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My RFP Manifesto: No Free Samples

People in my business frequently receive solicitations to compete for new business by responding to requests for proposal (RFPs) that range in length from a few paragraphs to a few chapters. One hundred percent of the time, the information provided is absolutely inadequate to propose anything — except that the author engage me or one of my colleagues to have another go at it.

I’m betting that my physician, attorney, financial advisor and accountant haven’t received a single RFP this year — or ever for that matter. But if they did and they were like those I see in my profession, the one my physician would receive would tell her the symptoms, the diagnosis, the course of treatment, the prognosis and conclude by asking “What would you do, by when and for how much?” Oh, and we need it next week.

The RFP circulating among my colleagues at the moment, for example, asks for a “comprehensive communication plan” that “should be as complete as possible, with the year broken down into phases — with price ranges attached to each segment.” But as background, it provides nothing more than two sample messages that only a tone-deaf CEO could love because, we are lectured, “consistent messaging is a central component of successful communication campaigns."

The intellectual property I have to sell in 15-minute chunks is as informed, specialized and valuable as any other professionals’. But few of them are ever asked to give away their core competencies in a bid to win new businesses. Among my professional colleagues, the most valuable service we have to offer is precisely the service that RFPs would have us give away: the ability to understand a client’s situation, bring education, science and experience to bear in a rigorous, thoughtful planning process, which ultimately answers the what, by when and how much questions. And quite a few others like “Where do we stand now?”, “How will we know if we’ve succeeded?” and “What haven’t we thought of?”

It’s easy enough to ignore these ham-handed, amateurish RFPs. And we do. But what is of deep concern is the fact that these RFPs-to-ignore have been written by people who are responsible for protecting the reputations, being the social conscience, engaging the employees and selling the products of the organizations they represent. And they clearly do not know what they are doing, not even by any standard that would apply to the rawest new graduate from any of the excellent university programs that train our new professionals.

From time to time, the subject of licensure for Public Relations practitioners burbles up in our ranks. Despite that pesky First Amendment and its protection of free speech, the idea has made it to several state legislatures in the past decade or so. In principal I heartily agree that there needs to be a reliable method for distinguishing the charlatans and amateurs from the professionals who are educated, experienced and have committed to a code of ethical behavior. (I have spent a good deal of my professional career holding and promoting Accreditation in Public Relations, the most viable candidate.)

Perhaps on a state-by-state basis we’ll come up with a system similar to those that license real estate agents, beauticians and psychologists, in which professional organizations certify competence, the state endorses the certification and limits the use of certain terms — such as psychologist — to those who are certified. But I’m betting that the states have some other issues on their plates at the moment that may have higher priority.

So meanwhile, the RFPs I receive will continue to go into the recycle bin. And there are no free samples forthcoming from me and many, many of my colleagues.

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