By Debby Charnes-Vallejo
Vice President, Bromley Communications
Americans can be rather insulated, oftentimes not thinking beyond our borders. For decades, we have been bombarded with “buy American” messages. This last presidential election season we heard “this is the best country in the world,” in almost every debate.
I am proud to be an American. As proof, I have chosen to live here, after having resided in other countries. But those flag waving commentaries make me uneasy. I hear condescension in the speaker’s voice. While I don’t mind when someone says “Chicago has the best deep dish pizza,” or “San Antonio has the best prickly pear margaritas,” there are very few people who have the knowledge, experience and understanding to claim which country is best, and why.
Throughout my nearly 30-year career that has focused primarily on U.S. Hispanic and Latin American communications, I have tried to maintain a sense of openness and neutrality, yet, it is impossible to totally erase the airs of American superiority that prevail.
This summer, I was especially careful to put on the neutrality cap as a juror of the International Public Relations Association’s Golden World Awards for Excellence. After nearly 30 days of reviewing communications case studies electronically, 27 judges convened in Warsaw, Poland. We chose 30 category winners out of 126 finalists selected from 342 entries submitted by contestants from 42 countries.
Not surprisingly, there were excellent campaigns submitted by public relations agencies, NGOs, corporations and non-profit organizations from the United States. However, the highest awards were given to campaigns from Ukraine, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Japan, Turkey and Switzerland.
Contrary to what some people may assume, PR practitioners are not just seeking positive publicity. We are seeking a change in awareness and behavior that in many cases are achieved exclusively through PR. Furthermore, as an industry we are constantly seeking better means of evaluating results and return on investment. Most of the winning case studies, beyond quantifiable solid media coverage and Web traffic, delivered hard results and ROI, without the help of any advertising.
For example, Turk Telekom, the biggest provider of integrated telephone services in Turkey, wanted to reduce its cost of issuing paper invoices. The PR team created an awareness program to launch the first e-billing service in Turkey where the vast majority of homes are not online. Since the campaign began, nearly 1 million Turkish households switched to e-bills, saving more than 4,200 tons of paper annually, equating to 50,000 trees. Turk Telekon is in the process of creating branded forests and has already re-planted 50,000 trees, beyond the 50,000 “saved” trees. Finally, the values of Turkish society have changed, becoming much more environmentally conscious than before this initiative.
Another interesting example was from the Ukraine, where the PR team was challenged with making a history book about the WWII Babi Yar massacre of interest to teens. As in most countries, Ukrainian teens don’t opt to read a history book unless there is an exam the next day. Yet the breakthrough PR campaign placed this one on the top 10 list of best sellers in the country, becoming one of the most discussed works of historic literature ever among Kiev youth.
To achieve that success, the agency created fictional personas in social networking communities. On the anniversary of the tragic Babi Yar memorial, all fictional mates “died,” leaving a mourning stripe on their avatars and the message: ‘Hi, I am dead. Today I was killed by Nazis along with 50,000 others.’ This link led to the book’s website. Off-line, the agency implemented guerrilla warfare at soccer matches and shopping malls with bold statements on posters and mirrors such as “This reflection could be alive. During WWII every other Kiev citizen died: page 308.”
Beyond the quality of the entries from all corners of the world, what was equally impressive to me was the fact that my judging team members and I were in agreement on 100 percent of the difficult choices we had to make. The jurors represented all ages…all parts of the world…many languages…all specialty practice areas. We were diverse, yet with the shared appreciation for our craft and understanding of how to achieve success for our clients or employers via our profession.
Today, in the United States, most young PR pros have a degree in Communications or Public Relations. When I started in the field, we tended to rise out of Journalism. Among the IPRA members, there is an interesting cross section. Many do not have formalized PR training at their universities. One professional explained how his engineering background was a benefit in PR, as it trained him to isolate the problem or challenge, and design and implement a campaign that would meet and surpass the objectives.
I have always been a firm believer that the best education is on the job, as evidenced by my fellow IPRA jurors. Judging the Golden World Awards has been my summer school for many years, and I look forward to many more summer studies with my colleagues.
Notes to editors: IPRA, the International Public Relations Association, is the leading global network for public relations professionals. We aim to further the development of open communication and the ethical practice of public relations. We fulfill this aim through networking opportunities, our codes of conduct and intellectual leadership of the profession. With more than 50 years of experience, IPRA, recognized by both the United Nations and UNESCO, is now present throughout the world wherever public relations is practiced. For more information please visit www.ipra.org.
Debby Charnes-Vallejo has been vice president, public relations at Bromley Communications since 1998. She has been a judge of the IPRA annual awards ever since she won the Golden World Grand Prize for an international campaign she created for Western Union in 2001.