A Primer on Protocol

One of the great things about working in the public relations industry is the opportunity to attend many special events and meet local, state, national and foreign dignitaries. Whether you are in charge of organizing the event or merely a participant, it is important to understand certain protocols. Following protocol can include practical guidelines about where people should sit, in what order speakers should present and what guests should wear. It can also provide guidelines for continuity of tradition and the assurance that guests, dignitaries and visitors are treated with courtesy and respect and greeted appropriately.

Do your homework and learn more about the guests, dignitaries or visitors who may be present at the event before attending. Find a photograph online to improve your likelihood of recognizing the dignitary or guest at the event. If you are uncertain about how to pronounce someone’s name, call their office to find out or ask someone who may know.

Forms of address can vary between cultures, so if you are welcoming foreign visitors ask about titles and pronunciation before their arrival. The following provides some basic information on honorifics and courtesy titles, as well as specific instructions on addressing written correspondence, conversation and place cards for a formal meal.

The Honorable

“The Honorable” is a courtesy title used by federal and state governments to address current and former high officials. Individuals appointed by the U.S. President or elected to public office may be addressed as “The Honorable” for life. Use “The Honorable” in writing only, and before the person’s full name, rather than their title. It is improper for an individual to refer to themselves as “The Honorable.” It may be abbreviated as “The Hon.” or “TH.”

Correct: The Honorable Gretchen Whitmer, Governor of the State of Michigan

Incorrect: The Honorable Governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer

Incorrect: The Honorable Ms. Gretchen Whitmer, Governor of Michigan

Positions addressed as "The Honorable" in the state of Michigan include:

  • Governor

  • Lieutenant Governor

  • Attorney General

  • Justices of the Supreme Court

  • Judges

  • Mayors

  • State Legislators

  • Statewide Elected Officials

  • Other Local Elected Officials

Former Elected Office Holders

When addressing a former president of the United States in a formal setting, he would be correctly addressed as “Mr. Obama.” The same approach applies to any official whose office has only one office-holder at a time, such as mayors, governors and presidents. Precedence and courtesies are extended only to a current office holder. For positions which have multiple office-holders at a time – such as senators, representatives or judges – address a former office holder with their honorific (“Senator Smith”) is appropriate and is not disrespectful to a singular current office holder.

It is appropriate to say “former President Obama” when speaking about the former office holder. This holds for introductions, as well: The current state governor is introduced as “Governor Gretchen Whitmer,” while an ex-governor is introduced as “former Governor Rick Snyder.” In an informal setting, it is acceptable to use the title the ex-official held. For example, in conversation, former President Barack Obama may be referred to as either “President Obama” or “Mr. Obama.”

The chart below is the protocol for specific forms of address for federal officials that include an address on letters, a salutation in letters, a conversational greeting and the appropriate name on a place card. The Official Guide to Names, Titles, and Forms of Address by Robert Hickey is another great resource from The Protocol School of Washington®.

Guidelines for Addressing Federal Officials

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