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The Best PR Agency RFP is No RFP

The RFP – Request for Proposal. When clients are looking for the right PR firm to work with, approximately one-third of all new PR work comes through RFPs.

But for many PR agencies and clients alike, RFP is an acronym for Really Frustrating Process. Because it takes a lot of time, effort and expense – especially for the client – and still doesn’t guarantee that you’re getting the best PR agency for your company.

The recommended RFP process goes this way: the client starts with extensive research to find a long list of suitable contending PR firms that might fit in terms of expertise, size, scale and approach. Then, the client has to develop a comprehensive RFP document that provides the requisite information regarding the company’s background, objectives, challenges, budget, required deliverables, timetable and rules of engagement for the process.

Next, the client has to invite the bidders, allow appropriate time for responses, answer the invited agencies’ questions, and wait to receive the proposals from interested firms. Next, clients have to carefully review the proposals and qualifications of the firms that chose to bid – this number can range anywhere from six or eight firms to as many as 25.

After reviewing those proposals, the client must then get consensus from the client-side participants and select three or four finalists for the short list. Next, the client schedules one-on-one meetings with those firms and their internal selection team to conduct detailed reviews of those finalists. Then, the client must weigh all the variables, make the final selection, and inform both the winning agency and the other participants of the choice.

Sounds exhaustive … and exhausting, doesn’t it? Worse yet, it can take several months, from start to finish.

Do you, as a client, and the other executives who should participate in this important decision, have that kind of time to invest in this lengthy RFP process?

Many clients don’t.

And even if you do, this process still does not guarantee that you’ll find the right firm, because many of the best PR firms actually avoid participating in RFPs. They see the probability of success as being low compared to the unbilled time that will have to be applied to the pitch.

An Alternative to the PR Firm RFP

Often, there is a more effective and efficient way for clients to use their time than going through a protracted RFP process.

We recommend a six-step process to find your ideal PR agency partner.

Step 1 – Get referrals. Ask other client-side people that you respect in your industry sector what PR firms they recommend … and why. Talk with the editors that cover your sector and the sales reps that represent those media outlets what PR firms they like and respect. Ask the PR director for the trade associations in your industry what PR firms they would recommend.

Step 2 – Do due diligence. Once you’ve created a basic list of potential firms, search directories 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) for quick agency profiles.

Then, for more info, visit the firms’ websites to check out their focus, experience, service offering, strengths, staff, and approach. Two key things you’ll want to look at are: 1) who their other clients are (to avoid potential conflicts and to see if they have experience in your sector), and 2) who their people are (if they’re not providing information on their key staffers, you have to wonder why).

Step 3 – Ask questions. Once you’ve narrowed your search down to a handful of PR firms, call the principals and ask each a few key questions, such as:
– What experience does your team have in my sector?
– Do you currently represent any of my direct competitors?
– What is your typical client’s budget range?
– Why should I consider your firm?

The answers to these questions should help give you an initial indication of whether or not they are truly a potential candidate.

Step 4 – Request information. Once you’ve identified your candidate firms, send out a Request for Information to the 3 or 4 PR firms that survived your initial screening. The RFI will help you compare PR agencies and provide basic information about the help you seek (outlining the key services needed, estimated budget, key objectives and key deliverables). The RFI would also include questions such as:

A. How large is your staff? Selecting a firm that is too large may mean higher fees, less senior attention and fewer results, while selecting a firm that is too small to execute your program can doom you to inconsistent effort, stress and criticism. For many companies, a smaller agency with multiple staff members can offer the expertise, economy of scale and flexibility they need, without adding unnecessary overhead.

B. What kind of resources/infrastructure do you have in place? It’s important to know that the agency is large enough to have the resources in-house to get the job done efficiently and effectively (i.e.: consistent billing/budget tracking system, IT infrastructure, online media directories and compatible software). Also, does the firm participate in an established, trusted global network that can bring you local market expertise in major markets around the world if/when you need them?

C. How long have you been in business? Lots of small PR shops pop up when times get tough or former corporate PR people retire early and decide to become PR consultants. While such executives may offer impressive experience, you have to wonder if their agency business is not just a stop-gap measure to sustain them until the next corporate job offer comes along.

D. What is your firm’s focus? If the firm offers PR, advertising, digital/online and marketing communications in-house, you have to decide if you want a jack-of-all-trades (master of none) or a specialist. Their focus should align with your anticipated needs and target markets, such as business-to-business vs. business-to-consumer, and even more narrowly, by industry sector.

E. Who are your other key clients and how long have they been with you? You want to make sure that the agency staff has experience in your industry and in your product/service segment, and that they do not work for any of your direct competitors. And, if all of their client relationships last only one or two years, that can be a signal or poor performance.

F. How will my budget rank among those of your other clients? If your budget is substantially smaller than most of the agency’s clients, you may not get all the attention you want or deserve. Conversely, if you will be the agency’s largest client, they may not have the infrastructure or capacity to adequately handle your work at times of peak demand.

G. Who will be on my account team? It’s important to know who the core members on your account will be and what their roles will be. Make sure they have the experience, the energy level and the enthusiasm you’re looking for and, ultimately, that you will enjoy working with them.

H. How long have the individuals designated to work on my account been with the agency? If most of the team members are recent hires, it may be a sign of high-turnover at the agency, which can lead to inefficiency, instability and frustration … for you. You’d like an account team that already knows the agency’s policies, procedures and operations, so they will be more efficient and effective … and one that’s not looking for their next gig.

I. What’s the average tenure of the agency’s staff on their respective accounts? Again, if the agency seems like it’s continually playing musical chairs, moving team members around, your account may experience the same kind of dizzying team turnover – and you’ll likely spend more time getting people up to speed than getting good results. Some new blood and fresh thinking on an account team are important, but these are best when paired up with some stable teammates who know your account inside and out.

J. How do you determine the agency’s rates and/or fees? Some agencies bill at one average hourly rate. Some bill at different rates for different job titles. Some bill actual hours worked each month, others bill on a monthly retainer basis and still others bill one-price project fees. However the agency operates, make sure you understand what you’re paying for and how much you’re paying for it, so there will be no surprises. A good partner will be transparent and forthright in its billing, and a steadfast steward of your budget — to help you get the most bang for your PR buck.

K. Can you give me an example of how the agency helped a firm like mine meet similar challenges? While past performance isn’t the only indicator of future success, it can be important. Most companies want an agency that has successfully been there and done that. If the agency’s success story was for a client in a different industry, at least the challenge should be similar to yours. The agency’s approach to the challenge and the thinking behind it are what will be most revealing to you.

L. What digital/social media experience does the firm have? For most clients, social and digital media will play at least some role in their PR program, so you’ll want to get an understanding of the company’s knowledge and real-world experience in the platforms that are best suited for your market. (One crucial clue – Does the firm use social/digital tools for itself as well as for its clients … or are they hoping to experiment/learn on your account?)

Taking the Next Step in the PR Firm Search

Step 5 – Meet with the top contenders. After reviewing the RFI responses, you’ll have a good sense of which agencies might be the best fit. Now, it’s time to sit down with them individually to have a discussion. Don’t ask them to pitch or to present their capabilities. Instead, invite them in to talk, and ask some questions to launch a conversation that will help you see how they work and think:

A. What can you tell me about my company? Has the agency done its homework to learn all it could about your firm, without prompting? Have they gone beyond a cursory visit to your website? Have team members reviewed the past year’s news coverage or talked with editors and clients to get some perceptions of your firm? If the agency hasn’t taken the time to understand your story, they may not have the client focus you want.

B. What can you tell me about my competitors, my customers and my market? Again, most companies would prefer an agency that is eager and proactive in learning about the client’s business environment over an agency that is focused on selling itself. Going the extra mile to learn about the environment in which your firm operates and providing a candid assessment shows that the agency offers the kind of analytical thinking and candor that are the hallmarks of trusted advisors.

C. What do you see as our biggest PR challenge … and our biggest PR opportunity?
Here, you’re trying to see if the firm has taken an objective look at your company and is willing to be candid about its insights.

D. What questions do you have for me? If they don’t have any questions at this stage, it may be another sign that they have not truly engaged or are not excited about the prospects of helping you solve your business challenge.

After meeting with the finalists, and having these discussions, you will have a pretty good sense of which firm is the right fit. Now, it’s go time.

Step 6 – Pick your preferred partner and take them for a test drive. PR firms often want to sign a one-year (or longer) contract from the start. But that involves quite a bit of risk for you. Most times, it’s better for a firm and an agency to “date” before they get “married.”

This approach limits the commitment and mitigates risk for both parties, while you determine if the most important factor in the client-agency relationship – the CHEMISTRY – works. So, select a project, hire the agency for a mutually agreeable fee to conduct the project – and get to know each other before you make a long-term commitment.

Another option is to have the agency develop a detailed PR plan for an agreed-upon fee, with the understanding that if you later hire them to actually implement the plan, they will credit you the initial fee. This way, the agency will be compensated for its intellectual property and will likely give you its best thinking, and you have the flexibility to hire them, hire someone else, or try to implement the plan on your own.

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