Even when records are public, getting them isn’t always easy. Some are maintained by staffers who see reporters as nuisances interfering with their jobs. While you can file a lawsuit to shake records loose, it’s faster, and more pleasant, to convince the people who have them to cooperate.
If there’s anyone who spends more time than reporters prying information from reluctant custodians, it’s Dwayne Heisler. He is vice president and co-owner of Remit Corp., a collection agency that in October alone was tracking down 45,700 people with bad debts. The company also trains other collection agencies in skip tracing.
The most important skill for debt collectors, Heisler said, is the ability to communicate.
The techniques he trains people to use when trying to get debtors’ phone numbers and addresses from employers can work just as well for reporters trying to navigate a confusing collection of documents, or hoping to get that affidavit five minutes before the courthouse closes.
Relate to the person
“One of the best skills for locating people and assets is to be completely lost,” Heisler said. “People help people who are lost. People help people who they can relate to.”
Instead of launching immediately into your public records request, Heisler recommends opening with something like:
“I’ve been half an hour on the phone trying to find the right department, and I’m completely lost. Can you help me?”
“I’m sorry, I know you’re busy. But we just found out about it five minutes ago, and I’m a 40-minute drive away. I’ll never get there before you close. Can you help?”
Of course, you have to be sincere and telling the truth, he adds.
Ask reflective questions
Reflective questions help keep people talking and show that you’re listening. For instance, you might repeat something they said, but turn it into a question.
“People like more than anything to know they’re being heard,” Heisler said.
Here’s an example.
School district secretary: “We can’t give you a copy of all our invoices.”
Reporter: “You can’t give me copies?”
Office manager: “It would take too long and would be too expensive.”
Feel, felt, found
“In feel, felt, found, you tell the person, ‘I understand you feel this way. I spoke to someone else who felt that way. We found this is a solution,’” Heisler said.
Continuing the conversation from above, this technique might go something like:
Reporter: “I understand you have a lot to do, and you don’t have a large enough budget. Midtown School District had the same concerns. They ended up letting me look at the original files in the office and take notes.”
If you haven’t run into the problem before, check with co-workers or other people for possible solutions you can present.
People like choices, Heisler said. If you can give a few options, you and the person with the records come out ahead.
Reporter: “Or if it’s not convenient to have me going through the original files, I could bring you some reams of paper to defray the cost of copying.”
Don’t try to act like someone you’re not.
“What records are public, and what are closed off because of concern about privacy, it goes back and forth,” Heisler said. “But all along, people are people. … These are negotiating skills. They’re something you’ll always be able to use.”