Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Freedom of Information Act requests are the sledgehammer in the journalists' toolbox

As an in-house PR at a public sector organisation, I have to deal with my fair share of Freedom of Information Act requests. I welcome them: transparency and openess for all organisations are good things, and even more so when public funds are being administered or used.

When the FOI Act first came in, I was a journalist at the Express and Star and I remember the excitement in the newsroom. It was an almost overwhelming thrill: "we can ask for anything!" But as wonderful as they can be, Freedom of Information Act requests are open to over-use.

Good journalists know that they have many other tools they can use to extract information from organisations, including good old-fashioned nurturing of the contacts book. Instead of going to the hassle of submitting an FOI, there's a lot to be said for giving an organisation a call and simply asking the question.

Good PRs should treasure their relationships with journalists. If they want to keep the relationship on a positive footing, they'll do everything in their power to supply the journalist with whatever he or she wants, knowing that nothing winds reporters up like being given the run around.

On occasion there's no other way to get the information the journalist needs; that's when she or he should pull out the FOI request, and the PR should snap to it. While the PR might not always like it, it plays an important part in a democracy where journalists (and citizens) are given their rightful respect.

(If this is an area that interests you Martin Rosenbaum writes brilliant blog about it.)

5 comments:

  1. You also need to distinguish between ALMOs and RSLs. RSLs are not public entities under FOI definition, so FOI requests don't apply (yet!)

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  2. Thanks Steve, I didn't know that. Useful to know :)

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  3. Though I believe there is a court case being fought to establish that at least some RSLs should be covered by the act.

    It seems to me that there is a case for bodies that are troubled by this to work to rule. Often, in my experience, journalists ask questions, the act only covers documents. So make them ask for the document.

    And of course you don't have to meet the request if the information is already published on your web site. Which is a strong incentive just to get it out there in the first place.

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  4. Thanks Ben. I think RSLs should be covered - it's public money after all, why shouldn't the public (or journalists) be able to find out how it's spent?

    For the relationship maintenance with journalists I'd always try to go further than making them ask for a document and positively offer it. That way you reinforce that your organisation is open and transparent.

    I definitely agree there's a strong incentive to get stuff on the website - much easier just to send a link ;)

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