How to use the Freedom of Information Act for PR
Any journalist in the country will be familiar with The Freedom of Information Act 2000. Many, many PR professionals will be as well – those that worked in communications or press offices at public bodies definitely will – and will probably see it mentioned with dread.
As a former journalist, I loved submitting FOIs and often got some of my best stories from them. In fact, my very first front page as a local reporter was revealing that the council for years had barely given out any fines for dog fouling… a real proud day for my parents!
But, while journalists will use it to hold public bodies to account, it is still an under utilised tool in PR, where it can also be a great asset when it comes to telling a story.
What is the Freedom of Information Act 2000?
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 was brought in so the public could access information held by public bodies. This includes councils, hospitals, police forces and even the Government. It means that anyone can request information (this is all recorded information held by the public authority) the body holds and unless one of the exemptions applies, they should provide it.
This opened up a can of worms, with the public and media suddenly entitled to request all sorts of information.
You may recall the MP expenses scandal where it was revealed several were using taxpayer money for frivolous purchases – including one MP who claimed expenses for an island to house the ducks in his pond – which led to resignations.
This all started with the Freedom of Information Act. While in this case it was not quite as simple as ‘a person requested the information and it was provided’, without the act, that information would not have become public.
The expenses scandal and countless other stories have come out because of it – from your local newspaper requesting how many parking fines have been given out in your town to investigations by major national titles.
How can I use it for PR?
The act means that there is a world of information out there that can be a story in its own right or that can bolster or support your next campaign.
For example, a charity campaigning for change could use the act to request figures relating to this to really show and highlight how important the campaign is and why the change is necessary.
Even a business could look at how to use figures owned by public bodies to show why their product or service is important to people and that it will have a real impact.
Whatever service you are offering – if you think figures can highlight its importance or show an issue that exists you are helping with – an FOI could be the route for you.
In so many cases, good figures make a good piece of PR, to really give it that news angle and push you up the news agenda – whether that is locally or nationally – and all you have to do is ask…
How do I make a request?
Saying ‘all you have to do is ask’ may be oversimplifying a bit (and I’ll get on to some tips and pitfalls shortly) but it really is that simple. Think of the information you want and for what period of time and ask for it.
Most public bodies now have a dedicated email address or webpage where you can go and make a request. All you have to do is make it clear you are making a request and what you are requesting. It also helps to put what form you want it in (Excel, PDF, word, a physical letter) so you get the results you want.
Then it’s a waiting game, the authority has 20 days to provide the information requested, or refuse citing one of the exemptions. Then the information is yours to do as you please.
What are the exemptions?
There are quite a few exemptions, which mean the public body does not have to provide the information.
The request can be refused if it would cost too much or take too much staff time to deal with, it is vexatious or it is a repeat request from the same person.
In addition to this, it can be refused for a range of other reasons, such as if it is accessible in another way (e.g. if it has already been published) or it contains personal information.
If your request is refused and you don’t believe it should have been you can appeal to the public body you requested it from and then to the Information Commissioner’s Office.
How can I get the most out of using the Freedom of Information Act?
My biggest tips for getting the most out of your FOI is to make your life as easy as possible but also that of the body that you are requesting information from. This will give you the best chance possible of getting the information you want in an accessible way for you to make the most out of.
- Ask the right place: This may seem simple, but make sure you are asking the organisation that holds the information you want. Don’t be asking councils for information that the police hold or hospitals for information that the ambulance service has – this will lead to a very quick ‘no’.
- Word your FOI carefully and keep it simple: It’s easy to overcomplicate an FOI request. If you overcomplicate it you can end up in a situation where it’s easy for the public body to refuse as they can say it will take too much time to get the information or that they simply don’t hold it. So, just keep it simple – keep it to as few questions as possible, worded in a simple way. This will mean you have the best chance possible of getting the results you want.
- Get figures to compare: While keeping it simple is important, make sure you have data to compare to. For example, if you want to show that more people are being fined for having tyres not suitable for the road, don’t just ask for the figures for the last 12 months but ask for the individual figures for each of the last five years. This way you can look for a trend that you can show to be newsworthy: ‘Five times as many people are being fined for having unsuitable car tyres compared to three years ago’.
- Be prepared to appeal and negotiate: Some organisations will claim an exemption and refuse your request. While you can appeal – sometimes it’s easier to negotiate and still get results. For example, if a council is saying it will take too long to provide a response, you are well within your rights to ask what you can do so that the request is achievable. Sometimes you may feel that it is not an unreasonable request based on time it would take or money it would cost so you are better off stating your case to see if you can get them to change their mind.
- Be organised: This is especially important if you are submitting a request to many organisations at once. The responses will soon start flooding in and if you aren’t organised you’ll have soon lost track of who has responded and who hasn’t. This is easy to do – set up a spreadsheet and track who you have requested information from, when you did it and who has responded. On top of this make sure you have folders set up in your inbox, so you can find them easily.
- Don’t be afraid to chase: Some organisations respond late or not at all and while many will acknowledge the fact the response will be late, some won’t. Once the 20 days have passed, if you have not heard, be prepared to send follow-up emails to ensure you get the information you need in a timely manner.
- Present it clearly and tell a story: Once you have the information, it will finally be time to use it for your campaign. You’ll need to analyse your data to see what it tells you and then present it. It’s easy here to get bogged down in all the numbers, but just keep it simple, keep it clear and make sure you know what story the figures are telling you. Don’t be afraid to simplify the figures in the body of your press release for example as long as you provide detailed figures later on in the notes and aren’t misleading.
You can find out more information on the Information Commissioner’s Office website: How to access information from a public body | ICO
If you’re interested in finding out more about how Social can help you to use FOIs to boost your next campaign please get in touch by clicking here.