PR TECHNIQUE: When times are hard, turn to Uncle Sam

While many agencies are put off by rigid systems and daunting processes, Douglas Quenqua finds that working on a government account has many rewards.

While many agencies are put off by rigid systems and daunting processes, Douglas Quenqua finds that working on a government account has many rewards.

You needn't be Halliburton to win a government contract. You don't even have to go to Iraq. The fact is, government work, particularly for PR firms, is easier to get and more enjoyable to execute than many think. The work is generally steady, high-profile, challenging, and if you're lucky, important. Opportunities to really impact major public issues are rare in PR, but commonplace when the US is your client. Just in the past year, the government has mobilized PR firms to help with various projects, including preparing US cities for a bioterror attack and educating parents about the high likelihood of teenagers starting to experiment with marijuana during the summer months. But before you can pitch for government business, you need to be approved. Most PR firms start by getting on the General Services Administration (GSA) schedule - essentially a marketplace from which government buyers can purchase goods and services. The process requires patience and a certain willingness to get cozy with the government. "You must be very willing to provide information you'd never have to [supply] in the private sector," says Eugene Faison, CEO of Equals 3 Communications, where the government accounts for 80% of the business. "You actually have to provide the basis of your cost structure." To begin, go to www.gsa.gov and click through the instructions for "GSA Schedules - getting on them." The approval process itself isn't always quick, but getting it started can be. Once approved, there are two ways to stay abreast of available RFPs: the official way, and the better way. The first is by reading Commerce Business Daily, available free at http://cbdnet.access.gpo.gov or by searching the Federal Business Opportunities website, www.eps.gov. Here you will find listed all active government RFPs, from furniture requests to marketing solicitations. The second way takes more time and ambition, but should come naturally once you have been involved in the process long enough. Get to know public affairs staff in the various federal agencies who can give you an idea about areas where they soon may seek outside aid. Preexisting relationships among the staff can get you in on the ground floor of an RFP, many of which allow very little time for initial bids to be submitted. When it comes to the pitch, you may find government buyers are in some ways much like their corporate counterparts. "There are more similarities than differences," ventures Shoba Purushothaman, CEO of The Newsmarket, a VNR distributor that holds contracts with the Pentagon and State Department. "A lot of our clients are Fortune 500 companies and are therefore often large bureaucracies themselves. They're large organizations, and so is the government." The difference, of course, is that Fortune 500 companies are not committing taxpayer dollars to a project when they issue an RFP. And that difference shows itself in the selection process. "The government is very good at thoroughly researching an entity before doing business because of the governance that rules government contracting," adds Purushothaman. "I think you'll find many government buyers do try to find what the best service is, whereas in private enterprise it's about who you know, or what you're used to." A refreshing aspect about going after government work is the advantage given to firms that are often at a disadvantage in the private sector. Some contracts are open only to small firms, or those owned by minorities or women. And such businesses nearly always get preferred status. "What we will sometimes do is partner with a minority business entity or a woman-owned business," say Tina-Marie Adams, SVP at Hill & Knowlton and head of Midwest public affairs. "Sometimes they require it, sometimes they encourage it." Large firms are disadvantaged in other ways too. "A challenge for big agencies is competing with boutiques. Billable rates become a big issue," Adams adds. But in the end, there are still inescapable advantages to being a global firm. Some campaigns simply can't be handled by a boutique, like the one Burson-Marsteller won from the Treasury Department earlier this year to introduce the redesigned US currency to foreign markets. Seemingly everyone who's ever taken on the government as a client agrees to one thing: Get used to running a campaign a different way - the slow way. "I can tell you something that sets them apart from corporate America. They're in much less of a hurry. They take their time to make the right decision," offers Katie Paine of KD Paine & Partners. "There was a state utility that wanted to measure its trust level with customers. We wrote the survey in winter, but it didn't get done until June or July. Six months to do a survey is a lot, but nobody begged for the results. I felt guilty it was taking so long, but the time frame government people deal in is very different." "The actual implementation process may not be as quick as you'd like, because there's more oversight," says Faison. "There are more sign-offs in the government than in the private sector." One thing worth noting is that competition has risen sharply since the economy began its decline a few years ago. Government campaigns are steady, often multi-year work - contracts rarely get cancelled and budgets rarely get scaled back once they've been committed to. Plus government spending is up, whereas private spending, particularly on communications, is down. So more and more agencies are turning to Uncle Sam to see them through the lean times. "There are firms you couldn't imagine five years ago that have entered the sector and are trying to figure it out," Faison says. "A lot of them can do the business at a loss just to keep their people happy and hold on to them until the private sector revives." Another popular complaint from boutiques - and a common perception among the general public - is that large, politically well-connected companies can take advantage of their contacts to bypass the RFP process and gain the inside track on government business. But most who have been through government pitches refute that, saying the process is too public and too rife with oversight for personal contacts to make much difference, over and above the odd advance notice of a forthcoming RFP. "The people sitting in on a government RFP process are typically just one of five or six or even 10 or 12 people making the decision, so there are so many checks and balances, it makes it difficult for anything to be based on a relationship," says Adams. Which isn't to say it hurts to have Dick Cheney as a former CEO; it just isn't everything. ----- Technique tips Do get approved for the GSA schedule or a similar listing Do get your books in order. Your firm will be under the microscope Do keep costs down. Government clients are obligated to find the best deal Don't get frustrated. Government decisions come at a slower pace than in the corporate world Don't wait for RFPs to find you. You must aggressively seek them Don't think you can rely on personal contacts

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