IRE 2016 Tip Sheet: When PIOs fight back

  • The “life cycle” of dealing with a public information officer ranges from source building to protecting your reporting to battling any blowback that may result from your reporting.

  • Don’t contact PIOs until you know as much as you can about the subject you’re researching; PIOs should not be your first call.

  • Increasingly, PIOs are also serving as FOIA officers, which can complicate your records request. Refer to the law, not the PIO, on what information you’re entitled to and remember that you do not need to explain/justify your request.

  • You can always ask for information as opposed to filing a formal request, but only the latter triggers deadlines and invokes legal obligations.

  • Bulletproofing used to mean iron-cladding your stories; now it means preparing for unfounded attacks against you and your reporting efforts.

  • Prepare for the possibility that PIOs or their bosses will try to change the subject and come gunning for you; operate with virtue and document everything.

  • The days of “we stand by our story” are long gone in an era when anyone with an internet connection can find an audience; address criticism of your reporting head-on, explain the process, post key documents, audio/video and proof of attempts to get information and comment.

  • Research before you file: Knowing an exact form that an agency uses or what they're required to keep for how long gives PIOs fewer outs after you file. Places to start:

    • Do a quick search for Records Retention Schedule plus your state's name.
    • Search for an agency's previously released forms on DocumentCloud.
    • See what the agency's previously released by filtering for it on MuckRock (And also see what that agency's average response time and response rate are).