‘Don’t be a jerk:’ Pro tips from a public information director

Susan Moran, public information director for the Town of Cary, N.C.

Susan Moran, public information director for the Town of Cary, N.C.

I often use this blog to feature journalists who are doing excellent work using public records. Now let me introduce you to Susan Moran, public information director for the Town of Cary, N.C., who knows her stuff when it comes to the public records law.

I’ve heard Susan speak at several Sunshine Week events in North Carolina over the years and have admired her blunt advice, including this great line – “Don’t be a jerk.” I asked her to share some advice for how journalists and PIOs can better work together when it comes to public records and to explain how she handles public information requests for Cary, a town of about 144,000 people.

Q: How does Cary handle public records, records requests and posting information online?

A: It starts at the top with the expectations for openness, responsiveness, and practicality set by our Town Council and implemented by their hire, the Town Manager, who serves as the CEO for our organization. Knowing and fully supporting the letter and spirit of all laws, not just those involving public records and open meetings, is a foundation of our organizational culture. It’s how we do business. It’s even in our Statement of Values.

As for putting it into action, back in 1997 the Town Council decided to go paperless, directing that we get rid of those large, paper, bimonthly meeting agenda packets that so many local governments still use and, instead, putting all the materials online for them. The result, which they understood and embraced, was that citizens, media – everyone – would get all the information at the same time. The Town didn’t even have a website back then; posting these public records online was the reason that the Town’s website was created, and today, that site has grown to over 55,000 files, serving almost like the municipal government’s encyclopedia.

Beyond going paperless, the Council adopted a policy that directs saff on how to support the NC Public Records Laws, including deciding for Cary that, whenever possible, “as promptly as possible” would be interpreted as two business days – our standing goal for responding to most public records requests.

The good news is that with such a robust website, most everyone can find the more frequently requested information for themselves 24/7; they don’t have to come to us.

Finally, and I think just as importantly, is the annual training we do as part of Sunshine Week, which our Town Clerk’s Office leads. They try to come up with fun yet meaningful activities to keep records management best practices in the forefront of what we’re doing each day for our community.

Q: What advice you have for other local governments about dealing with public records and requests?

A: First, let’s be clear that every place is different. I know; I’ve worked in a lot of different places – county government, state government, public schools, universities, the private sector…And I get that the way we do it in Cary wouldn’t necessarily work out of the gate for every place in every situation. That said, I do think there are some points that transcend organizational boundaries:

It starts at the top. If the organization is going to be consistently open and responsive, that lives or dies with the CEO and her/his governing board. They either set the clear expectation, provide the necessary resources, and hold their folks accountable, or they don’t. And I can’t overstate the importance of the resources part. You have to provide the tools and training and time to do their jobs when it comes to records requests just like you have to with all the other responsibilities staff have in their daily work.

Know the law. Know what you must give, can’t give, and could give and why. For most requests, there’s not a lot of gray area, and in my 20+ years of doing governmental PR, I’ve only come across a few instances where I’ve been asked for something that clearly was to be protected, but it’s on you, the custodian, to know what you’re doing. Keeping private records private is as important under the law as providing access to public records.

Have a game plan. In Cary, it’s our Public Records Policy and the standard practices we’ve developed over the years for appropriately responding to records requests. Read about it in the Public Records section of http://www.townofcary.org.

Know the difference between responding to requests for records and requests for information, the latter of which can involve lots of time doing investigative research and numbers crunching that’s not required under the law. You may decide you want to do that for media and others, but you don’t have to under the law. And if you decide to do it for one, you should be committed to doing it for all every time. If you can’t live up to that promise, then stick to the records.

Do the right thing. We’ve all heard of times when a reporter asked for a record using a specific, incorrect title, and what they got in return was nothing because the title was wrong. Yet, a record containing the information, just titled something else, was there all along. Whether it’s playing games with the names of records or just not being responsive, nine times out of 10 the record gets out there, and then you have two problems: whatever the record was containing that you didn’t want to deal with publicly and now the perception that you were trying to cover it up, even if you really weren’t.

Be as committed to fulfilling records requests as you are to your favorite task at work because, as much as it may feel differently to you at the time, that records request is just as much a part of your job description as anything else you’ve signed up for. Following state law isn’t optional.

Don’t be a jerk. Media aren’t just media; many live in your community and are, at a minimum, some of the citizens you’ve promised to serve (and I hope serve well) in your job.

Q: What advice you have for journalists and members of the public who are making records requests?

A: And we come full circle here by saying again — Don’t be a jerk; in fact, be friendly. Yes, providing access to records is PART of an overworked, underpaid staff member’s job, but, just like anything else, how you treat the custodian of that record can put you at the top of the day’s To Do List or the bottom.

Pick up the phone. Unless you’re dealing with a lawyer, don’t make your first contact for a record that threatening, legalese email that cites your rights under GS 132. You can always follow-up your call with a confirmation email. Save the threat if it’s needed.

Develop relationships not just sources.

Investigate. Know the organization’s public records policies and practices before having to make your first request so that you can get what you want as quickly as possible.

Read. Most local governments have websites now, and many are chocked full of the information you want. Go look for it first. Yes, media are underpaid and overworked, too, but you’re the one that’s “on deadline.” Use the tools you have.

Don’t cite FOIA. It shows you don’t know what you’re talking about. Most things in NC local government aren’t subject to FOIA.

Tell us why. No, you don’t have to, but lots of times, you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, and you’re asking for the haystack, which is taking us time and will, in turn, take you lots of time. Why not try for the needle and give us both a break?

Know whether you’re asking for a record or for information, the latter of which we don’t have to provide and will sometimes take more time. That’s where relationships and not being a jerk can really help you.

Double-check assumptions. You may think that a particular record you want is a smoking gun, but you may have totally misunderstood the role that a particular record is playing in your investigation.

Put wait time into your plan. Everyone you call for records is busy doing other things, and while you’re request is important, many folks can’t or won’t be willing to drop what they’re doing for others to help you jump to the front of the line. Ask what’s a reasonable time for getting your record and negotiate from there if needed.

Finally, don’t make the same records request of several people within the organization at the same time in hopes that one will quickly hit. You’ll be unnecessarily burning lots of peoples’ time, people who talk to each other and find out later what you did “to them.” That’s jerk behavior.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share?

A: Yes. First, thanks for doing this post. It reinforces what I’ve seen for years with WRAL – good people trying hard to get it right and in the right way.

Second, while there are real, terribly sad and disturbing stories every day around the world of governments not doing their best for the people they serve, most of us, just like most in the media, come to work every day choosing service as our way of life, and most of us are doing the right thing. As we interact together day-in and day-out, I think we do our best when we work as partners toward the shared goal of making the most of each others’ resources to help ensure a vital, informed, and involved citizenry.

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