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Ethics Feature: Testimonials, References, and Endorsements
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 All stories or comments will be considered confidential unless otherwise noted.
Arizona City/County Management Association
1820 W. Washington Street, Phoenix, AZ 85007   •   Phone: (602) 258-5786   •   Fax: (602) 253-3874   •