The first step in composing a strong request for credentials (RFC) or request for proposal (RFP) is to understand the purposes of these two, distinctly different documents, which many people confuse.
The RFC is used at the beginning of the search to narrow down the "long list" of contenders by assessing their capabilities. It asks only for background information, with nothing speculative or creative. The RFP is used in the final stage, when the finalists - ideally between two and four agencies - are asked for their proposed solutions to a strategic assignment. At this point you are indeed requesting a proposal.
When it comes to writing RFCs, my experience managing nearly 40 PR agency reviews suggests that there are seven inviolable rules.
1. Know thyself. You can't ask intelligent questions about credentials if you don't know what you are looking for. Do a thorough internal needs assessment. In my reviews I'll often speak with people in the C-suite as well as senior executives from marketing, HR, finance, sales, divisions, regions, etc.
2. Put your findings in writing and share them with your internal team.
3. Include information about your account, organization, assignment, budget, etc. in the RFC.
4. Base the RFC questions entirely on your needs assessment. Don't ask anything that isn't relevant.
5. Include a step-by-step timeline for the review process.
6. Include a brief description of the credentials you are looking for in your new agency. This can cause some non-qualifying firms to immediately drop out.
7. Ask very specific questions about very specific issues. I hesitate to generalize about questions because, in my many reviews, no two sets of client needs have been quite alike. But here are the most important lines of questioning:
Do you have, anywhere in your firm, a client that might constitute a conflict? (Include a description of how you define conflicts.)
Given the budget and our situation, who will be on the business? (Be willing to accept a reasonable number of TBAs in response to this question.)
What exactly has been the experience of the agency, and more importantly of the people, office or practice that will be on the business, in similar situations? When was the work done?
What references can you call to get clients' perspectives on the agency's work?
Given your budget, how important a client will you be to the agency? Where would you rank?
How big is the agency? This, along with the answer to the preceding question, will tell you a lot about the relative significance of your account.
Why are you the right agency? The answers to this open-ended question can be very revealing.
The RFP is easier in terms of volume, but harder in terms of substance. Because you'll have already covered all of the capabilities-related issues in the preceding stages of your review, the purpose of the RFP is to very clearly define the strategic challenge the remaining firms must address in their final presentations. Here are the key components I always include in mine:
1. Who will attend for the client; where and when the meeting will take place; how long it will run; who to call for directions and A/V questions, etc. (Don't take any detail for granted.)
2. A description of the challenge. What's the situation? The goals? Some of the major obstacles? The timeframe? You want this to be detailed enough to provide a reasonably clear picture, but still vague enough to test the agencies' ability to grasp and solve the challenge based on their experience and know-how, rather than your direction.
3. A budget. This can be pure fiction (tell them if it is), or very real. Without a pre-specified budget you'll end up with presentations that are all over the map and virtually impossible to compare.
4. A methodology for answering questions. This can best be accomplished by having questions submitted all at once (rather than in dribs and drabs), by a specified deadline. Then each firm's questions can be addressed in individual calls or meetings with the client.
5. A confidentiality agreement if you are providing any information that is even slightly proprietary.
6. A statement indicating that solutions should not be overly tactical in nature. You are looking for strategic and creative insight, not a shopping list of "creative" ideas.
Make no mistake about it - in the final analysis, your review will only be as efficient and effective as the effort you (or your search consultant) put into the RFC and RFP. Extra effort at these stages will result in a better outcome to your review.
by Jerry Swerling
PR consultant and director of PR studies, USC Annenberg School for Communication