Freedom of Information laws can help cause-related publicity

Whether or not you’re a fan of Tony Blair, one of the welcome things that came into being under his watch was the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) in 2000. This gave UK citizens a legal right to information held by most public authorities. American citizens have had this right for some time, of course, and the UK is now one of about 85 countries that have introduced similar rights. Now, back to this post’s subject: how can you use FOI as part of your organisation’s PR activities? There is no universal answer as it depends on what your organisation does and what it’s aims are, but here’s an example I orchestrated a few years ago, which might prompt some ideas.

Pre-recession (and a change in government), I was working with a trade association of large construction companies and building products manufacturers. It wanted to put pressure on central government to maintain its promises to increase capital spending on essential public infrastructure, namely hospitals, transport, housing and schools. Part of this campaign was an annual monitoring report on the subject designed to hold government to account. I was asked for ideas to make the report a little more newsworthy.

Among my suggestions was to make Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to the facilities management departments of the top 20 NHS Health Trusts (which run UK hospitals), asking them about the size of their respective repairs backlog, and in particular, the amount of work still outstanding to meet basic hospital fire safety regulations, which had recently been tightened.

From the answers we were able to compile a Top 20 worst-to-best league table for hospital fire safety. Releasing this alongside the usual annual report gave a potent illustration of the scale of outstanding repairs in UK hospitals and an attractive, topical talking point for journalists. It also gave us a story angle for local media. The whole thing cost very little and worked very well indeed, providing a platform around which the trade association’s chief executive could make his key points. He was able to do so in The Financial Times and numerous other national and regional media outlets.

As a tactic worth considering, I don’t think it matters whether you sell to the public sector or not. All you need is an issue that you want to be associated with and a little imagination. Plus there are now websites geared around making multiple FOI requests easier to administer, such as www.whatdotheyknow.com. A little time spent browsing the requests and responses made should soon provide lots of ideas. It will also produce some fascinating trivia. For example, I just found out that Royal Mail used a staggering 870 million elastic bands in f/y 2007-8. If your company supplies these and Royal Mail is not on your sales prospects list, it’s time to correct that situation quickly.

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