Talk softly, but carry a big open records law

Recently I did a Q&A with the Poynter Institute about The Art of Access and I mentioned the part of the book that talks about some experiments I did on effective request letters. Which works best – friendly or threatening? Honey or vinegar? In the Q&A I explain that the threatening letter results in greater response, greater compliance, faster response and lower copy fees. Odd, eh? I certainly didn’t expect that before doing my experiments.

The Poynter posting generated some discussion on listservs as people debated what works best for them. Some thought you are better off being friendly. Others said you should be tough. My 2 cents: Do both. Always be polite and friendly (I like doing the Columbo thing), but when asked to submit a records request make sure to cite the relevant statutes and case law, as well as reminders of penalties for noncompliance. Only threaten litigation if you have hit a roadblock and intend to actually sue. Label the request “PUBLIC RECORDS REQUEST” up high so they know, and make sure it gets to the right person. The research indicates that authority always wins over liking, but there’s no reason we can’t do both.

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