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