So, you received a Public Information Act Request. Now What?
Is an investigative journalist, armed with a Texas Public Information Act request, headed your way? Quite possibly. The act allows for the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by state and local governmental entities.
By Joe Gimenez, TEXPERS Guest Contributor
Have you heard about the Texas Monitor? It's an online nonprofit news site whose reporters often use the TexasPublic Information Act to investigate governmental organizations of every type. The PIA is every journalist's best friend – it requires every government entity to turn over any report, email, or data they generate to conduct business. In Houston, the Texas Monitor's information requests led to indictment of a press secretary for failure to turn over public records. In another case, the Texas Supreme Court jumped into a fray, causing open government activists to go on the war path for even broader powers.
In San Antonio, an investigative reporter used Public Information Act requests to gain pension fund travel records and public safety department records. The San Antonio journalist's news piece was TV media sensationalism at its worst – any Texas pension fund whose trustees do a due diligence trip or attend an educational conference could have been similarly smeared. Nonetheless the story is there, inspiring pension-fund haters with baseless conjecture about San Antonio heading down troubled paths. Totally false.
In San Diego, open government intervenors have used public records requests to ferret out pension disability benefits. They think disability claims are fraught with fraud. Texas has similar watchdog groups and they follow their California brethren. It's only a matter of time before your pension system will earn its Public Information Act request, warranted or not.
The problem is that pension funds are difficult for most journalists to understand, and their stories sometimes become filled with inaccuracies, innuendo and false impressions. Before you know it, a false narrative about your system is the only thing that people in your city will think about you. Gold-plated benefits. Travel abuse. Disability fraud. Spiked pensions.
So what should you do when that public information request comes in?
As San Antonio Trustee Jim Smith recently told a TEXPERS Summer Educational Forum audience, first seek professional assistance. Media relations professionals can help begin framing the story from the first bit of data requested. Reporters need context; they should never be expected to become pension fund operations experts. Only you or your media advisor can help them with that. If you do it yourself, be sure to try to attain some objectivity to the situation. An outside advisor can help with their third party perspective. On the other hand, be sure any advisor you hire understands pension funds as well as you do. Your first response to the journalist should strive not to compel a reporter to continue digging.
Another possibility is that the journalist expands their dig to other governmental agencies which touch on the pension fund. Or, after their first request for information, they send in a second request for all emails related to the first request. That may look worse in the news report than the original issue.
Some investigative reporters also like to employ ambush tactics. They submit their public information request, find something and then they confront you at the next board meeting, camera in your face. It's happened, time and again. What to do?
Again, a media professional will know what you're up against and can help minimize the possible damage. Ask them to serve as your spokesperson and designate them as the single point of contact. If you decided to have a spokesperson from the pension fund be sure they are media trained. And since ambushes happen, it's a good idea to provide media training for all your board members and executive staff. It may cost a bit, but it is professional training that can serve this and other situations.
In addition, work up contingency plans. Create draft communications for your members, vendors, investment professionals and elected officials – anyone who comes in contact with the pension fund. You might not know the direction the final news report might take, but have two or three responses in mind pending which direction it does take.
You or your media professional should encourage the reporter to see that they are on the heels of a non-story, that what appears to be scintillating stuff is actually part of the mundane world of pensions. You all might not be able to convince the reporters to kill the story, but you should work toward minimizing the negative and outlandish.
Finally, take these information requests very seriously from the first moment you receive it. Think about seeking help before they ever arrive if you know of a situation which might someday be ripe for media attention. The most costly thing to do is doing nothing until the request hits. Then you will pay exorbitant amounts in the damage done to the reputation of your pension fund. You may not be able to dig out.
About the Author:
Joe Gimenez is public relations professional who specializes in pension fund communications. He has assisted TEXPERS and several Texas pension funds in crisis situations and public affairs.