Now here’s a curious approach to media relations. Hyperlocal news site VentnorBlog has been told by the Isle of Wight council chief executive, Steve Beynon, to use the Freedom of Information Act to find out the answers to questions about a broken lift at the Botanic Gardens. VB raised several issues ahead of a delegated decision on whether to spend £220,000 on a new lift, scheduled for next week.
As these are quite detailed questions and an immediate response is not possible I will ask that these questions are treated as a Freedom of Information request. The relevant officer will be in contact shortly.
And here are the VB’s questions:
- Why does an urgent decision “needed to be made” on this lift when it’s been known about for ten years?
- At a time where the council is cutting back on expenditure from all departments, how does it justify spending £220,000 on a new lift?
- Why hasn’t the council maintained “the fabric of the Visitor Centre” at “an appropriate level” for ten years?
- Who at the council will take responsibility for this information being known about for ten years but not acted on?
- Which senior director at the council will take responsibility for the loss of apparently hundred of thousands of pounds over this period?
- What action was taken against the contractor or architect when it was originally discovered that the list had been fitted incorrectly?
Benyon’s response raises the question of whether a council is obliged to reply to a media’s request for information, or can put them off with Freedom of Information and its 20 day response period. Whatever the case, re-directing to the FoI service doesn’t appear in this recent advice for council media relations issued by Local Government Improvement and Development:
…[T]here are key points to effective reactive media relations including:
- responding to the journalist in full by their deadline or giving a ‘holding statement’ until a full response can be given
- being helpful, polite and positive
- never saying ‘no comment’, as this can sound as if the council has something to hide
- if there is a major hostile enquiry which other media may get hold of, share it with the team and work out the line to take
- ensuring any statements to hostile enquiries are cleared – and send them in writing
- building up a set of ‘experts’ across the council who can brief journalists directly
- ensuring the appropriate council spokesperson is available for interview and is fully briefed
- making sure officers and members are aware of media guidelines and media protocol
- building up facts and figures and background information for big stories
- monitoring response times and cuttings to evaluate how effectively the enquiry has been dealt with.
I’d be interested to hear from other local news journalists who may have encountered similar problems. What advice do you have for the VentnorBlog?