Checkbox PR: Why the RFP Can Be a Flawed Agency Selection Tool

By Scott Signore

We’re fortunate at Matter Communications to receive our share of Requests for Proposals (RFPs) from some of the nation’s leading consumer and B2B brands. No complaints there; we’re working on several right now. It’s certainly better to be included than the alternative.

But anyone in the public relations industry understands that being shortlisted for the agency selection process can be a painful experience if there’s an RFP involved. Like, weeks-worth-of-work painful. Senior-people-pulled-from-their-day-jobs painful – with no guarantee you’ll advance to the pitching stage.
Worse than the hours of work involved, checkbox RFPs can be a fairly poor tool to identify worthy PR agency candidates, particularly when the process is handled by procurement divisions at large companies. No offense to the procurement folks – please keep those RFPs coming! – but finding the right PR firm is a vastly different proposition than finding a typical “vendor.”

That last word, vendor, is the problem, really. A credible PR firm should be viewed as a partner, not a supplier of widgets. And the best way to find a partner you’d welcome to the boardroom (where PR belongs) is to have an actual conversation with an entity’s leaders, versus asking them to check-off boxes in a generic document designed to ferret out a handful of PR agencies that “look good on paper.”
Does your agency have direct experience in our key verticals? Check. Are senior account leaders assigned to all projects? Check. Does your firm have international PR capabilities? Check. Social media management? Check. Has your PR agency ever worked closely with local media in Wisconsin?…


Procurement departments have grading systems based largely on checkboxes such as the above, and I’d argue that some mediocre firms “get to the dance” because they check the right boxes while some truly exceptional agencies are omitted because, say, they haven’t worked with local media in Wisconsin.
In my view, the RFP process is precisely backward. A CMO or VP of marketing who is looking for a new agency partner would be well-served to schedule 15-minute calls with the leaders of the PR agencies they find interesting (or have been referred to). If the PR firm passes a scratch test on that call, that’s when procurement ought to jump in to make sure the firms have good credit, references and relevant case studies to share before being invited to the pitch.

Conversations matter more than checkboxes. In a quick call, a CMO can determine whether Matter Communications has extensive experience with local media in Wisconsin. If the answer is no, and that’s a deal-breaker, we’ve just saved everyone a whole lot of time and a bunch of trees.

If you’re involved in the RFP process, either on the business or agency side, what would you change about the current method?