PR TECHNIQUE: GOVERNMENT WORK - Cracking open the capital coffers

Every agency wants a piece of government PR business, but getting

it, keeping it, and making it pay is tough. Douglas Quenqua reports on

how to win an account, negotiate the bureaucratic hurdles, and bill for


One of the greatest perks of doing business in Washington, DC is the

opportunity to pursue government contracts. Federal agencies regularly

turn to PR shops for help with image enhancement, public education

campaigns, and any number of communications initiatives. The work is

high-profile, prestigious, and steady.

It's also hard to get, hard to profit from, and full of red tape, which

discourages many agencies from even entering the game. But those that do

swear by it.

"We watched Porter Novelli crack that code a while ago, as well as

Ogilvy and some others," says Ketchum partner Mark Shannon, whose firm

is a recent entrant into the field. "I kept looking at them and

thinking, 'They're not smarter than us, dammit. They just know something

we don't know.'"

It's a sentiment agreed upon by most firms that make money from

government work - it's just a matter of understanding the obstacles and

then working around them. Understanding a few simple things will make

those hurdles seem much smaller.

The first hurdle for some firms is to get their accounts in order. Firms

chosen to do work for a federal agency are subjected to thorough and

frequent audits, and have to be prepared.

Then there's the question of actually finding out about government RFPs,

This requires more effort on the part of the agency, as no one will

invite you to pitch for them. They are part of the public domain, but

they do not arrive at your doorstep.

The official way to stay in the loop is to read Commerce Business Daily

(available free online at This is the

government's official outlet for available work.

All RFPs are listed here as soon as they are issued, and you can be sure

your competitors are reading it.

The best way to find out what's going on, however, is to develop a

reliable network of government communicators. People who work in-house

at the various federal agencies will know about opportunities weeks or

months in advance, and are happy to provide early warning to interested


And of course, keep your eye on active agencies. For example, if you

know the Postal Service is undergoing a massive restructuring, it's a

safe bet that a PR contract will follow.

Perhaps the most onerous part of pursing government work comes

immediately after you decide to compete. When submitting a proposal, an

agency must include a veritable truckload of documentation about


"It's not uncommon for us to have to submit two- or three-inch-thick

spiral binders on background information and answers to various

requirements just to qualify as a vendor," says Paul Johnson, senior

partner at Fleishman-Hillard. The agency's federal clients include the

Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Library of Congress, and a

joint campaign between the Environmental Protection Agency and the

Department of Transportation.

Sometimes this information has to be put together in just a few


On the upside, however, is the fact that most government RFPs ask for

the same documents. So when the agency has completed the task once, the

worst is over. Like many things with government work, the best way to

get good at it is to do it time and again until it becomes routine.

"The secret is to very methodically respond to what government RFPs

require," says Ogilvy SVP Yolan Laporte, whose firm has built a

reputation in Washington for its work with government contracts such as

the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Education. "We

have it institutionalized," he says.

One thing common to all firms that regularly benefit from government

work is someone on staff who "speaks the language." The federal

government still does business in its own peculiar way, despite the best

efforts of former VP Al Gore (who many execs credit with streamlining

the process).

One of the keys to success, agency heads agree, is hiring someone who

speaks government language and then devotes his or her time exclusively

to federal work.

This becomes even more important when one considers that, unlike the

private sector, no one has to be asked to pitch the government. Expect

to be going up against as many as 60 agencies at first. Expect to be

eliminated early if all the t's are not crossed and the i's are not

dotted. Having someone on staff who will stop that from happening can be

worth the added expense.

If you are invited to make an oral presentation, know that a two-hour

pitch means a two-hour pitch - not two hours and three minutes. A

contracting officer holding a stopwatch during your presentation may be

intimidating, but it's the way it's done to ensure fairness. "We will

practice and practice to make sure that when the hands meet, that we're

on the last word," says Johnson.

The final stage in the pitching process is the most nerve-racking:

submitting your "best and final" cost proposal. Because this is the

government making the decision and taxpayers footing the bill, only the

lowest bids will be considered. Yours doesn't have to be the lowest, but

if it isn't one of them, no matter how impressive the rest of your

presentation was, you will walk away empty handed.

But nobody does government work for the money. As many hassles as there

are, three things keep the agencies that love the work coming back for


For one, the government, unlike many private sector clients, is

obligated to tell the world about its relationship with any PR firms.

Hence winning a government contract can lead to great publicity, which

leads to greater (and more profitable) business. Second, employees love

the work. "It's a great recruitment tool," says Johnson. And finally,

the contracts are lengthy (the average is three to five years) and

stable. The economy rises and falls (as we've all learned), and private

companies fold; the government just keeps on spending money.


1. Do get your books in order, as your agency will be subjected to

frequent audits if you win

2. Do aggressively look for RFPs, as they won't come to you

3. Do consider hiring someone with federal government experience to help

with the process

4. Do bid as low as you can

1. Don't get discouraged with the process. It takes time to get it


2. Don't ignore proposed lengths for pitches. You will be held to


3. Don't expect to get rich doing government work. It's not done for the


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