a Pulitzer, a Man Booker or an Oscar, that will change your life and significantly expand your career prospects. A Gold Quill may give you short-term bounce. From personal experience, the contests I’ve won for short stories and essays (which involved publication in an anthology) brought no reaction from anyone anywhere. The professional honors, however, brought me two bonafide job offers and probably gave my resume a slight edge over others for a few years. Awards look good on your bookshelf, too, but over time they gather dust like any other tchotchke.

This seems like an apropos time to talk about winning since the U.S. Open tennis tournament is on. When you watch a tournament match, you’re seeing a small percentage of the time a player puts in. Winning is but a brief moment; the rest is practice, conditioning, viewing scouting reports, some more practice, physical therapy, nutrition, and still more practice. The day after a championship win, a player goes back out on the practice court, works on everything that went wrong the day before, and goes through the same routine of practice, scouting, gym, and still more practice.

It’s no different for a writer. It’s our constant practice of the craft, and the effort to accrue more knowledge about the work we do, that occasionally brings accolades. And then, we sit down at our desks and try to do an even better job than the day before.