Thursday, March 12, 2015

Information requests: Be Cautious

By: Susan Finco, President, Leonard & Finco Public Relations

In the past few months, a number of our clients have received “requests for information” from members of the public. Without divulging any confidential information, I can tell you these clients aren’t government entities that are used to handling such requests, which are often made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In each case, the clients reached out to us to get our take on it.  Our “take” can be summed up in one phrase, “be cautious.”

If a request for information is made of your company, and it’s not the type of request you’d normally receive, you need to find out a little bit more before you agree to provide any details. Mainstream journalists will always identify themselves when they request information or interviews. However, community and student activists, as well as citizen journalists, may not be as forthcoming. That’s where you can get into trouble because you don’t know where the information will show up and whether or not it will be edited to suit someone’s particular “slant” on an issue.

Someone requesting information about your policies, procedures or even a recent news story about your firm should be willing to identify themselves. A friendly and calm discussion with them, whether by phone or email, can quickly give you a sense of why they want the information. Don’t promise that you will send everything they ask for; simply let them know you will consider their request and get back to them. After that contact, conduct a general background search on the individual doing the asking as well as whether or not there have been recent online or social media discussions about this topic. Then you can decide whether responding will be helpful or if it will, in some way, compromise your organization or put you in a difficult public position. 
As you respond, do so briefly and truthfully. It also helps if you can direct them to website links (yours or industry groups) as part of your response. Just don’t get engaged in an on-going discussion where you might have a tendency to answer questions off the top of your head. In today’s world, a crisis can ignite in a matter of seconds or with a single email, so be cautious.

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