PR Insider: Ask the Right Questions During a PR RFP

Ristic_IvanThe RFP process can be grueling for both parties – for agencies, it can mean late nights spent putting together big ideas for the hope of being selected as AOR, and for in-house pros it can mean sifting through deck after deck without a good gut feeling on which firm will best serve your company’s interests.

That’s why it’s critical that both parties come to the table armed with the questions that’ll make sure an ongoing relationship is a good fit on both ends. As my agency, Diffusion, serves both well-established consumer brands and technology start-ups alike, we can confidently say we’ve heard and seen it all when it comes to the RFP process.

Here are the best questions we’ve been asked – along with a list of questions agencies should be asking, too.

For In-House Clients:

What’s your fundamental approach to relationship building?

Let’s face it: any agency can Google a few target reporters and name drop them during a proposal. But it’s not always about “who” an agency knows, especially if your product or business requires that you move into a new market or industry. Make sure you demand specifics. It’ll show you the agency’s philosophy to the PR person-journalist relationship, as well as how they think.

What kind of monthly plan do you provide?

Once you sign the proposal, what happens next? Ask agencies what kinds of reporting materials they provide. Do they expect your team to drive strategy, or will they set forth a plan each month? Depending on what kind of in-house resources you have, this could be a deal-breaker. And, how will they make sure there’s ongoing activity, even if your attention gets pulled to other projects?

What happens if an effort you propose doesn’t work?

Sure, everything’s fine and dandy when things are going well, but what happens when the chips are down? Ask agencies what they’ll do if a tactic simply doesn’t work, or if a promised activity is delayed. Will your investment be protected? What will they do in lieu of that activity? Just because an activity doesn’t work, shouldn’t mean that your marketing budget – and overall results - take a hit.

Who will be on my PR team?

It may seem like a simple question – but surprisingly, it’s one that’s not often asked. These are the people who will be working day in and day out to introduce your brand to influencers. Will the team pitching the new business be involved in the account on a day-to-day basis? Ask about team size, the skill level of each member and their responsibilities on the project. Make sure you’re comfortable with anyone who may be speaking about your business to key influencers.

And now, here are the questions that have helped us create the strongest ongoing relationships with our clients:

What’s your approach to collaboration? Who are your subject matter experts?

Buy-in from internal subject matter experts can be extremely helpful when launching a PR campaign. It can also be critical to the long-term success of a PR relationship. They’re the teams in the trenches, and often the first to spot trends and have the most access to client case studies – two important factors for news stories. Ask prospective clients who you’ll have access to (bonus: it’s a telling sign for how committed a company may be to the PR process.)

What other marketing activities are you running?

Knowing how a PR program will fit into a broader marketing plan is important for two reasons. One, you’ll see what purpose PR will serve, and two, if that expectation is realistic. For example, will PR be responsible for driving all sales leads? If so, it may change the way the PR plan will roll out. In addition, making sure that PR activities complement or tie-in to existing marketing activities helps amplify campaign messages and drive results.

And finally, the question that if left un-asked, could doom a client relationship from Day One:

How do you define success?

This is the chance for everyone to put everything on the table. What’s the home run? And, does your agency think it’s achievable? The RFP is the time to clarify all of these points – making sure that getting the front page of the New York Times when your client wants a profile in a key vertical publication isn’t a frustrating experience for everyone. The challenge here is that multiple stakeholders within the company may define success differently – so make sure that this question is asked not only of the managers issuing the RFP, but of C-level leadership as well.

Ivan Ristic is President of Diffusion. He can be reached at Follow Ivan: @ivanr