Few things seem to cause quite as much angst on the part of both clients and agencies as the RFP process. Neither side is really ever happy with it, and yet it is as much a staple in the arena of public relations as working with the media is—that is to say, it is ubiquitous. There is probably no single component as ripe for “disruption” as the RFP process, and yet it sticks around in its same old form, as bad as AVEs.
Among the many concerns on the agency side: the process is time-consuming, it relies too heavily on outdated notions of what “should be” included, the sense that clients design RFPs to match a firm they’ve already decided on, and that increasingly, RFPs are asking for detailed strategy and tactics—which amounts to turning over advice for free. Clients have similar gripes, but from the opposing viewpoint, such as agencies “phoning it in” on responses that feel cut and pasted from other RFPs, a lack of detail, and again, massive amounts of time consumption.
RFPs are a hiring process
Sending out requests for proposals is done to hire a firm for either a long-term engagement, or a short-term project. Companies view this as a procurement process, much like they would select a cafeteria vendor or the company that services their office equipment. This is the first way in which the standard RFP process goes wrong.
While it is true that a company is hiring a vendor—in this case for PR services—it is important to think of output expectations. In the examples above of food services and equipment, the success or failure of the vendor to meet expectations is almost entirely internal. Are employees happy or unhappy with the food in the cafeteria? Are the photocopiers being serviced and repaired on time? These are internal considerations that generally speaking are not going to impact the business goals of a company.
However, in the case of PR, a company is contracting with a firm to communicate with audiences. This is almost entirely an external function, and, when done correctly, directly impacts a company’s business goals.
A company is essentially bringing on an extension of itself, in the form of a team of people expected to carry out its messaging. Instead of thinking of this as a typical vendor situation, it makes more sense to think of it as a group hire. Making sure it’s the right fit matters—and just like hiring an individual, there’s more to the relationship than checking all of the boxes under “qualifications.”
How the RFP process can be adjusted to reflect this vision
A company rarely interviews every person who applies for a job. HR or whomever is responsible for hiring for the position available reviews applications and/or resumes, culling down those who aren’t a good fit for the position.
Essentially, a company does the same thing when reviewing RFP responses, but this happens only after PR firms—some of which aren’t a good fit—have spent hours pulling together a proposal. Some suggestions:
- Be clear and brief in describing what you are looking for in a firm or engagement. This is the “job description,” and like any job description the better it is tailored, the better—and more relevant—the applicants will be.
- Focus on skills and track records. Don’t ask for detailed plans. This is akin to asking an interviewee for an advertising job to bring in a draft plan for an advertising campaign. It makes people suspicious when they are asked to do work that can then easily be appropriated—without compensation. Asking about theoretical approaches to problems or challenges is fine. Asking for a detailed plan isn’t. Be aware that some firms that could be a perfect fit have made it policy not to respond to RFPs that require this level of detail. It’s exploitative and needs to stop.
- Consider ditching the preset forms/questions for a more open format. When interviewing a potential new hire, you tend to learn most about them and whether they are a good fit for your organization when you let them talk. A rigid RFP format is almost like giving that interviewee questions with multiple-choice answers to select from—you probably aren’t going to capture the creativity you want, or should expect. There’s a lot of discussion in HR circles about finding employees with the right culture fit for an organization. You will want the same culture fit from a PR firm. Use that as an objective in the process.
- Do a “background check.” You wouldn’t hire an employee for a PR job without checking references or seeing what their online profile is—so why would you select a PR firm without doing searches to see what they’ve accomplished for other clients, or, tellingly, what their own PR looks like? (A sidebar tip: this is another good use of a media monitoring tool.)
- Be rational about what you are requesting. I was once a part of an RFP process that required an incredible amount of detail about, well, everything. They wanted biographies and relevant experience from anyone who would be working on the account team, detailed budget items (down to the costs associated with printed materials…without any mention of estimates on how much printed material would be needed for the program), detail on each phase of implementation of the program, software tool recommendations including costs and rationale for choosing each tool, and hourly rates, among other things. The client then requested that all of this be provided in 10 or fewer pages total, with restrictions on the page total for each section. We managed it, but had to make hard choices that stripped out valuable information on our approach, for detail that ultimately should have mattered less, like the printed material budget.
- Keep an open mind when reviewing proposals. One of the biggest complaints about the RFP process, if not the single biggest complaint, is that the process often feels “rigged.” The equivalent comparison in the hiring process is when a company posts a position, but already has an internal candidate in mind for the job. They are going through the motions for whatever reasons (HR requires it, the legal department requires it, etc.). Everyone feels like their time is wasted in situations like this, and it’s souring firms on the process.
You’re either looking for a new vendor, or you aren’t. Don’t waste people’s time—if you’re opening an RFP process to satisfy some internal requirement but don’t intend to genuinely consider proposals, streamline the heck out of the process. Reduce it to a one-page form that makes the procurement department or legal or whomever happy.
This next and final suggestion will probably raise the most eyebrows, but hear me out. Include a budget range in the initial call for RFPs, but don’t require a budget breakdown. Complaints about the RFP process come from either end of this issue—some RFPs ask for a high level of detail that just isn’t feasible to provide without knowing more about client challenges, which often don’t come to light until after an engagement starts. Then there is the other extreme, where no budget numbers are provided at all, leaving a PR firm wondering if they should even be participating in the process.
The potential firm should be aware of what range is being considered, but requiring a detailed budget distracts attention from what a client should be reviewing, namely, answering the question: “is this firm the right fit for our company?” Flipping every RFP respondents’ proposal to the budget page and comparing bottom lines isn’t going to get you the right fit any more than just looking at salary histories will get you the right job applicant.
The RFP process is broken, and has been for a long time. It’s time for some new thinking on how firms are engaged. These suggestions are, perhaps, a start.