No Good Deed: RFP's - Is the fix always in?

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No Good Deed is a column devoted to the discussion of ethical challenges we may face in our profession.   Each issue we’ll feature a member’s dilemma and ask three PR experts to comment on it.  We’d love to hear from you, too, so please weigh in on the various “what would you do if…” problems your colleagues are confronted with.

Dilemma du jour: 

I’ve been a PR consultant for over 20 years and early on I learned that it was virtually useless to respond to any Request for Proposal. It seemed like ‘the fix was always in’ – i.e. organizations issue the request to satisfy purchasing or statutory requirements, but in reality they already know who they want to work with, and always select that person or agency no matter how good any other proposal might be.

Recently, I got a phone call from a communications director at a small public agency who said I was highly recommended by a former teacher of hers, my background made me perfect for this project and would I please, pretty please respond to her RFP. I was candid, but polite in my refusal and described my real-world experience, but she pleaded some more, so finally we agreed I would send a one-page letter of interest including a budget range.

Of course, you know the result: her former teacher got the contract. I had to call to learn that. Is there anything that can be done about the unethical behaviour of organizations and RFPs? Complaining directly only looks like ‘sore loser’ gripes, right?

What our panel says…

I appreciate your frustration, particularly after you squelched your gut reaction and gave in to the communications directors’ repeated pleas to respond to her RFP. Disappointing though it may be, it’s true you can’t complain about the outcome. Take the high road, always. While this situation certainly looks shady, the fact is you don’t know for sure who made the final decision or why. It might have been agency’s managing director or even a client. Making accusations of ethical violations you can’t prove isn’t a good look for a professional whose reputation relies on good judgement and showing grace under fire. What you can do is comfort yourself with the knowledge that you dodged a bullet. Who wants to work with someone who’d behave that way, especially after you told her why you’d sworn off RFPs?

As for what can be done about organizations and people who invite proposals for projects they have already mentally awarded? Unfortunately, not much if you can’t prove it and frankly, your energy is better spent elsewhere. From my own experience, I do believe most RFPs are made in good faith. During my agency years, we routinely won business through responses to RFPs.

Re-take your oath to win your clients using other methods. If you’ve managed to work as a PR consultant for more than 20 years, you’ve already proven you have the expertise to deliver. If you are looking to expand your client base, referrals and networking are likely far better ways to attract new business. The next time someone seeks you out for a competitive proposal, let him or her know that while you’re happy to meet with the client to discuss their needs and you’re willing to provide references, it’s your policy not to respond to RFPs. Then stick to your guns.

~ Karen McCluskey, APR, Principal, KM Strategic Communications

It’s a sad fact of life: You put in hours working up and polishing a smart and realistic proposal, and you find the organization simply renews its old contract with your competitor and/or never gets back to you to acknowledge your proposal, let alone explore it.

Even more offensive is the outfit that takes your proposal, steals all the goodies from it, and turns you down for the contract. I’ll never forget spending considerable time on a proposal outlining a modern digital program for a company that was still in the dark ages. I never did hear back, but a few months later, saw them launch and use all the ideas I had proposed. (Expletives deleted.)

The approach of “send us a nicely detailed proposal that we can ignore” is as rude and crude as the modern message of “Only Shortlisted Candidates Will Be Contacted.” This, of course, is an employer’s version of the Monty Python line, “I fart in your general direction.”

One realistic way of dealing with the RFP nonsense is to put in the effort only when the organization is one you really respect and would really like to work for. If you already view them as a doubtful proposition, maybe you shouldn’t waste your time.

Another option: You can sometimes get a pretty good lay of the land by asking the RFP issuer: “What is your process once you get my proposal? Who reviews it? How is it reviewed and rated or scored? How long does that usually take?”  If they’re not prepared to answer questions like that, they probably are sending a fart in your general direction.

~ Don MacLachlan, Clarity Communications Inc., Vancouver

Your experience is contrary to mine. As a sole practitioner since 1993, I’ve won substantial contracts through RFPs. For more than 95% of them, I had no prior history with the firms or the selection panels and for some of those contracts, a former client or colleague, too, had recommended me.

As an educator myself, I have recommended colleagues and associates to clients. One RFP issuer contacted me for three recommendations. A few weeks later, he asked me to “please” submit a bid on the same contract. Although I didn’t bid, there was an unwritten message in that situation: the firm wasn’t satisfied with the qualifications of the proposals received from 16 applicants, including the three whom I’d recommended. Does this give pause for thought in your complaint?

RFPs are tricky business pieces. The decision-makers learn much about the applicant’s strategic thinking, resources, level of professionalism and research capacity, all of which indicate if the proponent is a good “fit” for that organization. Consider this checklist:

  1. Did your letter of interest clearly articulate your value?

  2. Did you review the RFP requirements to determine the salient terms and conditions before sending the letter?

  3. Was there an expectation of bids being longer than one page?

  4. Did you meet all criteria in preparing the one-pager as it pertained to the RFP? Many RFPs are vague and difficult to interpret at first read, so giving them what they ask for – with your vision clearly articulated – is a strong selling point.

  5. Did you include proof of your qualifications?

  6. How strong – and current - was your research and vision?

  7. Was your budget range competitive?

  8. Did the financial remuneration you asked for match the financial capacity of the organization requesting the RFP and had you discussed this with the communications director?

  9. How close to the deadline did you file the RFP? In addition, how many days passed after you’d agreed to send that one-page letter of interest?

  10. How professional was your document in relation to what the communications role was?

If you were highly recommended by someone, there is value in that recommendation, so learn from it, apply the CPRS Code of Conduct for future RFPs and always contact the firm post-decision for a debrief on your proposal’s strengths and weaknesses.

~ Ange Frymire Fleming FCPRS, APR, president-Vocal Point Communications & KPU professor in Applied Communications

About the Author

Deborah Folka is the editor of the ethics column, No Good Deed. She is also a senior accredited public relations professional with over 25 years of experience in strategic communications planning, issues management and crisis communications planning, prevention and management. In addition to working in-house for a variety of public, private and not-for-profit organizations, she has run one of the most successful independent pr consultancies in Western Canada for over 20 years.