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Requests for proposals: Useful or useless?

By Jason Mudd

When organizations consider hiring public relations firms, some use requests for proposals (RFPs) to differentiate between each of them. In an RFP, an organization can ask for everything from vendor background and special areas of expertise to ambitious ideas and rates for proposal execution. RFPs are, as a rule, highly informative documents.

Axia Public Relations has received countless RFPs both from established businesses and startup companies. We definitely understand the value of RFPs to the requesting companies, but from a PR agency’s perspective, these documents, when sent blindly, can be relatively useless. RFPs, while sometimes honestly used to pursue work with PR firms, are also overused as a means of determining the going rates for PR services or, worse, to solicit free ideas or tactical concepts. PR firms therefore tend to be leery of RFPs and here’s why:

1. Paper vs. person: We’ve learned through the years that the individual charged with disseminating an RFP and subsequently reviewing the responses is in an enviable and challenging position. This person may be a key decision maker charged with the review of pages upon pages of information and ideas – all while missing a main ingredient essential to all successful business relationships: chemistry.

There was a time when business was done with a handshake, and that handshake was delivered once parties met and “felt each other out” to determine a good business fit. If the fit was good, business together followed. If it wasn’t, a handshake in appreciation of time spent was the best way to wrap up the meeting. Today, a significant amount of business is done with less personal interaction, and as such, impersonal matches, missed deadlines, lowered expectations and a great deal of business lost can result.

As social beings, humans need interaction. It helps keep everyone alert and encourages each professional to do his best work – all while maintaining accountability. RFPs simply present information (and usually cookie-cutter information, at that) about what you could gain should you work with a particular public relations firm. RFPs do not deliver the essence of the firm or its staff. They do not provide the natural, organic creativity associated with in-person meetings, and certainly will not become supportive documents should you seek a dynamic public relations partner.

2. Tedious and time-consuming: The RFP letters we’ve received tend to require large-scale time tables to complete, as public relations programs consist of any number of moving variables including business goals, target audiences and shifts within any industry – all of which can make it challenging to pinpoint exactly what a company needs simply from an RFP letter that reads, “We’re looking for a PR firm. Tell us why you think your firm is the best.”

Our hope, if I’m being honest, is that you’ve contacted Axia Public Relations because you’ve heard and know positive things about the work we’ve done for our clients and about our talented team. We’re hoping our word-of-mouth value far surpasses the fact that we’re a firm that can handle clients large or small. When we receive RFPs, we must actively decide whether or not to detract attention from our current clients in order to invest in pursuing new business.

The nature of the RFP is that it takes very little time for a business to send 50 RFP letters, but it takes each agency a minimum of 50 staff hours to properly consider, organize, collaborate on, create and return a proposal. From the public relations agency’s perspective, the math just doesn’t work. We’d much rather spend our time doing superior work for our current clients and hope that the work we do results instead in positive client referrals.

3. Formality vs. function: Companies that should leverage RFPs are larger companies with multiple locations, as in these types of businesses the decision to hire an external PR firm rests with a larger number of decision makers instead of just a few. In these instances – and especially when the contract is scaled above $250,000 – an RFP makes sense, as it levels the playing field and allows each PR agency to bring its A-game, with unique approaches, creative ideas and, of course, proven street cred and experience.

By the same token, RFPs can also prove detrimental to requesting organizations given their highly formal process:

Step 1: The business sends an RFP letter to X number of public relations agencies.
Step 2: Y number of public relations agencies decide to complete an RFP and return documents by a set deadline.
Step 3: Internal staff review RFPs (for hours and hours) to determine a short list of potential agencies.
Step 4: The business distributes second RFP letters and/or sets up meetings with the top five firms.
Step 5: Once meetings are completed or second-round proposals are reviewed, final meetings are arranged.
Step 6: Teams meet to decide which firm will be awarded the business.

You can see how formal and paper-driven the process is. And, because of the first concern mentioned in this post, many firms simply deliver basic, cookie-cutter responses during Round 1 and therefore don’t often make it to Round 2.

4. Budget or bologna: One of the most frustrating things for agencies when it comes to RFPs is the absolute absence of budget parameters. When we receive RFPs without at least a budget range, it indicates one of two things: (1) The company has no idea what PR services cost; or (2) The company is simply mining data to use at some point in the future. Either way, it’s a negative, as RFPs essentially ask PR agencies to not only design campaigns, but to budget for them, as well – all without having met the client to better understand baseline goals. This shows a lack of basic business etiquette.

When it comes to tangible service delivery, most people have a general idea before they even inquire. I know how much a haircut should cost. I know about how much it will cost for a plumber to replace my toilet. Marketing and public relations services aren’t as concrete, however, as companies are in essence asking a PR firm to establish a brand, build credibility and possibly shift mindsets. That isn’t the same as changing out a light bulb. What you are instead asking for is strategic planning, and that is a far cry from writing and distributing a few press releases (for which we can give you a budget fairly easily).

Receiving a blind RFP asking us to deliver a budget raises our eyebrows … as we toss your RFP into the recycle bin. If you want us to price our time and talent, we can do that. But please don’t send a blind RFP without first understanding what your company wants to achieve and how much budget it has earmarked to accomplish that task. You may not get many responses at all.

5. Ransacking recommendations: I’m going to let you in on a trade secret: When agencies receive RFPs, many simply cut/paste information in a return proposal and send it back. The reasons this has become the norm in our industry are many, and the biggest is creative theft.   When compiled and reviewed properly, RFPs can serve as brilliant initial strategic documents complete with tailored, specifically timed and creative tactics. However, over the years, we’ve seen our ideas implemented not only by RFP-sending businesses, but by competing public relations agencies hired by those businesses, as well.

PR firms, too, are businesses. We earn our salaries by doing public relations, so when we deliver our ideas and creative to any organization with the intent of hopefully executing those ideas, we most certainly don’t believe it ethical for another agency or the business itself to take those ideas and run with them. That’s stealing! If I were to win the lottery tomorrow and have a gazillion dollars in my bank account, I’d gladly shell out creative ideas and plans for free. It would be my pleasure since I love what I do. However, as a business owner and provider working for a living, I must require payment for services rendered. Giving away our expertise, time and creative just doesn’t make financial sense. For those who use RFPs as a way of culling creative content: It’s unethical to take without paying.

To avoid RFP pitfalls, here’s what we recommend instead:

1. Do your homework. No one wants to waste time. We’re simply too busy and inundated with myriad responsibilities. So, rather than sending 25 blind RFPs, we recommend organizations interested in hiring a PR firm first do some basic homework:

  • Consider your overall communications goals in preparation for a more meaningful discussion of what your company may need. Are you simply looking for a firm to draft press releases for you, or are you seeking a strategic PR firm that can leverage its talent to build your brand?

  • Do you prefer working with small or larger firms? This comes into play if you want a specific point of contact and also want to have principal/owner involvement in your program. Larger PR firms simply cannot offer you access to their principals, whereas boutique firms will likely include principal involvement, especially when it comes to strategic planning.

  • Finally, ask for referrals. Talk to professionals in your industry. See if they can refer any PR firms for you to investigate. Sometimes, word-of-mouth referrals can, if nothing else, set you on a more knowledgeable path.

2. Meet with your short list. Forget the paper and return to the handshake. Whether over lunch, breakfast or at a meeting at your offices, invite a short list of PR firms to meet with you. During your meetings, ask questions about billing practices, dedicated hours and staffing. Present hypotheticals to determine the firm’s ability to think on its feet (critical in times of crisis, for example). Ask the agency to deliver a presentation on some of its past client successes or even how it would position either your company/organization or specific product/service so that you can determine the firm’s knowledge base and expertise. Meeting people will allow you (and your internal team) to gain a personal sense of connection and determine whether or not personalities and styles mesh. Should you choose to enter into a lengthy contract with a firm, you’ll want to feel comfortable and excited about the possibility of having the firm on board as a partner.

Axia PR understands that some organizations simply prefer the RFP process. When delivered in a viable, knowledgeable format, we often make the investment to respond. However, blind RFPs are simply overused. If you’re seriously considering hiring a PR firm, we hope you’ll instead approach the process the old-fashioned handshake way. Give us a call and invite us over to your office. We’ll bring coffee and treats, and then dazzle you with our knowledge and expertise. That’s a proposal request that benefits everyone.

jason-mudd-axia-pr-1– Jason Mudd, APR, is CEO of Axia Public Relations. He is an Emmy Award-winning accredited public relations practitioner, speaker, author and entrepreneur. His public relations portfolio includes work for established national and emerging brands such as American Airlines, Budweiser, Dave & Buster’s, Brightway, Florida Blue, H&R Block, Hilton, HP, Miller Lite, New York Life, Pizza Hut, Ray Charles, Southern Comfort, Verizon and more. Connect with Jason on Twitter @jasonmudd9 and Axia Public Relations @axiapr. Be sure to tweet and share your thoughts below. We’ll read and respond to each of them.

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Topics: public relations

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