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 http://cbdnet.access.gpo.gov). 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
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