By David McCulloch, PRSA-Silicon Valley President and Cisco Director of Corporate Communications
Right, gather around. Here’s how you win a PRWeek Award. OK, actually, I immediately need to disavow you of the notion that I am an expert in winning those coveted accolades. Sadly, I’m not.
I did have the honor of collecting three prizes on behalf of Cisco at last Thursday’s PRWeek Awards in New York, but I’ve been writing PR Week Award entries (and Saber and Anvil Award entries) for the past 15 years and this was the first time a team of mine had won in any of the ‘big’ categories (In-House Team of the Year, Corporate Brand Campaign of the Year, and the overall Campaign of the Year).
It was a huge thrill to mount the stage (without tripping over any evening wear) and collect those trophies, but as I traveled back to San Francisco on a snow-delayed flight, I couldn’t help wondering: Did we just get lucky? Did the judges at PRWeek take pity on me after all those fruitless years, or did I finally figure out the magic formula?
Only editor-in-chief Steve Barrett and the judges really know the answer to those questions, but while the ingredients of Cisco’s 2013 winning campaign submissions are fresh in my mind, I thought I’d offer them up to you here:
Of the many award entries I’ve submitted through the years, the two most successful (Cisco included) demonstrated a hard impact on the valuation of the company. At Cisco, our stock price improved 25% during the course of the campaign period, while direct competitors saw declines. Yes, many factors contributed to that rise, but PR was among them. For NXP Semiconductors (another successful submission), the Text 100 team I led was able to point to the (then) highest private equity valuation of a semiconductor company when KKR, Silver Lake and AlpInvest bought NXP from Philips for $4.4Bn. Bottom line: if you can’t demonstrate an enhanced valuation, revenue growth, cost savings, improved customer loyalty, or something equally impactful (like saving lives or rebuilding communities), then you probably don’t have a winning entry (yet).
Most of us in Silicon Valley work in, or for, technology companies. Naturally, we all know the difference between a SAN, an API, and a CPU, but frankly the rest of America thinks we’re a bit odd…and doesn’t. That, I suspect, is why our entries lose year-after-year to campaigns run by cat food and insurance companies. Everyone understands what cat food is, and we all have insurance for something. Almost no-one knows what a SAN is. So, if you can possibly avoid it, don’t mention the technology, just talk about what it (very simply) does for customers, and how you did an amazing job bringing it to their attention.
Where do you find the time? I know, I know, it seems impossible to try anything new when you’re waging a daily war with an army of press release requestors, but you have to, if you are to win awards. For Cisco, research into how consumers use the Internet (on the move, in bed, all the time…) gave us fresh ways to make our company interesting. We wrote quirky survey questions comparing managing cloud computing projects to having a root canal. Guess what? People took notice. Yes, in some cases we spent tens of thousands of dollars on research, but in other cases, all the hard work was done in-house, and the creativity was always free-of-charge.
What is it we always tell our executives during media training? A good story contains drama, villains, data, controversy, colorful sound bites, analogies anyone can relate to… But how often do we incorporate all of those elements into our award entries? Cisco’s journey was genuinely full of drama these past 18 months, but capturing the headlines (“Everyone Hates Cisco”); conveying how they made employees feel (by sharing data on employee sentiment), and showing our sense of humor (given Gen Y’s attachment to their smart phones, we proposed that it be classified as the human body’s 207th bone!), it all came together to make our story resonate with the readers on the judging panel.
So, that’s how we did it at Cisco. Maybe it will work for you. Of course, if you don’t win in 2014, don’t blame me. Maybe the real secret ingredient is to make sure you’re sitting at Table 82 on Awards night!