The great internal communication awards overload

There has recently been an explosion in the number of internal communication awards and it’s starting to feel like the industry is overloaded with entry options. What is the reason for this increase, are some practitioners being excluded from participation and what value are all these awards adding to the profession?

There seems to have been an almost exponential increase in the number of internal communication award competitions recently and it feels like we are nearing the point of saturation and overload. Barely, a week goes by when I don’t see posts in my social media feeds of ecstatic internal communicators receiving a ’gong’ for something or other, announcements of shortlisted entries and promotional messages to ‘get your award entries in now or miss out’.

If you ‘missed out’ this time you won’t be disappointed for long because there will be another internal communication awards competition along very soon which you can enter instead.

I’m curious about why this increase in the number of award competitions has developed so quickly and what, if anything, it’s adding to the internal communications profession. Clearly the multiplicity of awards competitions and the huge number of entry categories within them wouldn’t exist if practitioners weren’t entering. I decided to ask the audience why internal communicators and their organisations did and didn’t enter award competitions with a couple of Twitter polls.

Now, a Twitter poll is not exactly the most scientific way to conduct a piece of audience insight and certain market researchers I know would frown on this as a method to gather data and draw conclusions. However, despite the limitations, I do think that the results of my humble polls provide a small glimpse into the reasons why internal communicators do and don’t enter awards. If anyone’s looking for a bigger internal communications research project to build on my basic findings, this could be a really great topic.

There are some things in the results that make me feel very uncomfortable about the whole awards culture which has exploded over the last few years in our industry. There are apparent barriers to participation and recognition for some internal communicators and I think that we should not be overlooking the need for awards promoters to address these barriers and widen participation for those who want to.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the poll results and why you think internal communicators have responded in this way. Here’s a few of my mine. This is quite a long blog, but please stick with it because there is an important punchline.

A simple thank you

It seems that the biggest proportion of internal communicators who enter awards do so because they want recognition. This finding does resound with me, because being an internal communicator is a tough job and it’s not often that we get thanked within organisations for the great work that we do. As a result we sometimes crave a little praise and as we don’t get that often enough internally it drives us to look elsewhere, to an ever increasing number of award competitions and other external sources of validation.

I’d say that over my 20 years working in communication roles I’ve received far more criticism than praise. Everyone seems to think they are a communications expert and are more than willing to share how they think you’re getting it wrong and how they could do it better. As a result I have developed broad shoulders and a thick skin, but it lifts the soul when you get a simple ‘thank you’ from your audience as I did the other day for (of all things) some Brexit communications I’d written. Apparently they were spot on.

It would be nice if people just said thank you a bit more often, then maybe we wouldn’t need such a large number of awards to enter to get the dopamine hit that comes with a little recognition.

My stuff’s as good as yours

A couple of internal communicators got in touch with me to say that they had voted for the recognition option in the poll, but that their response was more nuanced than this. They see awards as an opportunity to benchmark their work against other high performers in the industry. I think this is perfectly reasonable as long as you recognise the limitations of the awards environment for doing that. You are only being bench marked against others who have self selected to enter, and a much smaller subset of the broader industry which may not be entirely representative of the whole.

Any benchmarking outcomes in the form of being shortlisted or a winner can therefore only ever be indicative and not conclusive. I think it’s important to be transparent about this limitation when promoting the fact that you are an award winner in any context, and not just in internal communications.       

Only a few seem to want to share

I suppose I was a bit disappointed that only 18% of respondents said they entered to share best practice. Looking on the brighter side, hopefully that’s also a secondary reason why the other categories of respondents enter too (you can only respond to one option in a Twitter poll), but I still think it’s worth taking this at face value and commenting.

I think that sharing best practice is the single biggest benefit our industry could reap from this explosion in the number of internal communication awards. The potential to add meaningful and useful content to our collective body of knowledge is huge. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening in the way that it should.

Last year I volunteered to review a large number of resources available to internal communicators for continuing professional development (CPD). A significant proportion of those resources were winning case studies from award competitions, and in my research for this blog I’ve reviewed more from a variety of sources. Believe me, there is no shortage of them!

Whilst the relevance to internal communications practice was apparent, the quality of these case studies as a CPD resource for learning and development is predominantly poor. This is mainly because the case studies are light on detail and heavy on generalisations and descriptions of outputs. Now, I’m not saying that these summary accounts of award winning entries are entirely worthless. Reading them may spark ideas about how to solve a similar problem or develop a related communications campaign, but with the nuts and bolts of practice stripped out, working out exactly ‘how’ these great successes were achieved is sometimes difficult to see.

As an industry I think we could do a lot better to exploit the significant body of knowledge which is being exposed by awards. I sometimes see a few award winners doing ‘the circuit’ and speaking at internal communication conferences and events about their entries for a short period after they have won, before they then drop off the radar forever. I get far more out of these sessions than I ever would have done by reading the case study alone, but award winners could do more.

Being a good IC Citizen

For those who have the ability to enter and win awards, I would suggest that it is incumbent on them to be a good ‘IC Citizen’ and give something back to the profession in return for the recognition they have received. If you are shortlisted or a winner, consider speaking at an event, writing a blog or a best practice guide, developing a workshop or even inviting other practitioners into your organisation to find out first-hand how you practice great internal communication.

Internal communication is seen as a generous profession and there are many ways which award winners could demonstrate this generosity to share their knowledge with others who may have smaller budgets, limited time and lower levels of expertise. This would help raise standards more generally across the profession. The case study accounts of winning entries which are currently available are just not doing that.            

It’s just business

Some respondents said that they entered awards to gain business publicity. I understand the potential commercial and reputational advantages that being shortlisted for, and winning an award, may confer. However, I would reference again my earlier comments on benchmarking and the need to be transparent about the limitations and context of awards when leveraging being a winner in marketing to attract customers and business. There are some ethical considerations here that should not be overlooked.    

Having fun

I’ll leave it to you to conclude what kind of fun the final category of respondents who said they enter awards are deriving from doing so. I’m not sure entering an award would be my first choice to have some fun, but we are all different.

Barriers to entry

I suppose it was of no real surprise to me that the biggest reasons why internal communicators and their organisations don’t enter awards is because of lack of time and money. In the past, I’ve worked in the public sector where budgets are tight and it just feels completely inappropriate to ask for money from public funds to cover the cost of an awards entry, however small that might be.

I also know many internal communicators who work entirely on their own in organisations. They are busy to the point of distraction, and it probably feels slightly self indulgent to spend time crafting an awards entry when your inbox is overflowing and stakeholders are chasing you for help. I suppose some lone internal communicators might also worry that stakeholders would think that they were ‘wasting time’ entering an awards competition rather than getting on with the day job.

The internal communication awards environment and the way it is currently set up seems to me to be closed to participation by all internal communicators. I’m sure that this is unintentional and I know that there are some award categories specifically for examples of low budget/no budget projects. Unfortunately, this isn’t addressing the underlying entry cost barrier to participation for some internal communicators.

In my research for this blog I did discover a free to enter private sector communication awards competition and also one for government communicators. Hats off to the promoters for coming up with these great offers. However, a couple of competitions like these aren’t really enough to widen participation. I’d like to see us creating a more accessible and inclusive awards environment so that ALL internal communicators have the opportunity to get the recognition they deserve and receive a ‘thank you’ from the industry.

Maybe some awards promoters could consider offering a ‘pay it forward’ option where other entrants fund the entry fees for those who can’t afford to pay them, or offer some practical assistance with the construction of an award entry. I was slightly humbled by the 9% who responded that they didn’t feel that their work was good enough to enter awards. Maybe it is, and they just need some help to see that and present it in the right way.

Unlock the value

14% of respondents who said they don’t enter think that awards add no value to the internal communications profession. I don’t agree. However, I do think that the value still remains to be unlocked so that the profession can properly benefit from it. It goes back to the being the good IC Citizen point I mentioned earlier. If you’re a winner, don’t just take the award, deliver a tearful acceptance speech and run. Think about how you could give something back to the wider profession and share the knowledge and skill that enabled you to make a pitch in the first place. Awards promoters should also consider how they could be a bit more creative to support their shortlisted entrants and winners to do that.

Finally, why have I never entered an award?

For those people who know me it might come as a surprise to learn that I have never entered an internal communication awards competition or been nominated for one (and that’s not a subtle hint for anyone to do so – thank you). That’s not because I didn’t have the budget or time to write an entry. It also wasn’t because I don’t have examples of great work or that I’ve thought that the award competitions were valueless. It’s because I personally just don’t seek that kind of recognition or validation.

If you’ve read some of my other blogs, you will know that I’m a passionate advocate of professionalism in internal communications practice and a big promoter of formal study, qualifications and continuous professional development (CPD). These are the things that give me the personal recognition I need and engender respect for what I do in others. That’s enough for me.

I believe that these are the fundamental components of a successful future for us all as individuals and for the very survival of our profession. Every internal communicator should be engaging in them, regardless of ability or existing experience. Awards are not a panacea to replace qualifications, formal study and CPD, and their increasing numbers should not be allowed to eclipse the huge deficiencies that currently exist in these areas within our profession.

I am not saying that awards don’t have the potential to contribute towards professionalism in the internal communications industry. They do, but for that to happen participation in them needs to be truly available to all internal communicators and a bigger culture of giving something back needs to evolve for this contribution to be properly realised.

Good luck with your award entries.

Martin

When I was writing this blog the word ‘gong’ as a metaphor for awards appeared in my draft and it made me wonder how this term had arisen. I discovered a great article which explains the possible origins of this.  

Find out more about why I think qualifications, formal study and continuous professional development are so important to the future of internal communication, in my blog ‘The growing pains of internal communication‘.

Image by engin akyurt from Pixabay

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