THERE is no one way to write a good brief, writes Dr Stuart Thomson. Ask a host of communications professionals and they will have a list of horror stories alongside advice on what makes a good brief. But get the brief wrong and it can undermine the project and the working relationship from the start.
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What makes a good brief
The brief for any communications work, PR, PA, internal communications, should have the same fundamental approach. It needs to provide background on the organisation, an outline of the work and what it is the organisation is trying to achieve.
Some prefer an approach which gives a general outline of expectations for the work, others prefer a much more detailed approach. This can often be dictated by internal considerations as much as external ones.
From those on the receiving end, it really helps that the brief is not so tightly defined that it constrains creativity. The reply to a brief ideally needs to allow for the personality of the agency / freelancer to come across. Otherwise trying to distinguish between replies can be quite difficult as well. That is another aspect of a good brief. It needs to be written in a way that means that responses can be properly assessed. This aspect is not always given due consideration.
The client may take an invite-only approach to submissions or may open the opportunity to a wider market. Some organisations may promote the work by letting Strategic or PR Week know which will then attract even more interest. But that means being clear that the team can cope with the workload involved if inundated. There is nothing worse for a consultancy, of whatever size, than to put time and effort into a submission only for it not to receive the attention it deserves.
The mindset has to be one that thinks about relationship development. One that builds trust and mutual support from the very first interaction.
Seen in that light, the brief and subsequent tender are really about building a successful relationship. The client needs to be thinking, from the outset, what they want that relationship to look like and what sort of support it is they are looking for.
That means thinking about the brief from both sides – what the client wants and how the consultancy can contribute.
That may mean the brief referencing the type of work that an organisation has been inspired by but also the types of good, or bad, experiences in previous work that have been encountered.
There should also be an emphasis on behaviour during the whole procurement process. The brief is the fundamental starting point that also needs to be clear on submission dates, budgets etc. If a timeline is provided on the process, which it should be, then it should be stuck to. If there is a presentation stage, then what is expected? Can some example questions be provided so that the consultancy can prepare properly? Successful or unsuccessful, all those who are involved, should receive constructive feedback. That is time consuming but the client may work with those consultancies in future and may want them to get involved in future processes.
As a general approach a brief should include:
Background: Information about the organisation and the work, including any relevant history.
Objectives: Clear goals for the work.
Definition of success: Specific objectives and key performance indicators.
Budget and timeline: Financial details and deadlines for both the work and the tender process.
Responding to briefs is only part of the new business challenges for any consultancy or freelancer. There should be an opportunity to ask questions and seek clarification but if any of the key aspects of the brief are missing then questions need to be asked about whether to respond at all.
When there are other new business development pressures – networking, thought leadership – a badly written brief could signal trouble. Sometimes the right approach may be to say no.
Dr Stuart Thomson is a public affairs and communications specialist with over 25 years’ experience. He has advised clients on all aspects of their political and corporate communications, and reputation management. His work includes consultation and planning communications as well as media relations and crisis communications.
Dr Thomson runs his own consultancy, CWE Communications, and is the author of books including ‘Reputation in Business: Lessons for Leaders’. He also delivers training for the PRCA, CIPR and Dods.
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