Each year, we receive around 2,000 entries for the SABRE Awards competition. Most of them are very good. They follow a template for success that most firms understanding: research; insights derived from that research; a strategy that springs from that insight; execution across multiple channels, with traditional and digital and social media integrated into the campaign; and finally, results, hopefully with a focus on the bottom line. In other words, most of the campaigns we see were well-planned, well-executed and successful. So the question is, what separates the winners from the certificates of excellence? What separates the five finalists for the Platinum SABRE, our “best in show” award, from all the other winners? One of the things that makes the SABREs different from many other awards competitions is that we don’t have a rigid scoring system. We don’t believe that every PR campaign can be evaluated against a template that allocates 10 points to research, 10 points for strategy, 10 points for creativity (sometimes the creative idea is a 20). We do believe that our judges—all of them veterans who have paid for or worked on great campaigns—all have something interesting to add to the discussion about why one campaign is better than another, and they all know what good public relations look like. I can’t speak for all of our judges, because they all have a slightly different perspective, but I can talk about some of the things that make the great stand out from the good. Below are some of the questions I ask myself when I read through SABRE case studies. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an entry that could answer yes to all of these questions; some probably couldn’t answer yes to more than one or two—but it can’t hurt to ask yourself the same questions as you write your summary, and maybe change the emphasis a little so your campaign stands out a little more.
  1. Did it take courage? Was the agency brave to suggest the strategy it did? Was the client brave to agree to it? Courage comes in many forms—admitting a mistake, fighting for an unpopular principle, taking a creative risk, breaking a taboo.
  2. Was it authentic? Did the core creative idea seem to arrive organically from the DNA of the company? Was it a true reflection of the organization’s mission, its vision, its values? Did the explicit or implicit story it told about the company fit with the way customers, employees and community actually experience the company and its brands?
  3. Was it engaging? In the past, it might have been enough for a public relations campaign to deliver a message. But the best campaigns today go beyond that, prompting engagement, encouraging the audience to respond both emotionally and in some tangible way: joining the conversation, participating in the debate, offering feedback, getting involved in a cause or issue.
  4. Was it shareable? Public relations campaigns have always been about persuading people to share information. In the past, it was typically a journalist sharing with his or her readers. But today it can involve almost any audience—bloggers, influencers, opinion leaders, ordinary people—sharing with their friends, via social media or good old-fashioned conversation, amplifying the message and giving it credibility and immediacy.
  5. Was it sticky? Did the campaign lead to a single transaction or did it contribute toward a lasting relationship? Some campaigns are fleetingly amusing, a momentary distraction; others leave a lasting impression about the company or the brand, usually by making an emotional connection, convincing stakeholders that the company genuinely cares about something close to their hearts.
  6. Was it ethical? Honesty has always been important. It is even more important today, because in an age of radical transparency any dishonesty—and manipulation or deceit—will be discovered so much more quickly and punished so much more severely than in the past.
  7. Did it change behavior? There are two ways in which good public relations campaigns can change behavior. The first is by affecting the behavior of the audience (employees, consumers, voters, communities) so that they are more supportive of an organization’s objectives. Less common—but often more meaningful in terms of long-term relationship building—a good PR campaign can change the behavior of the organization and its management, bringing it into alignment with stakeholder expectations. Great campaigns may do both.
As I said, I don’t believe I have ever encountered a campaign that scored the highest marks on all seven of these questions. But they are good questions to ask as you prepare to tell the story of your campaign to the judges. They are probably also good questions to ask as you start to plan your campaign in the first place.