You Don't Want Me As Your Judge, Unless ...Part 7
By Richard B. Barger, ABC, APR
It is an unusual case if everything about a contest entry is flawless. You don't always have the original plan, materials disappear, bosses and clients are uncooperative. Rarely is your job perfect; rarely do you operate with complete information. How can you meet competition standards in the face of all this project atrophy? You analyze, think, adjust, apply best practices, use your wits and experience, and do the best you can. In this sense, entering a competition is very much like operating on the job for your employer or client. You simply do your professional best and trust that things will work out. Q: In an ideal world, I do a communications plan before starting a project. However, my world is rarely ideal. I often have the elements in mind as I do the work -- I just didn't write them down. Clients are also pretty soft on their objectives, which makes measurement difficult. That doesn't preclude good work being done. And, sometimes it's only clear after something's launched that it really nailed the problem. Does that mean the work is SOL as far as contests are concerned? Only things correctly conceived and documented should even be considered as entries? Maybe you can explain how something can be documented after the fact while still meeting the exacting standards of seasoned judges like you? A: "Exacting standards of seasoned judges like you." I'll take what probably was a tongue-in-cheek comment as a compliment and say thank you. If it Worked, Write it Down Actually, you're following roughly the same procedure used by most other communicators. I contend that most seasoned -- and, certainly, most accredited -- communicators actually DO plan, at least in their heads. Further, I don't believe it is possible to write good objectives that are not action-oriented and quantifiable. I want every project objective to change actions, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, or opinions in ways that are measurable and that affect something of importance to the client. If the objectives are stated in measurable terms, then evaluation is built in: Did I succeed? To what degree? If not, where did I miss? Why? In other words, if you ask the question in the right way, the answer will tell you if you've "nailed the problem." So, while it is best to begin with a written plan, I agree, that doesn't happen very often. However, it is the rare project that begins without planning. If you planned, you certainly can set the planning process, the thought process, down on paper in the competition's Statement of Objectives and Results. And that's what competitions want. Clean Up the Fuzz As for those stupid clients, take a suggestion from a guy who's been around long enough to have accumulated quite a bit of gray in his beard -- and added a lot to the hair of his partner and others: Guide them, counsel them, educate them. Drag them along, kicking and screaming. If their objectives are fuzzy, stop them, go into your experienced communicator-counselor-advisor to management role and lead them to proper procedure. Don't accept soft objectives, for, if they don't know precisely what they are trying to accomplish, how will you -- or they -- know when you get there? Anyway, with that as background, the answer is, Of course you can enter this type of project in a competition. You're not developing the PLAN after the project is done, you're just writing down the responses to the contest organizer's questions at that point. The plan already was formulated. I don't recall ever seeing a requirement that the submission include an original, time-stamped planning document that precedes the initiation of the project. If you supply me what the Call for Entries asks for in a reasonable manner, and your explanations and logic make sense, that's probably good enough for this judge. Q: I continue to lobby for evaluation, which is my bugaboo. Once clients have collateral in hand, they seem to lose all interest in seeing if it works, and it can be difficult for me to evaluate it without their participation. A: Try to build evaluation in when you pitch the project. Some of the more thoughtful companies always include 20 percent of their communications budget for formal evaluation. They want to know if they hit their objectives, if there was a positive business result, and, if not, why not and what they could do to improve their outcomes in the future. Perhaps you can sell them on this best practices approach. Even if you can only do informal or qualitative measures, they are far better than nothing. Anyway, if you write quantifiable objectives, you'll often know the degree of success when the project is complete -- the proof is in the outcome itself. If you choose your objectives carefully and evaluate informally, "participation" of the client may be less of an issue. However, selling them on the value for future planning is the better course, when you can get it done. Be the expert; do your job; show them the proper way and why it makes good business sense. I'm Imperfect. Do I Still Have a Chance With You? Materials disappeared? No originals? Pieces are oversized and unmailable? Your company believes some portions of the submission are proprietary? Just explain. Let the judge know why your submission is less than complete or imperfect. Don't do hand-waving; just offer a clear, well-written, logical explanation. As a judge, I understand when the department secretary inadvertently sent out the last original and you have to submit a photocopy. As long as what you submit is the highest-quality, best representation of your work that's available under the circumstances, I'll usually be understanding. But tell me what happened, so that I don't get in a hurry and just think you submitted poor-quality or incomplete work.
I have a little mnemonic that I use on almost every project. Even if I don't write out a plan, I rarely do client work without thinking about issues, objectives, publics, stakes, messages, media, timetable, measurement, and budget, before developing communication elements or tactics. It's a thought process that works very well on the job, and it certainly is a good guide for presenting a contest entry or accreditation portfolio. Tune in next time for my moronic mnemonic in the final installment of " You Don't Want Me As Your Judge, Unless ..."