Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Dear CMO, Can We Say Goodbye to the RFP?

By Joanna Kulesa
Woody Allen once cracked that the reason people call it "show business" is so they can distinguish it from "business business."

I think of that joke when I try to explain some of the more obscure aspects of the "PR business" when talking to potential clients who are in "business business."

One of the hardest ideas to get across involves explaining how the relationship between a PR agency and a client ought to get started in the first place. Decades of experience have led me to believe we need to shake up the process.

Many companies still employ the age-old RFP process to find a PR agency⎯a tedious series of formulaic questions that elicit canned, mechanical answers, followed by an often stiff presentation of credentials.

Here’s the problem: the RFP process stifles the very things at the heart and soul of great public relations: Passion. Creativity. Flair. Excitement. Personality.

RFPs are like engineering specs, and they're great at forcing PR agencies to prove to potential clients they can follow a list of instructions. But great CMOs don't want a PR agency that marches in lockstep. Instead, they want PR to help their company, products, executives, and brand stand out in the crowd.

I just don’t buy a strong correlation between an agency’s ability to win through the standard RFP process, and its ability to mount effective PR campaigns on clients’ behalf. The "PR business" is different enough⎯yes, creative enough⎯that you can't make a business decision involving a public relations partner the same way you can another vendor, when a list of checkboxes is sufficient.

Then, there is the infamous ‘bait and switch’ experience, which I’m sure CMOs chuckle or steam about over cocktails together. Sound familiar?

Here’s the scenario. An agency deploys their “special forces,” their heavy-hitting closers during the RFP process to win your business. The witty, charismatic agency executive, the one with all the good ideas, vanishes once a contract is signed. In his or her place is a crew of newbies less adequate at grasping your business objectives to effectively build and execute a communications plan.

So what exactly should a "business business" do when looking for someone in the "PR business?" RFPs are from the era of "Mad Men" – they slow and confuse the process (though providing plenty of fodder over boardroom cocktails). Ditch them. Start using the tools from the age of "The Social Network."

• First, emphasize quality over quantity. Consult your network, visit websites and get to know personalities. Then, pick a half dozen or so agencies you feel a connection with, either through their web site content, domain expertise or client list.

• Remember, LinkedIn is an excellent resource; nearly everyone in the PR industry has a presence on it. Click around; it won't take long for you to find mutual acquaintances. Also, check an agency’s "clients" page, but also go to specific clients’ news pages to see the quality and quantity of media attention the agency has garnered them.

• When you have four or five agencies that pique your interest, call them up and let them know you're looking for PR help. Connect over a quick coffee or call for an initial conversation – doesn't need to be a long session; a half hour ought to be enough to get a sense of capabilities and chemistry. Get-to-know-you meetings should be face-to-face, ideally, or via Webcam if that's not possible. There will be plenty of phone conversations down the road.

• Contact previous clients early in the process to find out if they have the chops. This is standard advice, but a significant percent of the world's PR mismatches would be averted if it were followed. Agencies and clients part ways all the time, for all sorts of reasons, good and bad. Happy clients will gladly put in a good word for a former agency. And if no former clients will answer an email⎯well, that should tell you something too.

• Obviously, there's going to be a need for a big meeting or two between you and your final candidates for the job. Insist that they send the people who will be working on the ringers allowed. Keep the conversation high-level; perhaps ask them to respond to a couple of your top initiatives, rather than going through a lengthy PowerPoint presentation about what the agency has done for other companies. You care about your business. One easy way to separate the amateurs is by canned answers or worse, lapsing into jargon at the slightest provocation. Experienced professionals, by contrast, will dig deep to understand your business, the problem you solve, and the objectives you’re trying to meet before providing a thoughtful response.

• If the meeting is too stiff and formal, you've potentially got a problem. This isn't an 8th grade dance, with boys on one side and girls on the other. The whole point is to find a team that you can collaborate with to get amazing results, and have fun along the way. Oh yes, there should be laughter. Great PR and personality go hand in hand.

• Pay attention, because a good agency is checking you out at the same time. This is a busy time for PR firms, and the best ones have more work than they can handle. If an agency seems reluctant to ask tough questions, or too eager to please, they probably won’t be able to get the job done. Agencies that only know how to say "Yes" might be skilled at keeping their retainers, but they're not bringing their clients as much value along the way.

I want to make clear that just because I consider PR people "creative," it doesn't mean you should tolerate dilettantes and prima donnas from your PR team. PR is a business. In the process of hiring an agency, you'll be setting up specific expectations and metrics. If your agency doesn't meet those goals, then they don’t deserve to have your business.

It's just that in the process of finding the right PR business partner...a little imagination can and should enter the picture. Somewhere between “show business” and “business business,” there’s room for a little fun and creativity. Now, that’s just plain good business.

Joanna Kulesa is a principal of Kulesa Faul, in San Mateo, CA

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