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10 Best Practices for PR Firm RFPs

The RFP – Request For Proposal. Some love RFPs. Others hate them. They can create a lot of extra work for the client. And for the PR agencies, they can become crowded cattle calls, involving a mélange of mismatched PR firms who get embattled in a lengthy competition to win a new project or account.

Sometimes, agency owners are disappointed to find that the process is lacking or unfair … or that the potential payoff is just not worth the time, effort and intellectual property required to participate. For this reason, many of the best PR firms in the world — including some of our partners in the Public Relations Global Network (www.prgn.com) — decline to participate in all but the very best RFP bids.

Still, an estimated 30 percent of all PR agency new business comes via the RFP route. For many corporate and institutional clients, RFPs are necessary evils – required by corporate purchasing departments to try to ensure that the PR firm search process is comprehensive, fair and exhaustive.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, a poorly planned RFP process turns out to involve the wrong PR firms … to be imbalanced or unfair … and to be just plain exhausting for both the client and the participating agencies.

And worse yet, a bad RFP process can lead to a less-than-stellar client/agency fit … because it can attract the wrong agencies and set the wrong tone for the relationship.

By conducting a fair, mutually respectful and transparent RFP process and providing the necessary information to the agencies invited, the client can help generate the very best outcome and PR firm partner … and provide the foundation for a successful and satisfying relationship.

In fact, in a good RFP process, the client respects that the agencies have certain rights — especially to the information that will help them make the important business decision of bid/no bid.

According to the PR Council (http://prcouncil.net/), an industry trade group promoting excellence in the PR profession, the best public relations firm searches:

  • Employ a clear and transparent process
  • Are fair and reasonable to all parties
  • Show mutual respect for the time and creative investment required
  • Enable participating agencies to begin to form relationships with the client
  • Challenge the PR firms to demonstrate the value they bring
  • Are conducted with integrity.

So, if you are a client who is going to use an RFP to find your next PR agency partner, here are the top 10 best practices you should embrace:

  • Provide detail on both the size and scale of the project or account, including the budget, in the RFP. This enables the PR firms to scale their proposals appropriately and determine if they have the appropriate resources and staff to meet your needs. For many of the best PR firms – especially expert small shop and highly skilled boutiques with limited extra bandwidth, no budget information means no pitch.
  • Offer detailed descriptions of objectives, needs, expected deliverables and their vision of what success looks like. This will help the agencies to build the best possible proposals, as well as enable the client to evaluate and compare the proposals in an apples-to-apples scenario.
  • Clearly define and share the selection criteria that will be used, such as agency capabilities, sector experience, locations/geography, firm size, potential client conflicts and any other factors. These factors will help enable firms to determine early on if they have the appropriate qualifications to participate or not, thereby streamlining the process.
  • Share the steps, the timetable and the ground rules for the entire RFP process, being fully transparent and open to ensure the integrity of the process. This predictability shows respect for both the agency participants and the process, and keeps everyone on a level playing field.
  • Conduct extensive research to select the PR firms that will be invited to bid (“the long list.”) This research should include talking with other PR professionals in your sector, talking with the key media who cover your sector, and due diligence on key databases such as the Public Relations Society of America (http://apps.prsa.org/network/findafirm/search), O’Dwyer’s Directory of PR Firms (http://www.odwyerpr.com/pr_firms_database/), the Holmes Report Agency Playbook (https://www.holmesreport.com/agency-playbook), PR News (http://firmfinder.prnewsonline.com/), and PRWeek’s Contact directory (http://contact.prweekus.com/BrowseDirectory.aspx) … as well as visits to individual agency websites.

The PR Council recommends that after conducting this research, the client should select no more than eight agencies for their long list of RFP recipients.

By doing extensive due diligence here, the client can help to ensure that the best possible candidates will be in the hunt. Do not let Purchasing do just a cursory Google search to develop this list! Conducting this intensive research to ensure the right candidates are invited is perhaps the most important factor in securing the best possible PR agency partner. After all, if your brilliant, detailed RFP goes to agencies who are not a good fit for your company, the entire process and effort will be wasted.

  • Allow for an adequate and reasonable amount of time for the PR agencies to respond to the RFP. Giving recipients only 10 business days to respond to a 20-page RFP will likely eliminate some otherwise great contenders, due to pressing client commitments. For many PR firms, an unreasonable deadline before the relationship even begins is often a strong indicator that the client will be difficult to work with.
  • Sign mutual non-disclosure agreements (NDA). This will protect all parties’ confidential information and intellectual property, and may encourage agencies to share more of their best ideas.
  • Be transparent with all participating agencies as to what other agencies have made the long and short lists. This should include informing participants if incumbent agencies or agencies with previous relationships to the client are involved in the pitch. PR firms have the right to know who else is participating, especially if an incumbent or favored agency is pitching.
  • Personally notify the finalists about which agency was selected the winner, and provide candid, detailed feedback to those agencies that were not selected. Any agency that put in the time and effort to develop and present a detailed proposal has earned the right to understand why they were not chosen.
  • Consider hiring a specialized agency search consultant to help manage the RFP process. Firms such as RFP Associates (https://www.rfpassociates.net/), Smarti Solutions (http://getsmarti.com/), and The Mercer Island Group (http://www.migroup.com/client-agency-relationships/) among others, know the industry, have extensive experience in assisting clients with RFP development, and have access to comprehensive agency databases – to help clients save time and get the best possible agency fit. Hiring the wrong agency will be a great deal more expensive than paying a search consultant to help find the right one.

If conducted properly, the RFP process can yield some great benefits … and long-term relationships. So if you’re going to do it, do it right … because you will not want to do it over.

For additional help in your PR agency search, see:

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