Government agencies aren't allowed to use the phrase "public relations," so departments that field press and public inquiries refer to themselves as "public information offices" or some similar title. But when she took over the public affairs office at the Enviromental Protection Agency 23 months ago, Joanie Nicholson wanted her office's title to embrace a broader meaning. Her solution: the EPA's public affairs office branches are now called "offices of public awareness ." These days Nicholson is slightly defensive about hoots from journalists who receive letters and press releases with the name some think one might find uner a Jerry Brown administration . . . On the private side of the aisle, one of the more bizarre press releases reporters receive comes with the red headline "Handgun Tragedy of the Month." A Washington group, Handgun Control, Inc., hopes to publicize its efforts by highlighting in detail murders-by-pistol as they occur around the country. Total for 1979 as of this spring: 2,475 deaths.

Early next year Viking will publish a first bovel by TV Guide's Washington bureau chief, John Weisman, called Evidence . Set in Detroit, it's a thriller about an investigative reporter who "assassinates his dead best friend in print," says Weisman, who adds that his book "is about the ABCs of investigative reporting: Alienation, Betrayal and Cynicism" . . . The first chapter of that book Viking will publish about drugs by Patrick Anderson and Keith Stroup will supposedly detail the famous party where marijuana and cocaine were allegedly used in the company of former White House drug adviser Peter Bourne.

Later this summer the search will begin at the University of Maryland's College of Journalism for a new dean. A nine-month search just ended for a similar honcho at American University with the selection of a former NBC newsman . . . There's a Ford in Victor "The Man & the Myth" Lasky's future. Not Gerald Ford but Henry Ford, will be the subject of an unauthorized biography by Lasky for Marek. Advance: "big six figures," says his agent.