No matter what you do the request for proposal (RFP) is a fact of life in the world of PR agencies and clients.

In fact, some 30 percent of all PR agency new business comes via the RFP. For many corporate and institutional clients, RFPs are necessary, as corporate purchasing guidelines often require them to ensure that the PR firm search process is comprehensive and exhaustive.

And that process can be exhausting, as well, as it can create a lot of extra work for both the client and the agency. PR agency owners are sometimes disappointed to find that the process is lacking or unfair … and learn that the potential payoff just isn’t worth the time, effort and intellectual property required to participate.  As a result, many of the best PR firms decline to participate in all but the very best RFP bids.

Bad process = bad results

Sometimes, a poorly planned RFP process involves the wrong PR firms, is imbalanced and puts a strain on both the client and the participating agencies – potentially leading to a poor client-agency fit.

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

Good RFPs are respectful

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 whether to bid or not.

According to the PR Council (www.prcouncil.net) – an industry trade group promoting excellence in the PR profession – the best public relations firm searches are fair and reasonable to all parties. They also show mutual respect for the time and creative investment required; employ a clear and transparent process; demonstrate the value they bring; enable participating agencies to begin to form relationships with the client; and are conducted with integrity.

If your company or organization is going to use an RFP to find a PR agency partner, here are the best practices you should embrace:

  • Offer detailed descriptions of objectives, needs, expected deliverables and a vision of what success looks like. This will help the agencies build the best possible proposals, as well as enable the client to evaluate and compare the proposals.
  • Share 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 highly skilled boutique firms with limited extra bandwidth, no budget information means they will not participate in the pitch.
  • Provide a timetable, steps and 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, as well as keeps everyone on a level playing field.
  • Define the selection criteria the client will use to select a partner, such as agency capabilities, sector experience, locations / geography, firm size, potential client conflicts, etc. These factors will help firms determine early on if they have the appropriate qualifications to participate, which will help streamline the process.
  • Conduct extensive research to select the PR firms that will be invited to bid. This research should include talking with other PR professionals in your sector, getting recommendations from the key media who cover your sector, and conducting due diligence online.

A few key databases that will help are:

Conducting this research – preferably done by the PR Department and not the Purchasing Department – will help ensure the right candidates are invited. Perhaps the most important factor in securing the best possible PR agency partner.

After all, if your RFP goes only to agencies that are not a good fit for your company, the entire process and effort could be wasted.

Best next steps for RFP users

After conducting this initial research, the PR Council recommends that the client select no more than eight agencies for their list of RFP recipients and suggest that the client then:

  • Signs a mutual non-disclosure agreement with the selected agencies. This will protect all parties’ confidential information and intellectual property, and may encourage agencies to share more of their best ideas.
  • Is transparent with participating agencies in regards to which agencies have made the list. 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.
  • Allows for adequate and reasonable time for the PR agencies to respond. Giving recipients only a brief amount of business days to respond to a lengthy 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.
  • Notifies, after the process is completed, the finalists about the agency that was selected the winner, and provides 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.

Finally, the client may want to consider hiring a specialized agency search consultant to help manage the RFP process. Such firms 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 you find the right one.

In closing, the PR firm RFP process can yield some great benefits and long-term relationships, if conducted properly. So if you’re going to do it, do it right!

Jessica Muzik is Vice President – Account Service at Bianchi Public Relations, Inc., PRGN’s exclusive member in the Detroit area. For more PR wisdom from Jessica and the Bianchi team, visit their blog series here.

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