A Cautionary Tale for Federal Marketers

Rita Walston, Senior Director, Client Marketing

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell has been apologizing a lot during the past few weeks, and the scandal that many say has seriously damaged, if not derailed, his political career should be a cautionary tale for those of us who market to the federal government.

The governor and his family accepted a number of high-value loans and gifts from those who do business or seek to do business in Virginia. In a statement and in a radio interview McDonnell said that he is “deeply sorry” and focused on “repairing any loss of trust that I have experienced with the citizens.” He also added that “I broke no laws…”

As far as anyone has been able to determine (so far), Bob McDonnell is correct that he hasn’t broken any laws. (Look for those laws to change in Virginia in the coming months.) But his actions and those of his family don’t pass the “smell test”—there is the appearance of impropriety. And that’s the cautionary tale that we who market to the feds need to take to heart.

The restrictions around marketing to the federal government are pretty clear, and anyone who works in this space for any length of time knows (or should know) the rules by heart. Most important of these is do not offer to a federal employee anything with a value of more than $20 at one time, or more than a cumulative $50 in any year. But we need to pay attention to the areas that some feel are “open to interpretation.” Here are a couple:

  • Raffles: This is a complicated and confusing area with numerous opinions written on whether a government employee can claim a raffle prize. I consulted immixGroup legal counsel to ensure I was on point. The direction I received was: “Raffles are, under the ethics regulations, excluded from the definition of a ‘gift.’ However, that does not necessarily mean federal employees can ultimately claim the prize. To do so, such raffles must be open to the public and the employee’s entrance to the contest cannot be required as part of his official duties. These requirements are questions of fact and the answers…are not always evident.” To my mind, there’s too much room here for a McDonnell scenario. My advice then and now is not to host a raffle as part of your federal marketing efforts.
  • Marketing to Federal Systems Integrators (FSIs): Those working for systems integrators are not federal employees; technically the federal marketing restrictions don’t apply. However, a number of systems integrators require their employees who are working on a government contract to abide by the same rules. So while there is more latitude regarding FSIs, consider appearances as well as the letter of the law when planning your marketing efforts.

I wish Bob McDonnell all the best in repairing his reputation and regaining the public trust. As I reinforce when working on marketing plans with immixGroup clients and partners, attention to the spirit of the law rather than just the letter of the law goes a long way toward preventing bad headlines.

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