It’s OK to not be OK

Michael Phelps’ comments last night as he accepted the 2020 Communicator of the Year title during a virtual gala ceremony summed up the spirit of an extraordinary year for the PRWeek Awards.

Under the competetive mask, Olympians like Michael Phelps struggle with mental health. (Pic: Getty Images)
Under the competetive mask, Olympians like Michael Phelps struggle with mental health. (Pic: Getty Images)

The longest-running PRWeek Awards process in its 21-year history finally came to a conclusion last night in a star-studded virtual ceremony that gathered the industry together to celebrate the best in PR.

The winners truly represent the best of the best case studies that the rest of the industry can aspire to emulate.

To say we’ve all come of age over the past 134 days since the original gala should have taken place at Cipriani Wall Street in downtown Manhattan is an understatement.

And Michael Phelps’ words describing his journey from the greatest Olympian of all time to someone who considered suicide because he couldn’t fathom the meaning of his life outside the swimming pool resonated even more starkly than when we originally decided in January to bestow upon him PRWeek’s Communicator of the Year award for 2020.

As he told viewers of his Weight of Gold documentary that premiered Wednesday night on HBO Sports, “I had to allow myself to be vulnerable,” “it’s incredible how much you can get back if you ask for help,” “I had a hard time asking for help, but once I did I found I had a weight off my shoulders,” and “I was able to look in the mirror and like who I see.”

When someone as outwardly strong and competitive as Phelps makes statements like that and commits his time moving forward to breaking down the stigma about depression and mental health in wider society that messaging makes a massive impact.

Given the context of celebrating awards in the current climate it was important for us to also recognize during the ceremony the extraordinary events during this time and the frontline workers who have kept us safe and looked after us over the past four and a half months.

Our film aired during the ceremony spotlighted nurses, doctors, pharmacists, shop and factory workers and, yes, PR professionals – because effective communications has also been an essential service and will continue to be so.

We know it has also been tough for large swathes of the PR industry and many people have lost their jobs or seen their businesses struggle, as evidenced by the Q2 revenue declines posted this week by Omnicom and Interpublic and our reporting of job cuts across many firms and in-house departments.

But there have also been pockets of amazing growth, demonstrated by other recent Q2 financial statements by Procter & Gamble, Amazon and Facebook (the latter two obviously the subject of wider discussions for another day).

One thing’s for sure, there’s never been a more important time for effective leadership defined by smart communications and a purposeful mission, and the activations, teams, agencies and individuals honored last night demonstrated all of these qualities.

To see Ancestry’s Railroad Ties sweep three individual categories and also Campaign of the Year was particularly resonant given the recent context and renewed focus upon racial injustice in America – and remember, these awards were judged back in December 2019.

Railroad Ties, produced in partnership with Weber Shandwick, combined data, insight, creativity, brand content, social media and compelling storytelling to unearth long-lost family tree records and bring them to life in a documentary about the Underground Railroad and a grand reveal to which descendants of the seven families profiled were invited.

It was moving, effective and meaningful – and it had the added bonus of shifting the needle for Ancestry.

Another noteworthy award for me was Agency of the Year. PRWeek has plotted the journey of Brooklyn-based firm Praytell from Outstanding Boutique to Outstanding Small to now Outstanding Midsize Agency and overall Agency of the Year, beating out all-comers including the agency behemoths of the Outstanding Large Agency category, regained this year by Weber Shandwick.

The Andy Pray-led outfit has also been honored as one of PRWeek’s Best Places to Work for every year of its six-year existence and, in a people-based business, that is where true excellence really begins. Big congrats to Pray, Gail Heimann at Weber, and the other leaders of the agency category winners, Stephanie Cutter at Precision and Greg Mondsheim at SourceCode.

It was also good to see the well-liked Joe Cohen and his Axis team win In-house Team of the Year. Joe and his wife Jaime are already well known as the couple who produced the first 40 Under 40 baby and they nearly did the PRWeek Awards baby double as Jaime is very close to her due date. Big congrats to the Cohen and Axis families.

Another awards gala first last night was our post-game panel discussion with jury members. Can you imagine trying to do this live at Cipriani while everyone is dashing to the bar, networking or heading upstairs to dance? No, me neither.

Chair of judges Brian Grace, CCO at Nationwide, Lenovo worldwide CCO Torod Neptune and Tupperware and Rosetta Stone director Aedhmar Hynes reflected on the winning work, virtual awards format and also looked forward to the 2021 PRWeek Awards, which open for entries today.

The work we celebrate at next year’s awards gala, hopefully back in physical surroundings, will mirror the creativity, adaptability, dynamism and sheer doggedness of a scrappy PR industry that knows how to dig in and survive during difficult times.

It will also reflect the focus on racial injustice, the need for business and brands to respond with actions not just words and a determination to make workforces truly diverse at all levels of organizations – from top to bottom.

Thanks to all of you who attended our first virtual event, your support means a lot to us and we know how many other demands you have on your time. Thanks to our sponsors for sticking with us and continuing to champion best practice in our important industry.

Last, but not least, thanks to the entire PRWeek team, from the events department to editorial, sales, circulation, production, custom content and beyond – you all knocked it out of the park last night and I’m proud to be your colleague.

Finally, remember the words of Michael Phelps as we continue to navigate these uncertain and fraught times: “It’s OK to not be OK.”

It’s something Phelps admitted to struggling with initially. But once he made the difficult decision to unburden himself and open up to third-party help, it lifted a massive weight off his shoulders. And that’s something from which we can all learn.

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