Reprinted with permission from the October 2008 issue of Public Management (PM) magazine
published by ICMA, the premier local government leadership and management organization, located
in Washington, D.C.
It's the first lesson of Marketing 101: you build market share through references, referrals,
and reliable service. Vendors who deliver services and projects for local governments need to
leverage their efforts to reach the marketplace. They thrive by promoting their services and
sharing success stories.
As a consequence, it's fairly common for vendors to approach local government staff to ask for
testimonials, references, and endorsements. Staff may be receptive if they had a good experience
because they know that the public good is served when governments select competent and qualified
vendors. Equally vital, though, is maintaining the public's confidence that procurement decisions
are objective and result in the best use of public resources.
What ethical values are at stake when a staff member responsible for making decisions about the
selection of a vendor later appears in the vendor's marketing and promotional materials? ICMA's
guideline on endorsements provides helpful advice on the most ethical way to handle common situations.
Q. The lead attorney who prevailed in a difficult lawsuit on behalf of the county asks the
assistant county manager to serve as a professional reference. Is this OK?
A. Yes, serving as a reference gives you the opportunity to talk about your experience with the
vendor in context and respond to questions. Providing a letter of reference is acceptable, too.
The letter should encourage readers to contact you to discuss the company's performance and make
it clear that your comments are not to be used for marketing purposes.
Q. The architectural firm that designed the new county library is adding a photo of the facility to
its new promotional brochure and asks the county manager for a quote touting the firm's design
expertise. Is it ethical for the manager to comply?
A. No. Members should not endorse commercial products or services by agreeing to the use of
their photographs, endorsements, or quotations in paid or other commercial advertisements.
Marketing brochures, Web sites, and press releases are all forms of advertising. Providing a
blanket endorsement for a firm you hired may lead the public to conclude inappropriately that
the local government has placed its seal of approval on the business. This advice holds whether
the member is compensated for the effort or not.
Q. While browsing through the exhibit hall at a conference, you had your picture taken with one of
the conference sponsors. Several months later, a brochure arrives in the mail touting the firm's work,
and it uses that photo on page one. The photo caption clearly identifies you and your position. What
should you do?
A. The best course of action is to call the vendor immediately to request that the vendor stop
distribution of the brochure. Follow up the call with a letter explaining your commitment to the
ICMA Code of Ethics and copy ICMA.
Q. A well-respected colleague is writing the definitive book on community building and has shared
drafts for your review and input. She asks you for a testimonial for the back cover. Is this OK?
A. Yes. Recognizing the value of sharing knowledge, the ICMA guideline permits members to endorse
books or other publications as well as professional development or educational services provided
by nonprofit membership organizations or recognized educational institutions. You should decline
any fee if offered.
The guideline also provides an exception so that members can endorse and promote products or
services in which the local government has a direct economic interest. You are also free to
share in articles or reports for professional publications your observations, opinions, and
analyses of commercial products you used or that were tested by the local government.
Have you encountered an interesting ethical challenge? Please feel free to share your experience
with ICMA by sending an email to email@example.com.
All stories or comments will be considered confidential unless otherwise noted.