Posted by Kailey Astor
The enduring refusal of PRWeak, the PR industry's leading flatterer and center for exaggerated praise, to confront the corrupt realities of the industry, cannot be better demonstrated than in Ted McKenna’s recent essay “Offering a considered response.” Ted sets out to give advice to agencies considering whether to respond to government RFPs; but seems to get all entangled. The reader gets the feeling McKenna was in the throes of some Thunderdome-like internal wrestling match. Good Ted wanted to please his publisher by making the PR industry look virtuous. Bad Ted is fed up with all the bullshit and ready to buff up his resume for a shot at Footwear News. (Note to Strumpette fans: indeed, bad is good.)
You can just hear the struggle in between his every line as he wrestles himself to the ground. Ted begins:
For PR and public affairs firms, RFPs are somewhat of a necessary evil. After all the time taken to research and respond to RFPs, agencies can't usually be sure they'll win. That's why they shouldn't bother in the first place, unless they're sure they have at least a fighting chance, executives say.
Good Ted: The competition among talented qualified agencies is bracing, so you have to be willing to work nights and weekends on a great proposal if you want to win.
Defining precisely what makes a winning RFP is tricky. It's not only because most every potential client and their RFP differs from previous clients and their RFPs, but also because no matter how hard an agency works on the RFP response, the decision may, in the end, boil down to "chemistry" among the potential client and the bidders.
Good Ted: The winning agency and the prospective client are going to be in the trenches together for a long time, so it’s important for the client to feel comfortable about the people they’re hiring.
Jerry Johnson, EVP at Brodeur, describes an RFP his firm responded to for work on a campaign in a particular state. It came down to just his firm and another one. The other firm, which won the contract, brought the client fresh-baked cookies in the shape of the state, Johnson says. Was that truly the deciding factor? Hard to know for sure, says Johnson, but doing something that grabs the attention of the prospective client probably doesn't hurt.
Good Ted: That cookie anecdote really shows the power of a creative idea to win business!
For the most part, RFP responders should stick to the rules, whatever they are. If they include not contacting certain people, then don't contact them, says Stephen Boehler, founding partner of PR consultancy Mercer Island Group.
Good Ted: Those government agencies are sticklers for keeping the process fair.
Wooing prospective clients should only go so far, though. For example, don't just tell clients what they want to hear. Kelli Parsons, GM of Hill & Knowlton's DC office, says her firm has won contracts that turned out to be based on flawed strategies. As a result, the firm has learned to be much more bold in providing frank counsel in response to RFPs.
Good Ted: You are the PR professionals! Give them your best counsel at all times, and don’t be afraid to speak truth to power.
Another key factor in whether or not to answer an RFP is gauging how genuine the search is. There are still issuers out there who are less than honest about the reasons for issuing RFPs, and what their criteria for selection are, notes Bob Witeck, CEO and cofounder, Witeck-Combs Communications. "I don't mean that most people do this, but on rare occasions there is a sense of potential clients fishing for things, like ideas .. and then they didn't hire anybody," Witeck says.
Good Ted: It would be a terrible shame if a PR agency gave away all its best thinking for free.
Finding out what the customer wants and expects is particularly important with government RFPs, which often come with more extensive requirements than private-sector RFPs. One cynical DC-area agency exec says in some cases the people nominally in charge of government RFP appear unsure of the real criteria for selection, which may ultimately be awarded based on political ties.
Good Ted: Political influence should not play any role in the selection of the best-qualified PR agency.
By the end of the piece when he gets to the “Dos and Don’ts,” it’s clear that this wrestling match has Ted staggered and on the ropes. Through broken teeth and swollen lips he lisps, “Check for typos.”
Yep. That’s right. Typos are the deciding factor. Well, unless the president of your agency is sleeping with the client. Then... not so much.
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PRWeek is a tool of the industry that buys ALL the ads. So is Paul Holmes. It makes economic sense. But they should stick to promotions and press releases and not pretend to be journalists. And stop sharing the slop they offer as "opinion" and "analysis." If any news organization -- other than a so-called "trade publication" -- tried to pull this off they would be hung in the village square. I've been on both sides and I guarantee you that decisions to advertise or participate in contests, dinners, etc. take for granted that those purchasing decisions influence coverage and "rankings," another load of crap. Case in point: the FCC investigation of the VNR industry. The VNR producers and the news directors -- with a boost from PRSA -- have come together for the first time NOT to cooperate with the probe (the typical off-the-shelf crisis response) but to KILL the investigation. Why ignore standard tactics? Because this is the Watergate of the industry. When people find out what's been ladled out as "news" over the last decade the ramificatiions will impact every corner of the business. So is PRWeek all over this story? Yeah, right. And regarding the RFP game, PRWeek ignored which government officials who issue RFPS and select winners eventually end up at the agency that won the work.