When does a PR pitch go wrong?

The dance of the PR pitch is, like any other important relationship, complex, time consuming and fraught with sudden, sharp falls at any point in this delicate interaction. PRmoment India reached out to both corporate communications professional and PR firms to understand at what stage does a pitch go wrong.

Different Stages of a Pitch

Sujit Patil, head of corporate communications, Vedanta has led pitches from the client side twice in his career. According to Patil, the following are the key stages of a pitch that matter and usually figure in a pitch in India:

  • The first step (Briefing) needs to be articulate and entails having a written brief with expectations laid out clearly. Lack of clear objectives can confuse the best of PR firms and the response could be mediocre and not thoughtful.
  • The second key step (Shortlist) is to circulate the briefing document to the shortlisted consultancies (depending on the scale, reach and base) and give them sufficient time to prepare. A short deadline will result in a shoddy cut and paste job; meaning a deck that will have a regular pitch presentation which may not be aligned to your requirements.
  • The third step (Evaluation) is the most serious one with presentation to an all-inclusive internal panel of leaders from across the organization. Give the consultancy about 30 minutes to propose their case (Remember you have already done the credential / reference check and that’s the reason they are presenting). My recommendation is to have a simple framework for evaluation with 5 parameters (Passion, Approach, Experience, Understanding of your business, Team proposed) and let the cross functional panel score them fairly. The best way is to have the presentations on the same day. Saves time and relative ranking becomes easy and fair.
  • The fourth step (Selection) I believe should be shortlisting at least 3 from the lot, basis the overall scores and giving them an opportunity to do a detailed presentation on their thought process, costing’s and servicing structures. This is the final presentation where probably a few board members also get involved. This is the step where you take the final decision.
  • The fifth step (On boarding) is super important as it forms the base of all future working, understanding of the business, sense of belonging and the overall chemistry!

Senior corporate communications specialist, Moushumi Dutt, says what entails a pitch in India, “Is clearly dependent on the specific need and situation. For example, some global organisations mandate that all agencies including PR should belong to a common global parent group, when this happens then a lot of the parameters above don't come into play.”

Stages of a PR pitch: International norms

  • Creation of brief
  • Identification of long list of agencies
  • Gathering credentials (RFP)
  • Shortlisting
  • Chemistry meetings, Pitch briefing sessions
  • Follow up Q&A sessions
  • Tissue sessions
  • Negotiations
  • Pitch day
  • Field Testing(Possibly)
  • Pitch day 2
  • Appointment

Dutt also adds that "chemistry meetings " or for that matter " Tissue sessions” are not part of the process in India.

She says, “Out here it starts with creating the brief, shortlisting RFP's and then the series of presentations. Sometimes the shortlisted agencies get to do a second round of a sharper presentation.”  

When does a pitch go wrong?

During the Brief

Sujit Patil, points out that a pitch can go wrong at any stage. He however says, “Most often the vulnerability to go wrong is maximum at briefing stage (from the corporate side) due to weak expectation setting and between the shortlisting and evaluation phase (from the consultancy side). Most agencies’ come unprepared, without doing research, having refrained from asking right questions.”

Girish Balachandran, managing partner, On Purpose, a pitching veteran, agrees that the brief is one of the most critical stages in a pitch, “Asking the right questions and getting the client to share context behind the brief and objectives of the programme, sets us up very differently from the start. All too often, we need to resist the temptation to dive headlong into a pitch process without understanding the problem, which may or may not be addressed in the brief.”

Shalini Singh, founder, Galvanise PR, says, “Pitches can go wrong when an agency is not given enough time to prepare for the pitch – I have been in pitches where we need to show a turn-around in a few days of receiving the brief. Building a plan takes time – it takes reading, researching and thinking among other things.”

During the pitch 

Patil explains that poor assessment of a client needs leads to the pitch team, “Demonstrating undesirable traits - reaching late for the pitch presentation, focusing on own credentials and trying to give a strategy even without understanding the real need and issues. They probably are over confident and miss demonstrating thoughtfulness to the panel. Remember the panel is cross-functional and not necessarily with a PR background.”

Therefore, aspects not directly to the content of a pitch can play a big role in being a winner or loser. Says Balachandran, “In my experience and from conducting multiple pitch debriefs for pitches both won and lost, the client usually makes up their mind about working (or not working with a consultancy) in the first five minutes of a pitch. It’s important for a consultancy to be able to visualize the future for the brand and what a client will achieve ‘after’ working with the consultancy, within the first five minutes. Else, we lose them in a rambling regurgitation of the brief, our research – which is stuff they already know.”

Inefficient pitching process

Moushumi Dutt emphasizes that, “Shortlisting of a "long listing of agencies" is one of the reasons why the pitch process gets unmanageable and at times very stressful too. Corporates should look at agencies that have industry experience and put a pool of similar agencies.  And yes, I do think that the final selection gets delayed due to the various discussions or rather the follow up Q&A sessions. This time is a bit of a waste. And yes, there have been times when the negotiations go completely on a different track and that is frustrating cause at the fag end, this breakdown becomes a big barrier. “ 

After winning the account 

So once the account is in the bag, the agency can breathe a sigh of release? Yes? No, it seems. 

Says Sujit Patil, “I have also seen corporates fail in extracting value out of a PR consultancy due to a lackadaisical approach towards the stage of on boarding. They assume that magic will happen once the team is on the job and fail to realise the fact that the PR consultancy team needs to understand the issues and business well. Worst is to treat your new consultancy partners as extended arms and legs. I truly believe that if you treat them like arms and legs, they might not get their hearts and brains on the account. What a waste! Mutual efforts, transparent communications and a bit of chemistry are pillars of good relationships. Irrespective of who is right or wrong, If the entire process is not done in the appropriate manner, it may end up with the client announcing a new pitch process!” 

Some potential clients are a dream to pitch!

It’s not all bad news. Some pitches are sheer pleasure, even if you lose!

 Balachandran shares one such experience saying,” One of my favourite pitch experiences has been with a client who was able to articulate the brief in a way that inspired us about the kind of work they’re expecting us to do as communication professionals. Even though we didn’t win it, their behaviour and engagement with us through the process made us feel human and respected. It was all about the small things – responding to our questions in a timely manner, making time to help us understand the nuances of their business and eventually even thanking us with a hand-written note and a framed picture for the effort made. Restored our faith in humanity (and that we can be more human with each even when working under tight deadlines and stressful situations).” 

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