APRIL 23, 2018
At this year’s PRSA Georgia Annual Conference, Natalye Paquin, CEO of Points of Light, reminded attendees of the responsibility and obligation of communications professionals to remain transparent and truthful: “When loyalty comes up against integrity, integrity must win.”
This timely advice came only weeks after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News revealed a text message exchange between a spokeswoman on former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s communications staff and the Watershed Department communications director that appeared to be in violation of the Georgia Open Records Act. This important act mandates that government officials provide responsive documents within three business days of a request if they are available.
In the days following the AJC and Channel 2’s news coverage of this conversation, Georgia Attorney General Christopher Carr’s office asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to launch a criminal probe of the text message exchange that appeared to coordinate a delayed release of public information requested under the Act. The text messages between the two city spokeswomen were in response to a February 28, 2017 information request from Channel 2, requesting water billing history of properties owned by Mayor Reed and his brother, Tracy Reed. “So I would be as unhelpful as possible,” the text messages read. “Drag this out as long as possible. And provide information in the most confusing format available.”
This media moment offers an important lesson for communications professionals. The Georgia Open Records Act explicitly states that “any person or entity knowingly and willfully … frustrating or attempting to frustrate the access to records by intentionally making records difficult to obtain or review shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.” While violations are typically punished with a fine, they could potentially result in up to a year behind bars.
As PR professionals, it is imperative that we understand how open records requests are both made and fulfilled. Here’s what you should know about the Georgia Open Records Act:
Under this law, what qualifies as a public record?
Public records include documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, computer based or generated information, data, data fields, or similar material prepared and maintained or received by an agency. This ranges from police departments and local governments to public school systems and universities.
How do I submit an Open Records Request in the state of Georgia?
You can submit an Open Records Request directly to the government agency’s custodian of the records. Detailed instructions for submitting these requests will be available on the agency’s website. For documentation purposes, it’s best to make these requests in writing.
When can I expect my Open Records Request to be processed and fulfilled?
Under the Georgia Open Records Act, all public records are available for inspection and copying unless they are specifically exempted from disclosure under the law. If a government agency or custodian of public records withholds a public document from production under an Open Records Request, they must cite to the specific statutory provision of Georgia law that exempts the record from being produced. Intentionally withholding public records is against the law.All open records requests will be processed within three business days of receipt of request. If the records exist, but are not immediately available, the Open Records Officer’s response will include a description of the records and a timetable for their release.
As communications professionals, it is our responsibility to understand and uphold the Open Records Act. Truth, trust, honesty and reputation are key in both journalism and public relations, and we must act with professional integrity and transparency at all times.
To view The Georgia Open Records Act in full, please visit b.gatech.edu/2GTib4y. For more information on the Federal Government’s Freedom of Information Act, which governs full or partial disclosure of federal documents, please visit www.foia.gov.
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