Looking for Agencies in all the Wrong Places

By Robert Udowitz, RFP Associates

Whether you’re on the agency or client side of public relations, you’ve no doubt encountered the Request for Proposal – or simply, RFP. It’s a bane to most everyone’s existence for a multitude of reasons yet, by design, it truly is the best way to solicit PR services or respond to the need for them.

Naysayers forget that RFPs span most industries and are a generally accepted method of doing business. In fact, when done well – and by that, I mean comprehensively and transparent – they should serve as the most efficient method of agency selection.

In today’s frantic-paced communications departments it’s difficult to devote the resources to create an RFP and identify the right agencies. But how can you consider hiring a public relations firm that you’re willing to pay, say, $250k or more a year – equal to the cost of several employees – without taking the proper precautions to screen, review, test, and verify those firms?

The average search takes 150-200 hours. Surprised? Look at your clock and consider that you need to build a review team, develop the budget, draft the initial RFP, pre-screen agencies (to ensure expertise and eliminate those with conflicts), read/re-read and evaluate all those responses, schedule presentations, and then make a final selection – all while you manage your department without the agency you desperately need.

So what should you do? Here are a few ideas:

  • When searching for an agency, first look inward. Assess your goals and needs AND your current structure’s ability to manage an outside firm.
  • Build an initial search team to set the tone and goals. Doing so will commit a group to strict responsibilities and deadlines that have to be adhered.
  • Create a scorecard from the very beginning, too, so each step of the way you can fairly evaluate and compare what each agency has to offer.

Today’s pool of agency choices is greater than ever before. The large firms have expanded their services and built fully integrated teams. On the other hand, there are many good, smaller specialty firms and independent practitioners that have sprung up that are nimble and cost-effective.

The time and effort it takes to hire a PR firm should begin a long and mutually beneficial relationship. By putting the necessary time, thought and energy on the front-end you’ll become a much more satisfied client that never has to look back with regrets and bemoan your agency to colleagues.

About the Author

Robert Udowitz is a principal with agency search firm RFP Associates, LLC. He can be found at www.rfpassociates.net

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Writing a Winning Proposal

When I’m asked to respond to a request for a proposal (RFP), I have mixed feelings. On the plus side, there’s a chance to win new business. On the negative side, I’m going to spend at least 20 hours meeting the potential client, conducting research, brainstorming, writing a proposal that essentially gives away my intellectual property when I have little information whether I can win the business–or even if there is business to win.

According to Richard Belle, president of Belle Communications, there’s good news and bad news in today’s competitive proposal world. The good news is that your firm probably has the qualifications to perform the work; and the bad news is so do most of your competitors.  Belle talked about how to write a winning proposal to 25 IPRA professional development lunch attendees at the May 1 event.

“Clients know this,” continued Belle. And in fact, he added, when judges first evaluate proposals, they typically put them into three piles: no, yes and maybe. Most proposals end up in the maybe pile. Why? Because most PR professionals write a “good” proposal that only demonstrate their competence.

“Good proposals,” said Belle, “show that you can perform the work; great proposals win the business.”

So how do you go from good to great? Here’s Belle’s advice:

  • Follow the RFP format. Most RFPs ask for specific elements. Belle suggests making absolutely sure that you respond to each RFP section.
  • Distinguish yourself from your competitors. Belle suggested taking your elevator speech and weaving it into your proposal. This might include information about cost, past accomplishments–basically why they should hire you over your competitors.
  • Know yourself, the client and your competitors. Belle said know yourself and your strengths, the client and what they are looking for, and your competitors and their strengths. Ask the client who you are competing against or conduct your own research and then write your proposal illustrating how you differ from your competitors.
  • Write an original proposal. Ok I’ll admit it–I cut and paste some sections of my proposals. Belle says this is obvious to those evaluating the submission. He suggests writing an original proposal each time that addresses exactly what the client is seeking.
  • Back up claims with facts. As PR professionals, we steer clear of making “claims.” This is critical in a proposal. If you say you will complete the work 2 weeks ahead of deadline according to Belle, you need to make sure you meet that deadline. In other words, don’t make unrealistic promises or ones you can’t keep.
  • Win or lose, request a debrief. While most of us request a debrief only when we lose a bid, Belle says you should request a debrief win or lose. He says it’s important to know why you won so you can be sure to focus on those points that helped you win the business.

Following these suggestions can help your firm go from writing good proposals to writing great proposals–and increases your odds of winning business.

Submitted by NCC board member Sheri L. Singer, president of Singer Communications a PR firm designed to save clients time and money while delivering stellar services. She is a charter member of IPRA, has served on the IPRA board for 10 years (chair in 2009). She also is the Education Chair of ASAE’s Communications Section Council.