The Elusive PR Prospect: When They’re Just Not That Into You

PR firms are often asked to develop proposals on spec in order to secure business from a potential client. Sometimes it’s as simple as a word document laying out a strategy to solve a communications challenge, or it can be an excruciatingly detailed RFP (sometimes known as Request for Pain!)

It also happens that many of the proposals a PR firm submits go into the infamous “black hole.” The prospect seems to fade away and is never heard from again. Frustrating? Maddening? Yes, but there are some red flags to pay attention to that may help you make sound choices when apportioning precious PR agency resources in the pursuit of new business.

The turnaround time is incredibly tight. In our experience this sometimes means a marketing team has been tasked with the impossible and is looking to PR as a life raft even though they haven’t been funded to retain external counsel. Ask a lot of questions when you see a crazy deadline to help you separate reality from fiction.

Request has been sent to a cast of thousands. Always ask how many agencies are involved in the search and ask about size of firms, location etc.  Although there are exceptions, as in the case of government contracts, a good rule of thumb is that a client looking at more than 3-5 firms is probably “idea-shopping” rather than truly looking for PR agency partner. Run, don’t walk.

The client contact is tentative and inexperienced. This may signal a disconnect between the manager or director looking for a PR firm and the more junior person they have tasked to act as a clearinghouse. There is potential for a real mismatch and you may never learn why your proposal failed to make it up the chain. Try to get a conversation with the most senior person on the team as early in the process as you can.

The budget is ridiculously low or ridiculously high. Unrealistic expectations usually drive this conundrum. If your PR agency is in love with the project – it’s a premiere brand, it fills a category niche you have coveted – and you can find a comfortable approach to working on it, go for it. Important side note: if there is no budget, that is an enormous red flag. Perhaps these are people who haven’t thought out what PR will cost them and need to be educated before seeking proposals.

The prospect has been through a series of agencies. There’s an opportunity for your agency to be the one with the magic formula for success with this client. Just know that your days are numbered, as this leopard rarely changes its spots. If you’re privy to any of the agencies who were employed before you, check out the prospect with them for some inside scoop.

Preparing the Perfect RFP: Tips From A Top PR Agency

As a PR agency professional, I’ve grappled with a fair share of requests for proposals, better known as RFPs. These documents can create excitement inside an agency, but since they often require an “all hands on deck” approach and usually include several PR firms, they’re regarded as a necessary evil.

But the issuance of an RFP or an RFI (Request for Information, which typically asks for capabilities information only), indicates a thoughtful agency review process and, in my eyes, shows that a company is really serious about hiring the right PR firm – all good things!

But all RFPs are not created equal. Some companies don’t ask the right questions and don’t provide necessary information in their RFPs, which can set up PR agencies for failure or frustration from the get-go.

Kicking off an agency search with a well-written, straightforward, concise RFP will help your agency contenders respond with the most relevant information.

Here are a few tips.

Allow enough time to develop a complete proposal
You don’t need to give PR firms months to respond to your RFP, but providing them with enough time (read: more than two days) to prepare a thoughtful response is best for all parties. Remember, PR agencies consider existing client work their top priority (and isn’t that how you would want to be treated?)

While the “right” amount of time is dependent on the questions asked and the scope of work involved, a good rule of thumb is two weeks for response time.

Share your budget, or at least provide a range
The number of RFPs that ask for detailed recommendations yet don’t include any hint about PR budget is shocking. It’s not really fair to ask an agency to invest time in a response without budget parameters, and, the truth is, you’ll save time, receive a more on-target proposal and select a more engaged field of respondents if you outline the investment.

Keep it brief & provide some background
Background is very welcome, but the RFP itself should be brief. You can learn a lot about an agency by asking a few direct questions, asking for related client experience, and offering your time for Q&A.

To start an RFP, it’s best to begin describing company marketing goals, recent hits and misses, and what you expect from an agency relationship. You don’t need to outline everything about your company, since the agency should be able to research your PR footprint, but ask yourself what’s not in your digital history that a prospective PR firm needs to know. A change in marketing direction, competitive concerns, and prior experiences with agencies are all relevant here.

Keep everyone in the loop
Let agencies know what comes after they clear the RFP hurdle. How will you narrow the field? When will face-to-face meetings take place? Who are the decision-makers?

The truth is, when the agency and prospect meet face to face, chemistry comes into play, and that isn’t something an RFP response can measure. The RFP process helps winnow out those who would be a mismatch and offers up the real contenders. Just keep these tips in mind to make the process work best for all participants.