Requests for Proposals are a common practice in the business world, but to many, RFP is a four-letter word. The method of defining what your company wants in a public relations firm and then asking for bidders to meet your requirements so you can cull through them and find “the one” is certainly time-consuming on both sides. It can also, candidly, be frustrating.

But, RFPs aren’t going anywhere anytime soon and they can indeed help you figure out which PR agency is best for you. The trick to using them successfully is to know how to read the submissions you receive. If you plan to use the RFP process as you search for PR support, here are some tips for decoding what your bidders are really telling you in their responses.

  1. Pay attention to how they treat the RFP process. 

PR firms should think of the chance to complete your RFP as an honor. They should take the utmost in care with their responses, being both detailed and thoughtful from start to finish. They must also meet every deadline you’ve set, or even get documents in early. It’s important to notice all these “little” things because seemingly minor oversights or failures to comply with your RFP will surely become norms when you work together. In other words, how an agency treats the RFP process shows how they’ll treat your business –– and you. It’s up to you to hold them to a high standard from the get-go.

  1. Consider what is going unsaid. 

RFPs almost always include numerous questions, so there is a lot of text to sift through when you get them back. But some companies fixate only on the carefully prepared answers they’re given, and don’t notice what’s missing. Remember that what isn’t said in RFP responses is just as important as what it is. For example, does the PR firm refer to your company as a partner, and your work together as a partnership? Those words indicate an important mindset that any firm worth your time should have. Do they include a mention of your goals, or of identifying them? This is enormously important. No PR firm should set a strategy for you unless they understand your goals. This should be the starting point. If a response is lacking a clear emphasis on this, take note.

  1. Check if your business is at the center of their responses. 

Any agency can copy their “About Us” section on their website, paste it into your RFP framework and call it a day. But this isn’t enough. The firm you choose to work with should view their own strategies and tactics through the lens of your business, and their responses should make it clear they’ve done their homework. If they answer a question about their strategic approach with something like, “We’re experts in influencer relations, and will connect you with all the influencers most important to your business,” this reads like a canned answer – and a big red flag.

You want a partner who writes something like this instead: “We typically focus on influencer relations with our clients, but we’ve learned that credibility and awareness in your field are top goals for you. We will focus on analyst relations for you instead, with an ultimate aim of securing analyst briefings for you in the next six months with the following three key analysts…”. This shows a keen understanding of PR strategy, a deep attention to your business and specificity that will make it easy to hold them accountable.

  1. Look for precise methods of measurement. 

If you ask how your PR team will measure their success (which we definitely recommend doing), you should get detailed responses. Beware vague answers like “engagement” or “increased reach,” but don’t offer anything tangible. In order to provide you with markers of success, whatever they measure has to be actually…wait for it… measurable. Look for the respondents who lay out the number of contributed articles they plan to secure in a set period of time or the number of media interviews they’ll book in a given month. These are concrete metrics that can be evaluated without bias as your work together moves forward.

  1. Listen to referrals. 

Finally, did you ask for referrals in your RFP? This is a big one and should always be included. If you did, look at the types of companies an agency includes in their referral list. Are they similar in industry or size to your own? At least one or two should be. Did they include the length of their engagement with each of these companies? A partnership of one year is solid, two years is very good and more than that is exceptional. This tells you that other clients were happy with their work, and you’re likely to be too. If you didn’t ask for referrals in your RFP, the best agencies will put some in on their own. They’ll want you to talk to other clients, because they’ll be confident they were satisfied.

When it’s time to review RFP responses, keep in mind these five keys to reading between the lines. All of this is worth careful consideration, because choosing a PR partner is a big deal, one which should impact your business positively for years to come. Have any questions, or would you like us to respond to your RFP? Contact us here.