It's Not About "Public Relations"
The U.S. Government Accountability Office published a report in 2016 referring to "Public Relations Spending" by the Federal government but the title is misleading as the Federal government is not allowed to engage in public relations. That is, unless the money is "specifically appropriated for that purpose."
Per the GAO, as summarized by the Congressional Research Service, this means that Congressional appropriations may not be used to do things like extol the greatness of the agency, convey a partisan message, or hide the fact that the government is talking.
What Do You Mean "We Can't Tell Good News Stories?"
While most agencies understand that they cannot behave in a partisan manner, and cannot offer up covert propaganda, it is frequently difficult for leadership to conceive of the fact that they aren't supposed to use their 1035s to make the agency look good.
Perhaps to avoid the toxic waste dump that "spin" has become, the Public Relations Society of America casts PR as relationship-building, calling it in "a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics."
Nevertheless, from a Federal government point of view, we are not supposed to "build mutually beneficial relationships" with anyone. This is because the end goal of a "mutually beneficial relationship" is to make the customer look good, and we generally are not allowed to do this on the taxpayer's dime.
At this point you may be scratching your head, wondering exactly how it is that the Federal government spends $1 billion a year "not" making itself look good.
However, there is much to communicate about in the realm of "public information," and the GAO lays out exactly what constitutes legitimate spending in this area.
Five Categories Of Communication That Are Always Appropriate
The below is adapted for simplicity; anything on the list below would be considered OK to spend money on.
• General information: Anything you would find in the "About Us" section of a website is covered by this category. It may sound kind of bland, but the information to be found here would typically be of interest to Congress, the media, and the public with respect to accountability and transparency.
• Customer service: Typically, the public has questions about what the agency does that are not anticipated by the agency itself (often there are suggestions as well). This kind of communication is responsive to those questions without judging whether they're "legitimate," "important," "appropriate," "fair," and so on.
• Compliance: In order for citizens to follow the law, they have to know what the law is. It is critical that government agencies clearly explain what people are supposed to do in order to fulfill their obligations. Anything in that category goes here.
• Social marketing: The government has an incredible amount of benefits, information, products and services on offer that many people don't know they are entitled to and can't figure out how to take advantage of. Communication in this category bridges that gap and encourages people to take advantage of this. And while some would limit the term "social marketing" in ways that refer specifically to health or lifestyle issues, there are other offerings (such as business opportunities, public auctions, educational options, and more) that can substantially improve the citizen's quality of life. All communication of this type goes here.
• Recruitment: Without human beings, the government cannot fulfill its basic functions. Therefore, it is legitimate for agencies to spend money to fill and refill their talent pipelines. Recruitment can take the form of everything from educational sessions, to job advertising, to open houses, and more.
How To Say It
Not only are government agencies limited in terms of what they can say, they are also proscribed in the way that they can say it.
Specifically, it is now legally required to talk to people in a way that they can easily understand; the term we use for this is "plain language."
The Duty To Serve The Citizen
But there is more. What happens when the Federal communicator is asked to communicate to the public in ways that serve the agency, but not the public interest?
Although there is no legal framework that addresses this specific question, a parallel can be found in the mandate of the public lawyer to serve the public interest first as the communicator understands it.
In 1973, The Professional Ethics Committee of The Federal Bar Association ("The Government Client and Confidentiality: Opinion 73-1," 32 FED. B.J. 71, 72) stated:
"The government lawyer assumes a public trust, for the government, over-all and in each of its parts, is responsible to the people in our democracy with its representative form of government. Each part of the government has the obligation of carrying out, in the public interest, its assigned responsibility in a manner consistent with the Constitution, and the applicable laws and regulations. In contrast, the private practitioner represents the client's personal or private interest."
(Source: Josephson and Pearce, "To Whom Does the Government Lawyer Owe the Duty of Loyalty When Clients Are in Conflict," FLASH: The Fordham Law Archive of Scholarship and History, 1986, pp. 555-556)
Josephson and Pearce elaborate:
"This special responsibility of the government lawyer can be broadly construed to permit and indeed require the government lawyer only to represent government officials who are acting in accord with what she views as the public interest."
Professional Codes of Conduct
In addition to the Employee Standards of Conduct for civil servants and the Hatch Act, the National Association of Government Communicators (NAGC), an independent body of professionals at the Federal, state, and local levels, has an extensive code of conduct that, if followed, will support the Federal public affairs specialist in carrying out their duties legally and ethically.
The problem is, none of the above specifically outline the duties that a Federal "1035" actually has, and as such, their time can easily be filled with nonessential duties at best and heavily self-promotional activities at worst.
Currently, there is no clear and consistently applied model for Federal communication standards outside what can be extracted from GAO reports. So how can professional public affairs specialists focus on doing more of the substantive work they are supposed to do, and less self-promotional stuff on behalf of the agency, regardless of their pay grade?
• Take advantage of natural inflection points: Every four years, with the incoming transition team, there is an opportunity to provide a briefing on public affairs activities and priorities. These teams favor a smoothly running organization. Focus on demonstrating that communication activities are coherently organized, fall into the allowed categories, and are on track.
• Measure, measure, measure: Leaders rely heavily on summarized metrics reports, and you have the opportunity to devise ways of measuring the activities you're engaging in as well as their results. Even a short one-pager consisting of the feedback you received from key stakeholders that week, delivered regularly, will help to focus them on activities that consistently receive positive feedback, which tend to be those that fall into the categories that are allowed.
• Standard operating procedures: Create written standard operating procedures for public affairs activities and refer consistently to them. You can use a Sharepoint-type environment to treat these SOPs as a wiki, with continuous updates as needed. The point is to refer to something that is in writing as much as possible, rather than getting into differences of opinion.
• Know where to go with ethics concerns: Document activities undertaken clearly, consistently, and with tracking numbers so that decisions made are traceable to the responsible individual or group. If anything occurs that you have legal or ethics questions about, follow appropriate procedures to express your concerns, beginning with your supervisor.
• Take advantage of training and networking opportunities: When you attend training sessions, you not only gain the perspective of those who have addressed the same issues as you, but you also obtain the opportunity to discuss complex issues and concerns with your colleagues. NAGC, the Federal Communicators Network, and the General Services' Administration's Digital Gov Communities of Practice are all great options to start with.
Quality Federal communication is a sacred duty. "Doing what is right" means serving the agency in the context of serving the public as a whole. That is a bedrock principle, it applies regardless of who is running the government, and it should never be a question in any civil servant's mind.
By Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author's own. Free photo by Mohamed Hasan via Pixabay.