7 insights for working with federal public affairs officers

When you ask most government marketers or sales teams what types of marketing collateral works best, they will typically place government case studies at or near the top of their list.

A case study that demonstrates to a government agency prospect how another agency — confronting similar challenges, constraints, and use cases — has used a product or solution to achieve effective results is worth its weight in gold.

But many marketers also will add that getting an agency’s permission to do a case study can be challenging, if not impossible.

To explore this, Government Marketing University brought together current and former federal public affairs officers for a public panel discussion to find out why it is so difficult and whether there are best practices that may help.

When asked why getting approvals for case studies is so difficult, the PAOs all responded that they rarely get asked for case study approvals. Really? It appears, based on this response, that because marketers and sales teams view case studies as next to impossible to obtain, they rarely even ask for them.

Our panel of PAOs offered the following insights and pointers for government marketers as they pursue approvals for case studies as well as other marketing assets` including press releases, quotes, logo usage, and speaker requests:

Insight #1:

PAO support and approval depends on how the case study will be used. Generally, if they are made publicly available and do not suggest implied endorsement by the agency or contain business-sensitive information, PAOs are more likely to support them. If your case study is telling the story of how your product or solution is helping government reach their mission or keep our warfighters safe you are probably going to have it approved. 

A current DoD Public Affairs Officer stated “We review the request, we look at the kind of information they're looking for, we run it through our general counsel's office, and then if everybody thinks it has no implied endorsement and will be published in a completely open forum, we would look at supporting it. Implied endorsement is anything that looks like we, as PAO’s, are advocating on behalf of one organization or one product or one service.”

Insight #2:

When it comes to press releases and case studies, stick to the facts. Most press releases convey information about a contract award. Some facts about an award are OK to share with the public, some are not, so they need to be vetted by the agency’s public affairs office. Examples of contract information that are often approved include: the amount of the contract award, capabilities being provided, and expected benefits to the government.

Insight #3:

Establish a good working relationship with public affairs officers.  Approval processes and rules often differ from one agency to the next and having an established relationship in place with PAO’s helps speed things up. PAO’s can be particularly helpful when it comes to identifying and connecting you with the right people who can assist with specific requests.

Chris O’Neil, president of the National Association of Government Communicators and chief of media relations at the National Transportation Safety Board, said: “PAO’s are going be able to tell you right off the bat, ‘Hey, I'm not going to be the agency who can put out the announcement on this. It's got to go to the department level. Here's the person you need to chat with,’ and they'll walk you through that process.’”

Insight #4:

Be careful with how you use public statements by federal officials. Context is everything when repurposing a federal official’s statement from a public conference, media report, or other public domain source. In general, it is OK to use a public quote in your company’s content. But public quotes by a federal official cannot be used to promote your company, product or service.

It is unlawful to use an agency’s seal or logo on a company website or marketing materials. DoD and military seals, for example, may be used only by the government itself for official purposes and are protected by law from unauthorized use.

“A misconception is that the military logos, marks, and indicators are in the public domain because you can pretty much Google them and right-click and obtain it. That's not the case,” said the Nadine Villanueva Santiago, the trademark and licensing program manager at the U.S. Navy and a former PAO at the U.S. Coast Guard.

“Logos cannot be used because it would give the appearance of implied endorsement. However, on webpages, if they do have some type of contract or do some type of work with the agency, they can factually state that: ‘We do have a contract with the Navy for X,’ because that is factual information.”

Insight #5:

Many factors influence how a government speaker request will be handled. Widely attended events with larger audience sizes are viewed favorably. So are events conducted by a third-party group, such as an industry association or media organization. Company-hosted events are viewed less favorably. Having media present if it is a company-hosted event may help the request as well.

A current DoD Public Affairs Officer stated “First of all, we look to see that they're open to the public. That's one of the key things to us. We don't want that message to be limited to a specific audience. We always check to make sure that we have a speaker who is a subject matter expert for the topical area.

"We determine whether the audience is of the size and level that would benefit from the information that we're being requested to provide, and we make sure that the general public will have access to the information in the long run. We actually would like people that request us to provide a speaker to have media present for that event so it can be publicized to a wider audience.”

Insight #6:

Be aware that government images and videos have rules attached to them. Use government image libraries, such as the Defense Video Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS) and the Defense Imagery Management Operation Center (DIMOC), to ensure you have permissions. The DIMOC website offers guidelines that spell out the limitations for public use of that imagery. PAO’s discourage the use of military images found through web searches because they could be subject to copyright.

Insight #7:

PAOs can be extremely valuable to marketers. Yes, they do say no on occasion, but they also can be helpful facilitators for many of your marketing needs. They are the facilitator to information in government.

O’Neil of NTSB said: “We're not there to be a roadblock, we're there to help you get what you need.”

So go grab that Holy Grail of government marketing – a case study, press release, quote, logo or speaker to ensure your company is top of mind with your federal government prospects.

Click here to hear the entire podcast with the PAOs.

About the Author

Lou Anne Brossman is the founder and president of the Government Marketing University.

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