Media Relations and the Right to Know Law

AnnMarie French

On March 18, members of the New Hampshire Municipal Management Association gathered at the Local Government Center for a panel discussion on media relations and the Right to Know Law. Coordinated by the New Hampshire Local Government Center (LGC) with participation by the New Hampshire Press Association, panelists included Foster's Daily Democrat Executive Editor Rod Doherty, New Hampshire Municipal Association (NHMA) Government Affairs Counsel Cordell Johnston, Orr and Reno Attorney Bill Chapman and Town of Durham Administrator Todd Selig.

Panelists shared their respective viewpoints regarding the sharing and gathering of information, covering the basic day-to-day process of reporters and municipal managers to specific aspects of complying with the Right to Know Law. The event provided a unique opportunity for city and town managers and members of the media to share perspectives, discuss challenges and consider ways to improve working relationships.

"Hearing from the town administrators was wonderful," said Meg Heckman, who attended the session and serves as president of the New Hampshire Press Association and staff writer for the Concord Monitor. "It reinforced how complicated government and municipal budgets can be to a brand-new reporter."

The event coincided with National Sunshine Week, an annual initiative of the American Society of Newspaper Editors designed to promote open government. Sunshine Week's roots date back to 2002, when Florida newspaper editors launched the first "Sunshine Sunday" in response to proposed legislative changes to the State's right-to-know laws. Sunshine Week is held each year the week of March 16, which is the birthday of President James Madison and now celebrated as National Freedom of Information Day. (Learn more.)

Historical Context
Setting the stage, Durham's Administrator Todd Selig opened the discussion by reading several historical passages from the pre-Revolutionary-War era when the first seeds of our democracy sprung from what began as "a series of grievances about the king." Among other things, the king's representatives were making decisions at private meetings held outside of public view. As the resulting Declaration of Independence makes clear, our new government was envisioned as one that would be open to the public.

The ongoing push to make documents available and shine light on the government process led to the passage of public information laws. At the federal level, the Freedom of Information Act (also known as FOIA) was passed in 1966 in an effort to start conducting the work of government in the open. States have passed their own laws to address these issues; in New Hampshire, it's RSA 91-A, the Right to Know Law. The media often refer collectively to these laws as "Sunshine Laws."

Perspective: You Both Have a Job to Do
Early in the discussion, panelists acknowledged that each side has a job to do and, in the process, sometimes conflicts arise.

Johnston outlined how difficult it can be for municipal managers and administrators to keep all municipal officials, staff and board members educated on their responsibilities related to the law. The vast majority of committee and board members are volunteers, often with full-time private sector jobs that aren't subject to such laws. "It's a sharp learning curve for a new official," said Johnston.

Coverage of local and municipal issues is often assigned to new reporters, acknowledged Doherty. While newspaper editors provide an overview of municipal government for new staff members, getting up to speed on all the issues is a lot to absorb. Reporters are often under strict deadline pressure and may seem demanding to public officials.

Chapman, who serves as attorney for members of the New Hampshire Press Association, advises clients to use the following process when making a request for information: Place an initial contact by phone outlining requested material and narrow the request, if appropriate. Then, follow up with an email putting the details in writing.

For municipal officials, these requests for information often seem to come at the busiest of times. All panelists and many attendees agreed that a conversation to narrow the request is helpful and can be appropriate when approached correctly. If the reporter feels comfortable discussing a broad request to narrow the document search, the result saves time and money for both parties. The town is able to produce the required files more quickly, and the reporter has less paper to wade through to find what is needed.

Selig suggested using a statement such as, "It's a busy time. I can get this to you, but it's going to take some time." Then, discuss a reasonable timetable. If appropriate, you might both agree to a release documents in stages, particularly if time for extensive redaction is required. Remind the reporter that, much like their newsroom, your office is short staffed and someone will need to put current work aside to fulfill the request. "But, remember that this is part of your job, too," stressed Doherty.

When it comes to responding to reporter questions, beware the dangers of "no comment," as the story rarely ends there. "You said 'no comment.' That doesn't mean we go away. We go elsewhere," said Doherty. Consider whether you are, in fact, the best person to speak to a particular issue. The reporter is going to speak to someone, and the next person they select may not have all the facts. That may lead to an inaccurate story and require follow-up to correct errors.

As the media landscape continues to shift, there are fewer reporters assigned to cover ever-expanding areas. "The more helpful you are," suggested Selig, "the better your chance of getting your story out right."

Help for Problem Issues
Chapman serves on a judicial committee that reviews problem situations relating to media matters and the Right to Know Law. "If you've ever had a problem with the press, there is a process in place to address it," he told attendees, advising them to contact the judicial branch to report the problem. Reporters have specific protocols to follow, and persistent problems will be dealt with in this review process.

Websites: Put It Out There
Websites were a key topic during the panel discussion and throughout 2011 Sunshine Week coverage. The municipal website provides an open and accessible location to make appropriate documents available and show a concerted effort to share information. Chapman advised creating a "Government Records" section on the municipal website and posting all relevant public documents where they can be easily found. "If a story is coming and people are talking about it, think about putting the documents out there," he added.

Tips for Managing Your Media Relations Strategy
At the conclusion of the event, Durham's Administrator Todd Selig shared advice to help municipal managers work effectively with local media. "The media has an important role in reporting honestly and openly what we are doing," said Selig.

The following tip list was provided to meeting participants, who also enjoyed the added benefit of Selig's personal insight into working with the media.

  • Respect the role that the media plays and the pressures reporters are under.
  • Develop a relationship.
  • Don't hesitate to ask clarifying questions or offer topical orientation.
  • Think before you speak.
  • Be honest!
  • Be straightforward with the facts.
  • Answer the question you wish you had been asked. (It's probably the more insightful question, and there can always be follow- up if needed.)
  • Stay on message.
  • Consider being a "source."
  • If you don't talk to the media, someone else will.
  • Don't worry too much about the bad story.
  • Can you be good at your job without being good at this part of your job? No!

"The media are your partners in reaching the public," noted Selig in conclusion. "Build the relationship and establish rapport, and you'll both receive mutual benefit."

As a final note, always think carefully before you speak and remember that every word you say could be tomorrow's headline.

AnnMarie French is a Communications Specialist for New Hampshire Local Government Center. She can be reached at 800.852.3358, ext. 133, or by email.

Remember the Right to Know Law

New Hampshire's Right to Know Law, RSA Chapter 91-A, states: "Openness in the conduct of public business is essential to a democratic society. The purpose of this chapter is to ensure both the greatest possible public access to the actions, discussion and records of all public bodies, and their accountability to the people." RSA 91-A:1.

The Right to Know Law affects every aspect of local government in our state. Every board, committee, commission and subcommittee in every town, city and village district in New Hampshire must comply with this law. As a result, every local official and employee should be aware of the law and what their responsibilities are regarding both public meetings and governmental records.

General Rules:

Public Meetings
All meetings of a public body must be open to the public and require public notice. Minutes must be kept and be made available to the public, upon request, within five business days after the meeting. Public bodies may only enter a nonpublic session for specific reasons listed in the law, and must keep minutes of those sessions.

Governmental Records
Governmental records must be made available for public inspection and copying upon reasonable request. The government must respond to requests within five business days. Certain records are exempt from disclosure, but New Hampshire courts generally assume everything is available to the public unless the governmental agency proves otherwise.

Electronic Communications
Public bodies may not conduct official business via email. Municipal websites may be used as one of the two places for publicly posting notice of meetings. Electronic records must be made available to the public upon request and kept for the same length of time as a paper counterpart.

Visit our Right to Know Law page for more information, and bookmark the page for easy reference. You'll find PDF posters for the above three topics as well as the "Is it a Meeting?" flow chart to help determine if a gathering is a meeting.

The LGC publications Knowing the Territory: A Survey of Municipal Law for New Hampshire Local Officials and Guidebook for New Hampshire Elected City Officials provide an in-depth overview of the Right to Know Law. Visit our Publications page to learn more.

Local officials in NHMA-member municipalities may contact LGC's Legal Services attorneys with questions about the Right to Know Law from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays by calling 800.852.3358, ext. 384.