If you’re feeling sadistic then maybe you’re here as a result of searching Google for the most delicious ways to put your PR agency victims through the RFP process.
Bet you didn’t expect that intro eh? Well, we’ve already come out and said that we’re not the world’s biggest RFP fans.
Here at Big Ideas Machine, we’re incredibly lucky that the majority of our clients come to us via recommendation. But that’s not to say that we never get invited to or even involved in competitive pitches for work.
Just like every other PR agency, we get our share of Requests for Proposals (RFPs) from companies looking for their next agency partner. Some of these RFP’s are clear, concise and informative, and establish the broader process that a PR agency RFP is only the start of.
Unfortunately, the majority are about as useful as a chocolate teapot.
Often, the main reason for a poor public relations agency RFP is that the sender isn’t aware what an RFP is in the first place, and so misses out much of the essential information an RFP should include.
What we’re left with is a long email about why this company/product is so cool and important, but not a clue as to what we as an agency is expected to do or why.
If all other possible avenues have failed, you’re feeling particularly sadistic, or you’ve got your boss/procurement person insisting that the agency selection MUST go via an RFP process then the one you send must be decent.
It may sound obvious, but sending out a good PR agency RFP is essential as it ensures everyone involved in the process is on the same page, and that expectations are clearly set.
For the company managing the RFP process, which is likely you if you’re reading this, then this is important. It gives the PR agencies that have been shortlisted the best chance of showing their top ideas and aligning their thinking to the business challenges to be solved.
For the agencies, a decent RFP saves a tremendous amount of time and effort and lets us quickly define whether we’re the right team for the job.
So, in the spirit of sharing our knowledge, and in the vain hope that we might stop people sending us crappy RFP’s, here are the six critical foundations of what makes a really great PR agency RFP.
We’ve even created a handy FREE PR agency RFP template for you at the end so stick around for the link at the end.
Section 1: Provide some background into your company, your values and the kind of agency that you’re looking for in the agency RFP
Once again, it’s simple enough for agencies to read the ‘about us’ section of your website, but that never tells the whole story.
By explaining your values, then you’re more likely to find a PR agency that’s a good fit both for your objectives and your business culture. This is important, as good client/agency relationships are built not only on a shared set of goals, but also compatible working practices.
When writing a PR agency RFP, a company will naturally focus on explaining what makes them so successful, unique and exciting.
But once the pitch process is over and an agency is appointed, then the real work begins.
Any misalignment between agency and client on either a professional or personal level may well be a reason for the partnership to fail.
We like honesty. Honesty is good, and it’s perfectly acceptable to say what kind of agency you are not looking for as well as what you are.
Section 2: Explain your problem clearly
Sending out an RFP lets an agency know that you want some PR support; that’s the obvious bit.
What we need to know is why?
This is the bit where you clearly explain the reason for the RFP.
- What business goal or communications challenge do you need help with?
- Has the RFP been prompted by a change of direction or a new product launch?
- Where did your previous or existing agency fail to deliver – perhaps you’re appointing an agency for the first time?
The more you can explain, the better the PR agency can focus their pitch back to you.
It’s not about bad-mouthing your previous PR agency. It’s about letting us know that your expectations are realistic because clients can often have wildly unrealistic expectations of what they want their PR agency to achieve.
You likely won’t be shocked to hear that we evaluate the incumbent agency’s work. What you may be surprised to hear is that we often find that it has been good and confess that we’re not likely to do much better.
The main point about this section is that you don’t need to go into great detail or share any trade secrets. But it makes a big difference from the outset to get a clear outline of the challenge, and any useful information that can’t be easily deduced from your website and digital footprint.
Section 3: Explain your goals and your target audience in your PR Agency RFP
You wouldn’t have started this process without an end goal in mind, so be upfront and share it.
Too often a pitch process can feel like a test of detective skills, where the agency needs to deduce what they’re being asked to deliver.
This is especially crucial in today’s digital media landscape, where the emphasis has shifted away from merely achieving media coverage to a more complex blend of content creation, web traffic, social sharing and consumer action. If you’re not already familiar with what it takes to be a B2B PR superstar, then feel free to check out our guide here.
Also, consider including any information about how these goals will be measured.
One of the reasons why the PR industry is traditionally weak on measurement is that very few clients ask for much more than a weekly activity report and a monthly list of coverage.
But smart agencies understand that effective tracking and measurement should be baked into the strategy from the beginning, making it far easier to show the value of the PR effort to the overall business.
Section 4: Give us some idea of the budget – pretty please!
This is often the toughest bit in the PR agency RFP process because it’s where the mind games begin.
We get it – in a traditional negotiation scenario, you don’t want to be the first one to blink and tell the PR agency how much you have to spend each month.
Why would you?
Because common wisdom dictates that if you tell a PR agency how much you’ve got to spend each month, then they’ll magically inflate their work to match that budget.
Sadly, so many PR agency RFPs avoid any mention of the budget at all. Far too often, agencies are asked to put forward their suggestion, which is about as scientific as asking a blind person to guess the length of a piece of string.
Sorry, but that’s just wrong—plain wrong.
Giving your prospective PR agency a budget enables them to create plans and ideas which are realistic and deliverable.
Without the anchor of a realistic budget to work to, many PR pitches end up aiming either too high or too low as the agency responds with PR on a shoestring or over-creative ideas that would require the GDP of a small country to deliver.
With the pitch and appointment process being incredibly time-consuming for everyone involved, making a decision based on ideas that will never make it off the Powerpoint deck would seem to be a wasted opportunity.
We know this from bitter experience. One prospective client just plain refused to give us a budget. No matter how much we asked, he would not tell us.
Graduating top of his class from the School of Tough Negotiating, he thought that this kind of psychological mind game was by far and away the best approach.
So, we stupidly went along and constructed a detailed proposal with costs that we considered were within realistic boundaries. We duly presented our idea, and he immediately baulked at the budget as being way beyond what he had in mind.
We walked away from that one having burnt a LOT of time and learnt a precious agency lesson. Never progress in an RFP without a budget. It’s a golden rule that we’ve stuck to.
Conversely, we also understand that the point of the PR agency RFP process may be that you genuinely have no idea what to spend on an agency retainer. If that’s the case then feel free to ask some agencies for ballpark numbers and be sure to get them to include the cost of content creation. We gladly do this to help guide our prospects.
Ultimately, budget discussions should be as open as possible.
Transparency on budgets should also work both ways. Ask the agencies you’re considering for their fee structure and any additional costs or charges. When it comes to B2B PR then the most likely extra cost is going to be content creation.
Content creation is not cheap and so it pays to have an open conversation as part of the PR agency RFP process to ascertain what a realistic amount is for things like authoring, research and design of a white paper. Also, consider things like podcasts and webinars.
And don’t forget to factor in the time and cost of tracking and analysis. This is essential to running an effective campaign and measuring results against the set goals – but can swallow a large proportion of the available budget, and so often gets ignored.
Section 5: Tell us what your key selection criteria will be for the PR agency RFP process
OK, so this is very much on the’ nice to have’ list – but remember, this is about writing the perfect PR agency RFP.
You’re going to get a range of proposals back, and each agency will have a different approach, different capabilities and contrasting strengths and weaknesses.
By clarifying the criteria by which you plan to evaluate the proposal, you help them deliver the most appropriate pitch.
This can also be a way of vetting agencies at the very start of the process. For example, it’s not uncommon for publicly listed companies to specify that an agency should not also work with one of their rivals, due to the sensitivity of commercial information the agency may handle.
We’ve previously worked on PR agency RFPs that required financial disclosure from the agency to demonstrate the solvency of the business, and even ones that specify the PR team be active users of the company’s products.
This is why it’s better for us to excuse ourselves from the process at the start than put a lot of work into a pitch that we have no chance of winning.
Section 6: Explain what happens next
The deadline. When do the responses need to be in?
Please maintain some reality for this one. We’ve received PR agency RFP’s with a week or ten days to go.
This is just a straight no-no.
RFP’s are incredibly time-consuming and require a lot of thought and effort on the agency’s part.
Often, agencies will dedicate whole teams to an RFP, all whilst trying to juggle client work so please, for the love of all that is good and true – give us a decent amount of time.
The final presentation
Let the agencies know how you would like to have the proposal presented to you. Maybe you would like to schedule in a final presentation in person or via video call with the chance to ask questions. Or perhaps you would simply like it emailed for you to digest and then send questions afterwards?
From personal experience, if you’re not aiming to have a final presentation, then we would implore you to at least have a discussion with the agency around their RFP and even challenge them or raise concerns.
Because we sent in a detailed RFP and got down to the final three, sadly, we never got selected, and when we received feedback, the minor concerns were all things that we could have corrected or addressed to ‘maybe’ win.
But, we were never even given a chance to discuss the RFP or the client’s areas of concern versus another agency. It was like a sealed bid. Frustrating, to say the least.
Does the RFP presentation need to be in a particular format?
Tell us how you would like to receive the final RFP. Maybe a Powerpoint presentation? Word Doc? Hey, perhaps you want it on ancient Egyptian parchment?
Who’s the point person throughout the process?
Its’s always good when there is a clear, main point of contact throughout the PR agency RFP process. From our experience, there can often be a lot of questions. This is why it’s really useful to let the participating agencies know that that you’re happy to field any and all RFP questions that they may have and perhaps even offer them a call to discuss the RFP in more detail.
When will the final decision be made?
The best RFP’s we’ve seen tend to have a very clearly defined process with the deadline for when things will happen and be decided. Ideally, you would provide a clear view of the milestones in the process.
Give the agencies a clear series of dates and deadlines and try to stick to them. If there are any delays then please let them know so they don’t have to chase you.
How will the final feedback be given?
In the words of the mobile Highlander “The can be only one!” – same goes for the PR agency RFP process. Because the agencies involved have likely spent a LOT of time pulling their response together, giving them full and frank feedback is essential.
We’ve had some really bad experiences with the RFP process where the work has gone in, we’ve presented and then been met with a wall of silence.
Please, don’t ever ghost PR agencies. It’s just about the worst thing you can do when they have made so much effort as part of the RFP process.
Believe us, most PR agencies have thick skin, and the better ones want to receive detailed feedback, good or bad and have likely heard it all before. By giving them detailed and structured feedback, then they can learn for the next time. I know that we always do.
Scheduling in a structured feedback session at the end of the process for the unsuccessful candidates also looks good and professional and shows the agencies that you value their efforts.
Remember, there are no hard and fast rules for what a PR agency RFP looks like and what it contains. But having seen plenty of them over the years the best ones have been clear, concise and honest. By including information that follows these headings – as well as asking direct questions of the agency itself – you can save a considerable amount of time and effort, and give yourself the best chance of receiving a great response. The right agency with the right plan can have a real effect on the success of a business. So make sure that plan for success starts with a good PR agency RFP.
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