Don’t let the snowfall fool you, March 12-18 is Sunshine Week! This initiative, spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors, brings awareness to transparency in government and freedom of information. Having access to public records is crucial for journalists and reporters – often times, it is the backbone to a major news story.
By utilizing The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), reporters can and will file a FOIA request to gain access to a broad range of records possessed by a public entity, and share their findings with the public. This includes all types of documentary information, like e-mails, letters, photos, reports and sound recordings. The law states that a person can ask a public or government entity for a copy of its records on a specific subject and the public body must provide those records.
So, you’re a public entity and you’ve just received a FOIA request – what do you do? It’s important to have a plan in place to work through these situations using smart public relations strategies and tactics to protect your organization and get the right information to the public.
FOIA requests can sometimes lead to a crisis in a public entity. Here are our top tips to effectively and efficiently handle a FOIA request:
- Contact your FOIA Officer Every public body must appoint a FOIA Officer and display and make public the officer’s contact information. It is this person’s responsibility to receive FOIA requests from the public and to send responses in compliance with the law.
- Respond in a Timely Manner A public body has five days to respond to a FOIA request. Under certain circumstances, the time period may be extended for an additional five days. Ignoring a FOIA request or missing the deadline can lead to heavy fines and litigation.
- Seek PR Counsel If information obtained by a FOIA is used to portray or expose your organization in an unfavorable light, engage PR counsel to implement smart public relations strategies and tactics to clear up confusion and dispel mistrust.
At Chartwell Agency, we’ve worked with many clients to help navigate these situations and assist in protecting their brand. And, while FOIA requests may be common, they’re not always “sunshine and roses.” We’re here to help.
-RoseAnn Haedt, Communications Strategist