Wednesday, November 02, 2016

What Bob Dylan can tell you about your awards program & publicity

It's making headlines that Bob Dylan has "finally" acknowledge his Nobel Prize. And if you're a communicator, or working in any capacity for a company or organization, you should be asking yourself why that is.

The answer is not as simple as Dylan's apparent refusal to answer the Nobel committee's call or talk to the press on the day the prize was announced (or for a couple of weeks beyond that, as it turned out). But the answer is hinted at by what the Brits would dryly term the "shock-horror" implied in the coverage: Can you believe that he didn't take the call or acknowledge the award? The nerve!

The real answer lies in the expectation behind the prize, prompting a question for you: Why are you sponsoring a prize or award?

When I've asked this question from within organizations--some of them with hundreds of prizes to hand out--the answer often is "for the publicity." Sometimes, the answer is "to draw attention" to the issue or topic that's the focus of the prize. Sometimes, the answer is "public outreach."

The problem with that expectation? It's rarely based on facts. If you survey reporters (and I have), awards and prizes are the very last thing on the list of topics they might cover. If there were a box to tick saying "Never," they'd tick that one. The Nobels are a notable exception each year, but it's possible that even that organization has fallen for the attention racket. If the expectation was that the winner was going to answer that early morning call and talk to the press, Dylan didn't get the memo, and the coverage didn't go in its expected direction. A member of the Swedish Academy called him "impolite and arrogant." Dylan, when he did surface, said the award had left him "speechless."

The reporters I know are skeptical of awards for all sorts of reasons. They don't see awards selection as unbiased, and it typically isn't. They view askance the funders of awards--a common aspect, as many nonprofits don't have endowments that allow for prizes, so they raise money and get corporate sponsors for awards. Reporters, then, want to know what the funder's motivation is, and the organization's motivation. And finally, most important of all, there are simply too many awards to cover, a result of thousands of groups having the same idea at the same time.

Most awards are most effective within your organization, but have little impact beyond it and virtually no impact on your media coverage. There, I've said it out loud. Your press office, if it's smart and not pandering to internal critics, will issue just one type of press release for an award: One targeted to the hometown media of the winner, with the headline "[Insert Name of City] Woman Wins National Award for [Topic]." Asking them for more is a waste of time and effort, generally.

If we can acknowledge that reality, then we can consider what your organization's real motivation is for awarding this and other prizes. Better reasons might be motivation your members, saluting career achievements and big discoveries, sharing stunning examples of the craft, and creating incentives to invent new things. Those really should suffice, shouldn't they? If those are your reasons, enjoy promoting the awards to the audiences that really care about them: Your members, customers, partners, and allies.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Dena Flows)

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