Writing a Better Research RFP

The fall semester begins. Another cohort of strategic public relations master’s students at The George Washington University enters my applied research course, which focuses on integrating research into practice. One of the assignments they will endure involves developing a detailed RFP (request for proposal) for research services.


Wanting to give them a useful guide, I spoke with five members of the Commission on Public Relations Measurement and Evaluation: David Geddes, David Michaelson, Katie Paine, Mark Weiner and Lou Williams.

Research providers will tell you they hate RFPs. More precisely, they had bad RFPs – which is most of what they see. But when communications professionals think clearly about the research they need and capture that in the RFP, things go better for everyone. So how do you write a better research RFP?

First, set some goals. Ask yourself where you are going with this and why. A clear business goal should drive a clear communications goal. That, in turn, should drive the research goal. A clear line of sight from research to communications to business result is the surest bet that you’re not wasting money at any stage, and your results will be measurable.

Second, identify the essential missing knowledge. There’s little point in doing research that won’t be applicable to communications, marketing and business decisions. Knowing what you need to know can also point you to research that is already available at little or no cost. This is called secondary research – because you are putting existing research to a secondary use. With that knowledge in hand, you’ll have a better idea where to spend your money on original or primary research.

Third, specify what research techniques you have in mind – and where you want advice. How you want the research reported – possibly including an expert presentation to your senior management team – should be spelled out. However clear you think your specs are, the measurement commission members suggested being open to creative new directions.

Fourth, specify the critical capabilities and specializations you need. You need to probe this with every research provider who answers your RFP. Get résumés of key people and subcontractors who will work on your project. In turn, you should make clear how your final choice of research provider will be made, even including a score sheet if there is one.

Fifth, get real about timing. Deadlines should be realistic without dragging things out so long that the research results have little decision-making value.

Sixth, give a clear budget. There’s no point in getting proposals for research ideas you can’t possibly afford – or are way below the value you actually need. Also be clear about the payment schedule and what you will pay up front.

Finally, take the long view. Continuity matters. If you pick a research provider that cannot change with tomorrow’s needs, you won’t get as much value as you might from a partner who can continue to meet your needs.

Frank Ovaitt
Executive Vice President, Makovsky + Company
CEO Emeritus, Institute for Public Relations

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