Issues Management and Sunshine Laws

Transparency is an admirable trait of many things — glass, water, Saran™ wrap, high quality pantyhose and of course, government meetings. But the media’s obsession with transparency – both within and outside the public sector – has reached an all-time high of unrealistic expectations. Thanks in large part to the media, the general public now equates transparency with trust. Likewise, they often equate the withholding of private or proprietary personnel information as the moral equivalent of capital murder. This disconnect creates issues and threats to reputation that often require a strategic issues management or in some cases, crisis management response by public information officers and public relations professionals.

In 1976, the federal government passed the Government in the Sunshine Act, a law that states that (with 10 specific exemptions, such as personnel issues) every portion of every meeting of a government agency shall be open to public observation. The Act also ensures that advance notice is given to the public before agency meetings take place and imposes requirements an agency must follow before determining that one of the ten exemptions applies. This law is very effective and enables the public to monitor how its tax dollars are spent. I applaud its many benefits to modern society.

However, media should take greater care when extrapolating the tenets of the Sunshine Laws to the ten exemptions allowed by the law. Personnel issues are protected for good reason. Reputations, careers and individual finances are at risk here. As is the institution’s reputation. Personnel controversies and the surrounding media attention often rank as one of the leading reasons that public institutions hire issues management and crisis management consultants.

Personnel Issues: Private or Public?

In a Saturday, April 11 editorial in the Star News, the author bemoans that we, the public, do not know who the identify of the finalists for the UNCW Chancellor position, “one of the most important public institutions in Southeastern North Carolina.” Apparently, UNC system president Tom Ross directed the 19-member search committee to conduct the search process privately because he felt that high quality candidates would be unlikely to apply in a public forum because their current employment status could be compromised.

Sounds logical to me. Why publicly risk a great job you currently have for just a “chance” to get a better one? The Star News editorial reads “Are candidates who are ambitious enough to want to be the chancellor of a university that worried that their current boss will discover that … they are really ambitious and want to be a chancellor? Would a school’s leadership hold it against a bright and forward-looking staff member to pursue a dream job?”

These questions illustrate the naiveté and lack of understanding that reporters often have of business and industry. Of course their current employers could hold it against them that they are looking elsewhere. Few workplaces operate with as much politics as college campuses and a very talented candidate who fears exposure would quite likely never apply if he or she had to make their search public.

In a March 19 editorial, the Star News goes further and says the Sunshine Law needs to be changed. The editorial reads: “ . . . we urge once again that any public board that hires a top administrator explore the possibility of requiring the candidate – to the extent that the law allows – to waive any expectation of privacy on issues directly related to their job, and have all business conducted with the board done so in public. It’s a high standard but one that is fair and necessary for the public to remain confident that well-paid officials managing large budgets and large staffs are up to the job.”

This editorial statement is yet more evidence that the media too often have naïve, unrealistic expectations of employers – both public and private – and lack a true understanding of the business world that they report on daily. What type of high quality candidate would put themselves, their careers and their family’s financial security, at such risk? This demand for COMPLETE transparency, even in very delicate personnel matters, is unrealistic and damaging to government institutions’ ability to attract top talent.

Too Much Sunshine Can Burn You

The Government in Sunshine Act is a critically important law that protects our rights as citizens and ensures that government employees and leaders are held accountable to the public. But the ten exemptions to the law were placed there for a reason and many serve to protect individuals’ right to privacy and protection.

Each year, the importance of the 1976 Sunshine Act is celebrated during Sunshine Week, a commemoration created by the American Society of News Editors in March 2005 to coincide with James Madison’s birthday on March 16. Madison was one of the United States’ founding fathers and a strong proponent of the Bill of Rights. He said: “A popular government without popular information . . is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”

James Madison had it right and I couldn’t agree more. But I’m not sure he was referring to private personnel issues when he made that statement. The media would be better served, as would the public, if they gave more consideration to the realities of business and industry and individuals’ right to privacy in the workplace.