The FOI dilemma
Anyone can issue a Freedom of Info (FOI) request but that doesn’t mean they should. The FOI Act gives anyone the right to access recorded information held by public organisations.
That includes organisations such as publicly owned companies, the police, health trusts and hospitals, schools, local councils and government departments.
The media routinely use this legislation to create exclusive headlines by uncovering detail that otherwise go unreported or unseen. The expenses scandal that ultimately led to the jailing and shaming of a number of MPs began as a result of a string of FOIs.
Used well, the act allows the media to powerfully exert its duty to hold public bodies to account.
What’s important to say here is that while Freedom of Information requests are usually free at the point of delivery, they don’t come at zero cost.
The £35.5m hidden cost of FOI requests
The person issuing an FOI request is unlikely to be asked for payment except in specific and relatively unusual circumstances. That could be for disbursements like photocopying or where the estimate of the cost of answering the request would exceed the acceptable limit, for example.
But every time a request is submitted, someone has to invest time and energy - sometimes a lot of it - into finding and presenting the answer. As that individual works for the public body in question, there’s very often an indirect cost to the taxpayer as well as additional workload and stress on individuals who often have to balance Freedom of Information responsibilities alongside other roles. So do stop and think before you submit an FOI. It’s also not exactly a ‘free hit’ for you if you submit a spurious FOI and then spend a lot of time and effort sifting through figures that bear little or no fruit.
How FOI requests can be used for PR campaigns
Garden shed seller Tiger Sheds got national media coverage when it used an FOI to get figures from police forces to show how rates of shed break-ins had changed over the course of a few years.
Similarly, contact lens firm Feel Good Contacts got coverage in The Sun when it obtained figures from the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency around the number of learner drivers failing their test due to poor eyesight.
In both cases, the data generated by the FOI request created a real news story that was highly relevant to the businesses involved and could be presented to media outlets as a neat package of headline worthy figures and supporting expert comment. In return for doing the legwork, the brands in question received the sort of exposure they might otherwise struggle to achieve.
It could also be said that the resulting stories were in the public interest and shone a light on issues that had importance above and beyond that of just publicising the companies at the root of them. They met the ‘public interest’ test as well as the PR test. If possible, you should always aim for this. The reader - and the journalist - will respect content more if it passes both hurdles.
FOI request pitfalls
It’s worth remembering that the information gleaned through a Freedom of Information may not necessarily remain exclusive to you.
Some organisations will automatically publish all FOI requests they receive and the associated answers. There’s little you can do about this. You really just have to hope that no-one else picks up on the information and uses it before you’re ready with your campaign and to ensure you move as quickly as you can.
For a PR campaign, it’s quite likely you’ll wish to approach a number of bodies to gain figures that offer the opportunity for comparison. This can be time-consuming and, as different bodies store information in different ways, it’s worth taking some time to hone your question carefully. Before you ask dozens of authorities, also take a moment to reflect on your capacity to deal with all the data you’ve requested.
How to do an FOI
To carry out a FOI request you need to contact, in writing, the organisation that holds the information you require.
This can usually be done via email. Often organisations have an online form they like you to use. It’s wise to take a look on the website of the organisation in question to see what guidance and advice it offers.
Before you make a request, you should ensure the information you are seeking is not already available by another means or hasn’t previously been requested. Often organisations publish responses to previous FOIs you can check through. You also need to be sure that the organisation you are contacting is the correct one for the information you require. If necessary, make contact with the organisation to check before submitting a formal FOI.
In order to get a response, you’ll need to give your name, a contact address and a detailed description of the information you want. Ensure you are specific, citing time frames you’d prefer the information to cover and offer alternatives, if you can, to allow for the fact that the data may be recorded in a particular way.
An example might be: “Please could you tell me the number of FOI requests received by the authority between Jan 1 2018 and Dec 31 2018? If the information cannot be given for the time period requested (i.e 2018), if possible, could you provide answers to the same question for any recent 12 month period?”
By law, you should get a response within 20 working days.
A conclusion on using FOI requests for PR campaigns
FOI requests are undoubtedly a fantastic way to generate a PR-worthy news story and campaign. Take the time to sense check what you’re asking - is an FOI the only way to get this data and will it create a public interest story?
Then, the trick is to ensure you present the data you generate in an engaging and creative way.
Raising an FOI request or numerous FOI requests is just one step in the process of creating impactful content, and/or a compelling PR campaign. It takes skill and time to make an FOI request work for your PR campaign, but executed well, it’s worth it.
Louise Chapman, Senior content editor here at Zazzle Media.