Award ceremonies: The Emperor’s got no clothes on

Picture the scene. It’s the final stage of the Olympics gymnastics. One by one, the judges reveal their scores. After a stunning performance, first place goes to Russia. The crowds go wild.

But wait! The organisers quickly pull the athlete to one side to explain that although the competition was transparent (obviously), she won on merit and her scores were awarded by very credible judges, there is a cost involved with standing up on the podium and collecting her gold medal.

Or what if Meryl Streep was told she had won a Best Actress Oscar, but to collect it she would have to hand over a substantial sum of cash? Imagine Malala Yousafzai receiving an invoice for her Nobel prize (requesting payment within 21 days, please).

Naturally, no athlete, star or activist would show up to an award ceremony where you have to pay to play; in other words, where your chances of winning relate directly to how much money you’ve handed the organisers.

Yet in the corporate world, we have somehow come to accept this as normal?

Of course, there are some corporate award ceremonies that are truly independent and whose primary aim is to recognise excellence in their respective industries – but right now, they’re outnumbered by opportunistic, money-grabbing scams.

Each has their own way of eking out the maximum amount of money from their industry: Often, though not always, there will be a cost of several hundred pounds to enter the award, followed by ubiquitous opportunities to sponsor the event or advertise in a publication associated with it; of course there will be an awards ceremony offering seats at £300 a pop, or sometimes entry is totally free and then once you win, there is a fee to receive the award’s “official logo” for your website.

Read: PR is dead and we have killed it

It’s a catch 22 for companies. There is an implicit and widespread level of acceptance that the more you are willing to spend on the above, the more likely you are to win. Marketing teams are well aware they are being scammed, but feel pressured into participating because their competitors are, and ultimately they feel can’t afford not to have those costly logos on their website because consumers buy into them. And after all, it feels good to tell the CEO about another plaque or trophy on the way.

But by the time you have received the award, several thousand pounds or dollars will have been spent at a minimum. It’s a mirage. It matters little if your company is genuinely the best at what they do unless they are willing to pay up.

The record for me was a media company that quoted £8,000 for the use of their logo. That’s not a typo. Eight thousand pounds. After a little negotiation, the price came down to £3,000 – still a thoroughly ridiculous number “but please don’t tell anyone”, the organisers said “because there are other companies that are paying the full amount.” The very fact that they could immediately drop their price by more than 50% showed how inflated it was in the first place.

Read: How to trip the fat from your Marketing and Communications budget

Isn’t it time for someone to step forward and say what we know to be true – the Emperor’s got no clothes on.

As an industry, the only way for PR and Marketing teams to combat this is to vote with our feet. Enter only the few legitimate awards you believe are allocated based on merit and not revenue. It’s the only way forward.

Share your experiences on the awards scam in the comments. Do you agree? Or do you still think awards like this are worthwhile?


 Katie Harrington is a Communications and Content Creator based in Dublin, Ireland. Her e-book, Strategic Communications: The Science Behind the Art launched in November 2016. Katie has worked with global brands including Accenture, EY, Emirates Airline, and Allianz, as well as in the Irish parliament and Qatar’s semi-government oil and gas company Nakilat. 

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