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Edward Bernays would dig me. Seasoned public relations strategist (10+ years in the game) who has practiced PR in multiple cities: Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago & DC. I'm an observationist and a soon to be card carrying member of the Twitterati. I love comfortable silences, revel in the Seinfeldian absurdities of life and have been described as a habitual line stepper. These are my thoughts...

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Gone Fishing: The Dark Side of RFPs & Job Interviews

Let me start by saying that competition is healthy. Dare I say it in my Gordon Geckko voice…competition is good. I believe that if you truly want something in life, you should have to work to get it and at some level compete to get it. In your personal and professional life, competition should be expected. But competition should never be bastardized to the point that people are unfairly used or pimped.

If you work at or have worked at a PR agency, the chances are great that you’ve participated in responding to an RFP or at least experienced your firm’s involvement in the RFP process in some capacity. For those unfamiliar, a RFP or “Request For Proposal” is the process an organization goes through when it wants to competitively bid out the contract for a work assignment or project. The RFP includes the specs for the project in addition to other pertinent details. It also includes a step-by-step outline for how those interested in “winning” the contract should go about doing so. Most RFPs included a formal opportunity for those who have made the cut to pitch their services first hand. And within those pitches sometimes would-be contract awardees are required to demonstrate in great detail how they would complete the project they are bidding on.

In regards to responding to an RFP on something say a little more nebulous, like providing PR/Communications services, bidders may be asked to provide their creative ideas up front. From the vantage point of the company putting out the RFP this seems perfectly reasonable as they don’t want to just “hear” that an agency is creative or has great ideas, they want you to demonstrate it.

But if you’re the agency in that bidding process, putting down your creative ideas in print and providing a blue print for the implementation of those creative ideas without the guarantee of being awarded the contract, is dicey and often amounts to freely giving away intellectual property. It’s just something very unsettling about it. But I’m sure some would say hey, this is part of the game and you’ve got to play, to win. Yes that is a true assessment, but it should happen at whose expense?

I think agencies should be able to demonstrate their PR prowess by providing actual case studies of previous work done on other projects similar in scope. I also believe that agencies should be able to rely more on actual testimonials from previous clients. Referrals and work samples speak volumes about one’s capabilities, along with the ability to intelligently talk through how the work was created. What I don’t think PR agencies should have to do is give away the only real products they create – their ideas.

Check out PRNewser's survey to see what other PR Pro's think about the topic.

The reason I’m so anti giving up PR intellectual property without compensation is because I’ve come to learn about the dark side of the RFP process. Not all RFPs are intended to be awarded. Some RFPs are meant as a tactic to produce/collect ideas…for free. Or even worse, the RFP process generates some great ideas that are then collected and given to a low bidding agency to implement. So the organization doing the awarding gets the great concept or campaign and gets to have it potentially done at a fraction of the cost.

Twice during my tenure with a PR agency I’ve seen what I like to refer to as “idea poaching” up close and personal. During the very first new business pitch I participated in, I saw this happen to our agency after we weren’t awarded the contract (side note: I was horrible during this pitch. I’d never done one before and wasn’t prepared to do any of the talking at that point in my career. However, I was very instrumental in putting together the presentation and contributing ideas). For the next couple of years following our failure to land that contract, I had to witness a less expensive agency carrying out many of the ideas we proposed and outlined during the RFP process. It was very disheartening to experience this practice in business.

But companies that put out RFPs don’t own the patent on idea poaching. Since I’ve been in the job market, I’ve come to painfully learn that this also happens during the job interview process. Twice during my current career search I’ve had prospective employers ask me to create a “detailed” communication plan. I really don’t have any sort of issue with demonstrating my knowledge, abilities or understanding of a particular industry, but the creation of a communications plan is not a simple task, say like taking a writing test or editing an article in a timed environment.

Drafting a legitimate communications plan requires the understanding of an organization and its industry; a working knowledge of its fiscal year objectives and bench marks; an audit of the previous communications plan and/or organizational communications capabilities; available budget; and a working knowledge of staff, stakeholders and influencers. Without knowing these things, you are flying blind as a PR pro. And most of these things you’d only know if you were a part of the organization already.

So when someone asks me to draft a comprehensive communications plan, like say it was the equivalent to drafting a press release (which I can do in my sleep by the way), I immediately come to the conclusion that either they don’t understand what it is that PR people do or worse they don’t respect it. If a hospital were looking to hire a surgeon, they wouldn’t ask the physician to execute a surgery in front of them to evaluate. No, they would go off of referrals from previous employers and a comprehensive evaluation of that candidates previous body of work.

But back to these two request for me to create a comprehensive communications plan as part of the hiring process. Both of the organizations were non-profits. One gave me a week and a half to create the plan and the other a mere three days. In both cases I had already made it through two rounds of interviews where I was grilled on my PR knowledge and my basic understanding of their respective industries. I passed all instances with flying colors. But that wasn’t enough on which to base their hiring decisions; they needed to have a communications plan in hand to review.

I wouldn’t have had a problem with showing them a previously created communications plan or doing a small sample one for their organizations or even a communications plan outline. But they wanted more and with a lot more detail, which immediately sent my internal alarms sounding. One of the organizations sent me the annual report for 2009 and asked me devise a plan for the entire FY 2010. The other directed me to their website and asked me to create a plan for the upcoming year. And in neither instance would there be an exchange of money for all of the time I would have to put into this endeavor.

Both wanted everything included in the plan, such as: creative ideas, time-line for implementation, designated spokes people, actual press releases or concepts for press releases, media lists (along with contacts and contact info) and measurables. I thought they were asking a whole lot for free. And what if they really liked the ideas and the plan but felt more comfortable with another candidate? Where would that leave me? And then it hit me…holding the bag and still in the market for a career home.

In the end, I declined to participate in the more complex of the two and for the other I did a scaled down version of the plan minus the contact info for the media list. If they had everything, what did they need me for? Momma didn’t raise a dummy. I likened it to a john trying to convince a prostitute to let him sample the product up front and if it was good or he liked it, he’d then pay for future services rendered.

When I apply for a position with an organization and ask them to invest in me by providing me with a salary, benefits and opportunity, the only things I have to offer in exchange are my experience, creativity, work ethic and dependability. I place a value on these things and giving away my creativity on the front end leaves me with less in which to barter.

Maybe I’m just naïve or too optimistic to think that life can be fair or that we can be judged based on our body of work.

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