In late January, the Department of Health and Human Services indicated that it planned to hire a firm to help the federal agency raise awareness about issues relating to personal health information and health technology.
More than 25 firms, including Burson-Marsteller, Ketchum, Hill & Knowlton, and Fenton Communications, expressed interest in the contract.
Nearly 80 agencies said they were interested in a $13 million Department of Transportation account that went to Edelman in September 2009. A strategic communications contract for the Corporation for National and Community Service attracted interest from 115 firms until it was canceled in January.
As the economy has caused corporations and trade groups to cut communications budgets, more public affairs firms, especially those with offices in major and secondary markets, are bidding for work with federal agencies.
"We're certainly seeing names on big lists that we haven't necessarily seen in the past," says Rob Mathias, MD of Ogilvy PR Worldwide's Washington office. "When the economy tightens and the business cycle dips, we do see more pursuit of the government contracts."GSA certification
Firms have also sought to get General Services Administration (GSA) certification because of new programs government agencies are implementing since President Barack Obama took office and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was passed in 2009.
A GSA certification allows firms to bid on government contracts as a supplier of advertising and integrated marketing services.
"It's a new administration," says Molly Gimmel, EVP at Design to Delivery, a consulting firm that helps businesses with government contracts. "There are new programs and initiatives, and those agencies are interested in getting the word out about them."
Richard Strauss, president of Strauss Radio Strategies and a former radio director for the White House, decided to get listed on the GSA schedule at the beginning of 2009.
He says he saw an opportunity for the firm to offset client losses and maintain its revenue stream, adding that the agency has potential to make government work up to 25% of its business.
"I felt like we were well positioned to do a good job for them because I understood their environment and their world," notes Strauss. "It's no secret the economy has been suffering and agencies and companies are hurting. With that, PR budgets decrease. The government is one entity that seems to have money."
Strauss Radio Strategies received its GSA certification in December 2009. Fenton Communications, APCO Worldwide, MS&L Worldwide, C. Fox Communications, and CommCore also received their GSA certification in 2009.
Firms like Ogilvy have worked on government contracts since the 1980s, says Mathias, who notes that the firm's government portfolio makes up about one-third of the business in his office.
"This has been a core part of our business and of the business strategy," he explains. "It's something we don't deviate from in good times or bad."
When Neil Dhillon took over as MD of MS&L's Washington office, he mandated that the firm get certified, just as he did when he led Ruder Finn public affairs.
"When you become GSA certified, you have the ability to go after or to bid on significant communications and public affairs programs within the various federal government agencies," he notes.
Firms can build staffs and tap into the network of resources and offices they have available for campaigns and programs that will garner national attention, whether it's related to the Recovery Act or an innovative healthcare project.
Mathias says: "All of these different campaigns really enable us to stretch and flex our muscles as communications practitioners, using a broad spectrum of strategies and tactics to reach the target audience."
Federal contracts up for bid:
Department of the Treasury
Department of Homeland Security
National Institutes of Health
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is preparing to award a two-year contract in September to a firm that will develop key messages about breast cancer research findings