My small, woman-owned public relations/marketing firm, Advice Unlimited, has been serving the Federal government marketplace for nearly 30 years to help companies with innovative technology get their solutions to the government. Every month, I’ll offer unlimited advice on how to work with this unique market. Please email me with questions or comments.

Advice Unlimited

Advice Unlimited

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Women in Homeland Security

I had the pleasure and honor of being included in a select group of women to be interviewed by HSTV Channel's editor in chief, Dan Verton, for a video on Women in Homeland Security. The purpose of the video is to provide insight and perspective on how the marketplace has changed in relation to how women in the homeland security workforce are treated. It was a fascinating experience to reminisce and think back through my career of 30 years regarding how the treatment of women has changed. Bottom line - a lot has changed for the good - and we still have a long way to go. But we're definitely moving in the right direction! See what you think...

Friday, November 20, 2009

Leveraging Social Media in Crisis Communications

There’s a lot of buzz around social media these days – why is this such a popular topic? Not just because it’s new; I think it’s also because it’s a great way to communicate quickly with a broad audience. What is this really good for? Communicating in a crisis.
If there’s a natural disaster, if there’s a pandemic or food contamination, if there’s a horrible crime spree or terrorist attack – a driving force is to calm the public and provide guidance on appropriate activity to keep everyone as safe as possible. In addition to the tremendous challenge of assessing the situation and crafting this crucial message, delivery of this message to the broadest amount of people as quickly as possible has always been a daunting task. Harnessing the power of social media can help tremendously.
Now is the time to update your organization’s crisis communications plan, and include a section on social media. What social media activities has your organization implemented for standard operating procedure? How do you leverage these tools in a crisis? Who has jurisdiction, what are the processes needed to ensure messages from the right source can be disseminated through the right tools speedily and appropriately? What processes are in place to get feedback, answer the public’s questions and concerns, and encourage and manage an effective dialog?
Spending the time now to review the how, what, why, where, and who of using these tools is time well spent, to help ensure your organization is ready to roll out an effective crisis communications effort when needed, using all of today’s new tools and advantages.

Sandy Evans Levine is president of Advice Unlimited, a public relations/marketing firm that works with high tech companies who sell to the government, and with the government directly. Ms. Levine holds Top Secret clearance within the Intelligence Community. Founding Advice Unlimited in 1983, Ms. Levine, formerly a journalist, and her team of media relations experts have extensive experience in media crisis management and crisis communications for companies and government organizations, and work extensively with social media for public outreach and education. She brings an organized approach to dealing with problem situations, focusing on the ability to calm fears, reassure the public, and protect sensitive sources and methods. . For more information visit or email

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Focused Crisis Communications Saves Company

So how prepared are you, really, for a disaster? How often do you review and update your crisis communications plan? How frequently do your spokespeople go through a refresher media training course? And have they been prepped in working with different types of media and different challenging scenarios?

Those organizations with actual plans that are updated and reviewed on a regular basis consistently have greater success in reassuring their audience, building trust and confidence with that audience, and surviving the disaster with the least scarring and damage. Those with no plan don’t usually fare so well. Ideal: make a plan now – when disasters are theoretical and can be thought through – and update it every 6-8 months!

Scenario: new client is a thrift in serious financial trouble. No disaster preparedness plan; no media outreach plan; my firm is called in 2 days before the information is made public.

First step: establish a very small, trusted team to define and implement initial actions.
Decisionmakers and ‘need to know’ personnel only! The smaller the team, the easier it is to get things done and to ensure there are no leaks. And be sure everyone understands the concept ‘need to know’: one of the executives was dating a TV reporter – a fact I was unaware of until said TV reporter ‘broke’ this story a day before the announcement was scheduled to be made.

Second step: what is of top concern to your audience? Define what your key message is, in terms of what is most important for your audience to hear and understand immediately.

In this case, it was simple: we needed to reassure our customers their money was safe. Yes, the thrift had some serious financial problems, but they were working with the government to solve their problems, and expected to continue to serve their customers for many years to come. No one was losing their jobs, no branches were closing. Aggressive measures were being taken to solve the problems, and their money was safe.

Step three: what is the most appropriate and efficient way to communicate this message to your audience? And step four: what other support efforts will help you communicate this message, and reinforce the message with actions that reassure, support, and help to solve the problem for your audience?

Be sure the medium you use to communicate your top message is actually used by your top audience. In other words, if a large portion of your target audience doesn’t own computers, then email blasts, social networking and websites aren’t the best delivery tools. Our target audience was largely older, they didn’t own computers, they didn’t even trust TV. So we used newspapers. We had our CEO talk directly to his customers in newspaper ads and posters, and explain clearly that their money was safe. We set up a press conference for the day of the announcement, and town hall meetings at several local nursing homes and senior community centers. We set up a hotline to answer questions and respond to customer concerns, staffed it with our best tellers who were caring, confident in our message and had great people skills, and plastered the number for the hotline everywhere. We wanted people to call, so that they would have their questions answered and be reassured that yes, their money was safe.

Step five: spokespeople need media training, and need to be prepped for challenging situations

Immediately following the TV reporter’s surprise story on our pending announcement, we moved our announcement up to immediately. Amazingly, all the TV stations and reporters from the local newspapers showed up on our front door within minutes. The CEO thought it would be great for us to go out and greet them; it was all I could do to keep up with him as he moved through the doors to the outside steps – and then he froze. He had never been confronted with several TV mikes thrust in his face. Fortunately, I was beside him and swiftly stepped in as primary greeter, delivering our key message and then graciously introducing our CEO and inviting his comments once he had his bearings. He was brilliant from that point on, and no one missed a beat.

Step six: tell the truth, and always be honorable

Things didn’t go perfectly, but throughout this effort, we were constantly reaching out to communicate with our audience, through tools they used and trusted, and we were honest – we told our customers what we were doing to solve the problems, explained what had gone wrong, and how we were moving forward. Throughout, we kept focused on what our customers cared about and how they would be affected. Happy ending: there was no run on this thrift; and in fact, it was bought six months later by a large, very sound financial institution and continues to serve its many customers today.

Sandy Evans Levine is President of Advice Unlimited, a public relations firm serving IT companies and the government, based in Olney, MD. Ms. Levine can be reached at 301-924-0330 or

Friday, October 2, 2009

Consistency is Key for Successful Public Relations

Now that the new government fiscal year has begun (the government fiscal year runs from October 1 through September 30), it’s time to review what public relations/marketing efforts you have in place, define your goals for this new fiscal year, and implement! You’ll get lots more attention in the fall and winter as decisionmakers have time to think through what they’re looking for, how they’re planning on changing and improving their organizations, and what solutions will help them achieve their goals for this year.

The most effective public relations effort is a consistent effort throughout the year, which focuses on highlighting customer success stories, establishes your company as a thought leader in specific areas of expertise, and ties in your company and your company's offerings with trends in the government marketplace. A professional pr consultant that works with the government space can help you with such an effort; the results will be significant. Advice Unlimited has delivered a minimum 3-4X ROI for all of our clients throughout our 26-year history; you should demand no less.

Government agencies buy products and services throughout the year through several channels including: long term projects that involve RFPs and competitive bids and can involve commitments over several years; purchases through the GSA Schedule; and IDIQ (Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity) contracts, among others.

They are consistently, throughout the year, looking at how to solve different problems. The most effective public relations, advertising, marketing and sales efforts mirror your customers needs, they also need to be consistent throughout the year, proactively communicating how your solutions solve the government's real problems.

That said, there are cycles to selling to the government, particularly for commodities. Government agencies get a budget for the year and they cannot overspend; they also want to spend the total budget, as anything that's left is lost and could mean a reduced budget for the next year. So many agencies are careful and frugal with the budget at the beginning of the year, focusing on programs and materials they absolutely need, and then start spending more aggressively in May as they see what they have left in the budget. The most aggressive spending is usually May through August, often with final paperwork literally coming across the fax machines at the end of September. In October we begin with a fresh slate – new budget, often new focus, fresh energy – and new search for that perfect solution to help the organization meet its mission…maybe yours?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Understanding the Federal Government as a Customer

Understanding your customer is an important step towards effectively communicating the value of your products and services. There are three key differences between government markets and commercial markets, differences you can act on to improve your success.

1.) Efficiency. Government agencies are not driven by profitability or the bottom line. They strive for efficiency. How will your product or service help them do more with less?

2.) Uniqueness. All government agencies feel strongly that they are unique, and they are. The responsibility is upon you, as the person hoping to sell to them, to:
• learn about the government marketplace as a whole,
• learn about the specific agency and division you want to sell to, and
• understand what they do, their specific challenges, and how your product or service can provide a solution for these challenges, to help them meet their mission.

3.) Procurement. The procurement process is significantly different in the government space: it is designed to protect against bias and ensure equality with the end result that it is more comprehensive, more complex and more challenging to the sales process. In addition, government agencies are huge enterprise organizations with many different decisionmakers for various programs and offices. This often makes it difficult (but not impossible!) to target who your salespeople should be calling on, and where your public relations and marketing efforts should be targeted.

Smart government agency executives champion solutions, not products or services. They embrace those vendors who can clearly communicate how their products or services provide solutions to their unique challenges, and who consistently deliver on their promises.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Is your organization searching for new approaches and solutions? Need to refocus and re-energize? Our Brainfry™ can help – this unique strategy session helps you refocus your energies on where you want to go and what you want to accomplish – it’s a great activity for end of year funds, to help you plan and prepare for the beginning of a new fiscal year. To encourage you to take this important step…

Advice Unlimited is pleased to offer its Brainfry™ at a special 20% summer discount, for all orders received before August 31, 2009.

To accomplish one's goals, an organization must understand where it is trying to get to and think through how best to get there. Advice Unlimited, a small, woman-owned business, can help – through our Brainfry for top executives. This is a focused, intense version of our strategic planning effort, for those organizations with minimal budgets and time. We provide this unique approach to deliver some of the key subjective and qualitative efforts from the more comprehensive approach, for those organizations who want strategic messaging and goals but can't commit time or resources to a more comprehensive effort. For a Brainfry, we conduct a SWOT Analysis (a process created by the Harvard Business School that defines an organization's Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) with top executives of the organization. We integrate key elements of that intensive discussion with our expertise and market knowledge to create a positioning paper that provides recommended goals, key messages, an elevator pitch and boilerplate. This activity is especially popular with organizations looking to deliver a new service or test a new direction, where time is of the essence and budgets are tight. The cost for a Brainfry is $10,000.00, and includes preparation and facilitation for one 4-hour session at the client’s site, and the delivery of the positioning paper 2-3 weeks following the Brainfry session. It is recommended that participants be limited to a maximum of 9 people per session.

Until the end of August, 2009…Advice Unlimited is pleased to offer this intensive class for only $8,000 for our government customers. To take advantage of this 20% discount, please call 301-924-0330 or email; the order must be confirmed before August 31st, 2009 to receive this discount. Classes may take place anytime within the next 6 months. Advice Unlimited accepts government credit cards.

Prepare NOW so working on the next set of objectives and goals is a positive experience rather than a crisis – we’re looking forward to working with you!

For more information on the services we provide and the organizations we support, please visit

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Reaching Government Decisionmakers

The government marketplace has always been regarded as one with high barrier to entry - the perception was that you need to make a significant commitment of resources and manpower, there are a myriad of rules and regulations to comply with, and that its an extremely complex market to break into, requiring a long time before reaping a significant return on investment. Most of these perceptions are accurate - but the payoff is significant. And if you truly have a technology that meets current needs, the government wants to find you. So how do you break through?

First and foremost, the government marketplace is spending serious money on information technology, and Federal IT spending will remain on the fast track through the end of the decade, according to a new forecast from Input, a major market research firm that covers the government space. Government spending for IT is expected to rise at an annual rate of 3.5 percent, from $76.2 billion this year to $90.3 billion by fiscal 2014, bringing $14.1 billion new dollars to the market over the next five years.

In particular, Federal agencies are expected to spend $60 billion in stimulus funding on IT security measures.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks changed the way federal agencies approach IT security. The amount of federal money spent on IT security had been increasing modestly before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but it increased dramatically after that — 100 percent in fiscal 2002 and 50 percent in 2003. Civilian agencies spent about $1.6 billion on IT security in fiscal 2005. And now, with the appointment of a Cyber Czar that reports directly to the President, announced this past May, and a significantly increased commitment and focus on cybersecurity, that number is sure to continue to grow.

However, along with this increased spending is a heightened sense of fiscal responsibility. Throughout the government — military and civilian alike — executives are under pressure to do more with less. There are transforming initiatives at work across all agencies, and a real push for transparency and accountability that expects technology to be a key element for success.

Within this environment, the government marketplace can be lucrative if you understand its unique requirements, deliver real value-add, and market yourself appropriately. The key to help you scale the barrier to entry is focused, strategic public relations – the best bang for the buck in any marketing arsenal – and networking-focused, relationship-building marketing.