Marketers Should Expect Scrutiny from Ethics Officials

Rita Walston, Director, Marketing Programs

I attended the latest Government Marketing Forum session last week to hear from three experts about “Ethics 2.2: The Changing Rules of Engagement.”  It was an excellent session with Anne Armstrong, president of 1105 Government Information Group, moderating a panel made up of Alice Eldridge, vice president and chief counsel, land & armaments for BAE Systems; Jeffrey Green, senior attorney and deputy ethics official at Department of Defense; and Stephen Ryan, partner at McDermott Will & Emery LLP.  The information the three of them provided was topical and relevant.

It also sent a chill through the room.

“The scrutiny of our community is coming,” we were told.

GSA and VA have become the poster children for inappropriate spending on events and marketing to employees.  As a result, careers were ruined.  Conferences such as AFITC were cancelled, hurting the ledgers of those companies that earn a living supporting such events.  Edicts emerged, such as the recent ban on Army attendance at non-DoD events.

The message from the panel was that there is, unfortunately, a fair amount of ambiguity among the rock-solid rules, but industry is advised to take the extra steps and err on the side of caution to ensure everything we do is above board.  Among the takeaways:

  • Food:
    • $20 or less, period.  While that can be difficult in pricey areas like DC, the rule doesn’t make exceptions for geography.
    • The “honor basket” is not sufficient.  You should prominently post cost and be able to provide a receipt on the spot to anyone paying for their meal.
    • If it needs a fork, don’t serve it.
  • Widely Attended Gathering (WAG) Exception:  the definition of what is or is not a WAG can be rather ambiguous.  Some ethics officers pin it at 25 or more attendees, some say at least 100 people, some look at how many different agencies and titles will be represented.  The panel’s advice is to include wording in your invitation that those interested in attending should check with their ethics officer.
  • Multi-Manufacturer versus Single Manufacturer Events:  Those “single-manufacturer symposia held at a nice place” were described by the panel as “troublesome”—which to me is a loaded word when spoken by a lawyer.
  • It was suggested companies might want to consider having a lawyer present during meetings with government.  This may seem extreme, but it does provide some insurance.

I believe government and industry need to communicate in order to ensure taxpayer dollars are being used to effectively accomplish agency missions.  The current environment is making that more difficult, and that’s where we, as marketers, as expected to get creative.  As we do so, however, we should keep in mind Ryan’s closing comments.

“There are implicit ‘wink-winks’ in this town,” he said, “and there will come a time that those become unwound, and you don’t want to be the poster child for that when it unwinds.”

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