Avoiding wolves in the award forest

Trophy hooked by a fishing hook on white background.

There are awards we are all familiar with — the Oscars, the Emmys, the Pulitzer Prize — as well as awards that have become well known in their particular niche industry. Cartoonists know the Reuben is a coveted and longstanding award for excellence in the field of funny pictures. Some awards are very well-known in a certain industry but not exactly coveted: the Razzies, or Golden Raspberry awards, are given to the year’s worst cinematic offerings, and the Australian skeptics’ Bent Spoon Award is presented annually to the “perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudoscientific piffle.” Still others (countless others!) are scams or shams, hollow accolades dangled online simply to collect entry fees from hopeful entrants.

But without a background in any particular industry, how can you sort out which awards are actually worth a spot on the trophy shelf and which are little more than a pay-for-play participation ribbon?

There was a time when the mere “look” of a website could clue you in on the legitimacy of the award. Even now, in researching award opportunities for clients, I have come across a few stinkers that made me laugh out loud — like the “prestigious design award” with a $450 entry fee and an eye-stabbingly awful landing page done in Comic Sans font. But with so many professional premade templates available through web hosts, it’s now getting tricky to spot a dummy award just by the curb appeal.

Looking into awards on behalf of a client is more than just filling out a nomination form. We must do a bit of recon work before that step even begins!

We are lucky in that many of the respected publications in the Las Vegas area that organize awards have no fees involved for nominees. But national awards typically require a nomination fee, to help fund the process of vetting and judging the submissions as well as producing physical trophies or certificates. Some awards charge winners an additional fee that covers costs of production, shipping and handling of the awards. And many established award organizations know their PR value and charge a licensing fee to use their logo or mention the award in winners’ advertising.

So, fees are to be expected, though knowing what is typical for various types of awards helps narrow the field down. A fee too high is a red flag — but so is a fee that’s far too low, as some hopeful scammers will take a wide-net approach and try to make their product appear to be a bargain. Putting time and effort into such schemes (not to mention submitting data scammers could use in other ways!) will cost you more than that small fee.

Likewise, nearly all award-giving entities are businesses themselves and are trying to turn a profit rather than simply bestowing awards as a purely philanthropic endeavor. Local chambers of commerce, business associations and regional or industry magazines have long made awards integral to their mission and business model. Additionally, many large companies have their own awards, such as best vendor or best affiliate partner, to recognize those they work with. For a smaller business, getting a formal thumbs-up from a major corporation can generate tremendous buzz and great PR.

So, “Is there a fee?” and “Is this award a for-profit business model?” are initial questions to ask, and a “yes” to both does not mean an award isn’t worth pursuing. But questions don’t stop there.

Does the award copy sound more like a sales pitch, focused less on judging guidelines and submission requirements and more on what “winning” this award could do for a company or its SEO? Is the nomination page linked to similar nomination pages for every industry under the sun? Does the whole operation seem to be anchored overseas, is the copy a bit clunky and possibly put together by a translation app? Are photos on the site stock images rather than photos of previous winners and snapshots from last year’s big award presentation gala? Who has won the award in previous years? What is the history of the award? What is the history of the organization giving it?

There will always be people who will find creative, legitimate-sounding and even well-designed ways to take money from others online. Once a simple request for a $25 “donation” to a book-reviewing show led our PR team down a rabbit hole where we discovered the “host” was actually a longtime petty criminal with fraud convictions who had made the local news a few years ago with a police chase. Lately, after a name change, he had been collecting $25 fees as a foot-in-the-door means of trying to scam more out of anyone who took the bait (we didn’t).

So, when it comes to throwing your hat into consideration for awards and honors that may look shiny and fun . . . always look before you leap! Or better yet, consult an experienced communications firm to take care of the looking and the leaping for you.

Celestia Ward is the PR coordinator at Imagine Communications and has been leery of award scams ever since Who’s Who tried to sell her an overpriced, worthless book in high school.

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