Public information officers are a common challenge for reporters who cover both the public and private sectors. Attendees at the Excellence in Journalism conference got the inside scoop at the Censorship by PIO: Challenging Gag Orders on News Sources panel Saturday morning.
The two panelists, Frank LoMonte and Carolyn Carlson, shared best practices for dealing with PIOs. LoMonte is a lawyer and the director of The Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, and Carlson is a former SPJ national president and a recently retired journalism professor at Kennesaw State University.
Here are the tips you need to know:
- When phone calls and emails fail, don’t be afraid to show up at a PIO’s office. Stand outside. Wait in the lobby. Your presence can be powerful and effective.
- If showing up doesn’t work, let the public know agencies are denying you information. Publicly shaming a PIO is quite effective.
- PIOs aren’t the only people with the information you need. Cultivate sources outside of the PIO’s office. Other employees can tell you what need to know, so get them to trust you.
- No matter how you’re treated, do your best to be courteous and professional. Don’t completely lose the PIO as a source.
- This one is for the crime reporters: police departments now sometimes bring a PIO to a crime scene. Get them to talk to you when you show up at the scene. But also talk to witnesses outside of the police tape. They can be just as useful.
- Public records can be vital. Crime incident reports, jail logs, 911 tapes, etc. You have access to it all.
- Are you discouraged by an obstructive PIO? There’s legal research on your side to address public sector gag orders.
- Legal research and case precedent have determined that gag orders on public employees are unconstitutional. While there isn’t a Supreme Court decision on this issue, there is established case law going back to the 1970s that makes it unconstitutional to tell someone not to talk about their work.
- Is someone referring to a policy keeping them from talking to the press? Track. Down. That. Policy. Often, it doesn’t exist or has been created by someone without the authority to make it.
- Universities are a great example of this. A university that tries to restrict its students from talking is not legal and a First Amendment violation.
- Gag orders can sometimes also be illegal in private companies thanks to the National Labor Relations Act.
- NLRA gives employees the right to organize, and it stipulates that employees are allowed to speak about their working conditions. There are some unconstitutional policies out there. Interstate companies can’t gag their employees or expect them to only say favorable things about their boss.
- Your tiny, mom-and-pop store aren’t subject to this. And higher managerial employees also don’t have these protections. It’s the rank-and-file employees at large, interstate businesses who are protected by NLRA.
- PIOs will often put the fear of God into their employees to keep them from talking to the press. They are usually only scared to talk to you because their PIO has made them scared, not the press.
Want to learn more? Here are some handy links for more information on dealing with PIOs and gag orders: http://www.spj.org/pio.asp & http://www.brechner.org