PR: Simplify the Search

The time you save selecting a PR agency just might be your own.
Aug 31, 2004


Kathy Crippsaan
Pharmaceutical clients are investing more than ever in public relations services, and, as a result, the agency search process has become more complicated—some even say traumatic—for the participants.

Executives on both sides describe searches they would rather forget. Agencies tell of assignments in which they were asked to build a strategic plan for a global brand against a stopwatch. Companies describe search processes where they hosted a dozen contenders.

Hearing about those expensive, time-consuming, and ineffective request-for-proposal (RFP) processes, the Council of Public Relations Firms spoke with clients, agencies, and agency searchonsultants to try to establish some best practices and create a more manageable and sustainable way to compete for business. It synthesized findings in the booklet "Standards for Conducting a Public Relations Firm Search." (See "Guiding Principles for an Effective Search,") This article highlights the principles and practices that are particularly relevant for pharmaceutical executives.

Start the Search Before reaching out to agencies, product managers should think through what they want—and what they're willing to pay for. That way, companies can conduct a more focused search and clearly communicate the scope and the budget range to potential partners. With that knowledge, the agencies can accurately assess whether they have the resources, capacity, and interest to meet the client's needs before proceeding.

Internal procurement or sourcing officers are playing a growing part in the selection process, but the search works the same whether it is spearheaded by those departments or brand managers. However, there is a difference in focus: Product and PR professionals are typically interested in science, patients, and appropriate use of the product, whereas procurement departments often look at agency selection based on cost and deliverables. Therefore, brand managers should relate to peers what they want before the selection process begins.

To ensure the search runs smoothly, companies should:

  • Clearly outline each step of the search process.
  • Create a timetable for reviewing and deciding upon an agency.
  • Decide the budget or budget range and scope of the work.
  • Agree on the criteria for agency selection.
  • Create ground rules for the process, such as the degree of access firms will have to the product team.
  • Allow for reasonable time for quality responses.

Short, Sweet List Clients often cast a wide net to identify a list of PR firms that they would like to participate in the search process. Brand managers may extend invitations to agencies they've worked with in the past, those whose work they've read about or admired, and current agencies working on other in-house projects, to compete for a particular piece of business.

But before product managers or procurement officers make contact, they should do some preliminary research to make sure those agencies fit the bill based on size, expertise, and specialized capabilities such as specific therapeutic category experience.

Executives should aim to bring in no more than eight agencies, and if they've done their homework thoroughly, can be comfortable bringing in six. Keep in mind, the more agencies that participate, the more time and energy the company must spend in the briefing phase and selection process. Also, companies that continually employ searches with huge numbers of competitors—which can be seen as not being respectful of agencies' time—may begin to tarnish relations.

The first contact with PR agencies should be used to further investigate their credentials. Clients should request only information that is necessary for initial comparison, such as the agency's history, case studies related to the assignment, campaign results, typical length of client relationships, and staff retention.