How to Work With Public Affairs Officers

Day two of Government Marketing University’s (GovMarkU) GAIN 2016 Conference kicked off with a session focused on working with federal public affairs officers (PAO). Led by Steve Watkins, GovMarkU’s chief content officer and former editor of Federal Times, the panel was comprised of four PAOs from various areas of government. The panelists included:

  • Cindy YourChief Strategic Communications Office, Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA)
  • Erin Buechel WieczorekChief Congressional Affairs and Strategic Communications Division, U.S. Army PEO EIS
  • Christopher O’NeilOffice of Safety Recommendations and Communications, National Transportation Safety Board, President-Elect, National Association of Government Communicators
  • Nadine SantiagoTrademark and Licensing Program Manager, Office of General Counsel, U.S. Navy

Some of the things the panel discussed were the rules of the road for obtaining permission to use agency logos, how to request a federal speaker and the holy grail of getting a case study. Without further ado, here are some of the highlights.

Looking to use a federal agency’s logo? Familiarize yourself with the Federal Ethics Guidelines. These guidelines are your pathway through working with federal agencies. The basic rule of thumb though is that agencies and the military cannot do anything that is either a direct or implied endorsement. If you want to put out a factual statement – that’s probably ok but once you slap an agency logo on that statement it becomes an implied endorsement and if caught you’ll be asked to remove the logo. Another term that the panelists mentioned was selective benefits – anything the agency is willing to do for one company, they must be willing to do for all others. This often leads to them having to turn down requests because even though they could or would fulfill the request for Company A, they couldn’t or wouldn’t fulfill that same request for Company B.

What about imagery? Most agencies have repositories of images for general viewing/use but be aware of the rules, which can often be found on the website. The PAOs understand that a big part of marketing is capturing or selecting the right image that supports the story but be aware that images that contain people are not automatically approved. Nadine recounted a story of an image being used that contained an identifiable member of the military community who did not 1. Know their image or likeness was being used and 2. Did not approve. Have a question about an image? Ask your friendly PAO.

Hoping to hit it out of the park with a federal case study? When this topic first came up it was met with crickets. Turns out it wasn’t all bad news and truthfully, most of the panelists said that in all their time in the federal government rarely have they been approached about a case study. Whether that’s because people aren’t going through the proper channels (hint: it’s through the public affairs office), are expecting to be rejected so simply don’t ask, or are just doing it on the side hoping to not get caught is anyone’s guess. The silver lining though – if there is one – is that if you stick to the facts and just the facts you might be able to get something through. Per Nadine, any company that is doing business with the Navy can factually state information about the work that is being done, but as I stated above, don’t use the logo or military seal.

As Chris explained to the audience, the reason for this is that it’s all about having confidence in government. The general public needs to have confidence that government agencies work the way they are designed to without the appearance of being beholden to contractors, suppliers, etc. They need to appear fair and impartial and anything that erodes that confidence is not going to be ok or approved.

Want to issue a press release? Keep it to just the facts and you may have luck. For example, “Company A received a contract with the U.S. Navy to do XYZ…” Panelists cautioned though about speculating on the agency or department’s love for your product or including a quote from the PM. The panelists also advised that PAOs are there as your gateway, not your roadblock. Engaging with them as early as possible will help to make sure both parties are on the same page. While it may seem that all they do is say no and shoot down requests, PAOs really like to be able to tell good government stories. Work with them – and if you have a press release for review give them as much advance notice and time to review as possible.

Seeking out a speaker for your event? Do work through the public affairs office. There is specific information they are required to gather and most will have a form available on their website that asks all the right questions and improves the chances of getting the request cleared through general counsel. Also, be sure to submit the request as far in advance as possible. A minimum of 30 days notice is needed and depending on the situation six months may be preferred. On the flip side, don’t go right to the person you want to speak. There are policies and guidelines in place and skirting those can lead to rejection. Also, be aware of how many speakers you are seeking from the same agency. Per Erin, the Army’s Conference Policy states that if more than 49 percent of the speakers are from the Army then it becomes an Army co-hosted event, and now you’ve opened a whole new can of worms. And quite possibly the worst thing you can do – lie about how many people will be in attendance. Do not tell the PAO there will be 150+ people when in fact it’s 30. True story.

Last, but not least, the PAOs on the panel asked that marketers understand that in general they are pretty small organizations fielding requests from all directions. If you send something over and don’t get a response, send it again as it may have been overlooked.

Let’s talk.