Surrey Council recently brought candidates for senior positions in social care face-to-face with journalists to test their media skills. Natalie Valios, who took part in the process, reports
Given the love/hate relationship that often exists between the media and social workers the notion that a local authority might invite a journalist to take part in the recruitment process for a senior management team in adult social care sounds rather far-fetched.
But Surrey Council is one authority doing its best to embrace the media; a brave move in light of its recent track record in social care inspections. As part of this, I was invited to conduct mock interviews with eight candidates - for three of the four assistant director roles - as if I was profiling them for a piece in Community Care following their appointment.
The candidates were given little notice that this would be part of the interview. But this concentrated their minds on the fact that if they are to raise the profession's standing in the public eye, then they need to be able to handle the media when it comes to both negative and positive stories. The council had invited stakeholders to sit in and score each candidate on how they coped with my questions.
The three successful candidates when told they would be interviewed by a journalist assumed there would be hostile questioning. John Woods, now assistant director for transformation, says: “When I was told about the press interview I second-guessed it and thought it would be meeting someone hostile to talk about something like a home closure or safeguarding issue.”
Debbie Medlock, who becomes assistant director for delivery in January, says: "I was thinking that if the media are involved I could be tested on my PR skills by defending a decision. It was nerve-wracking but I can see there are real advantages of that format for recruiting managers. With high-profile jobs employers need to know they can trust you and that needs to be tested."
Surrey Council's approach has been vindicated by the final report of the Social Work Task Force, published earlier this month. The group of experts highlighted the importance of improving partnerships between the social work profession and journalists after practitioners told how "deeply concerned" they were at media portrayals of them and by the poor understanding of their role.
As a result of the taskforce recommendations, which have been accepted by government, all employers will be expected to promote "constructive relationships between frontline social workers and local media" in order to improve public understanding of the profession.
Anne Butler, now assistant director for commissioning, sees the benefits of involving journalists in recruitment clearly: "Once I'd got over the thought that it would be scary, I thought it was an interesting and novel approach and an indicator of the importance that Sarah [Mitchell, director of adult social care] attaches to her senior team of being able to positively and confidently represent adult social care in Surrey.
"So I regarded this bit of the assessment process as evidence of candidates' 'ambassadorial' qualities, which is really important - for Surrey citizens and our staff - in terms of promoting assurance and belief in the service. Motivated staff who feel valued are absolutely crucial to the successfully delivery of support and care to vulnerable people. The media can play a really helpful role in acknowledging that."
Woods reasons that staff are reluctant to come forward and talk to the press because they "are worried about being trapped".
"I've just been approached by a small TV company which wants to do a short programme on the effect of self-directed support on carers. While I don't want to look a gift-horse in the mouth, experience tells us to be cautious. We are looking into it and I'm getting our press team involved so they can guide us in the right way.
"Social workers get criticised for not putting good stories out there, but part of that is because [the media] aren't interested. For social services as a whole, that's the relationship we have with the press."
Unwilling to talk
This backs up Community Care's survey which revealed that two-thirds of respondents from local authority communications teams said that social work colleagues were reluctant or extremely unwilling to talk to journalists. It also showed that more than half of councils ban practitioners from talking to the media.
Woods says: "I think [banning practitioners from talking] is a mistake, but I understand why they would want to put some risk management in place. The communications team should facilitate things but the practitioners, or service users, should do the talking as they know what's going on."
This latter point was borne out by the fact that many of the stakeholders on the day were service users, who were heavily involved in the recruitment process. Ernie Graham, director of Surrey Care Association, says, "[Having a journalist] was a good idea because senior managers need to be able to communicate their decisions to the media and the community at large. Communication is a huge part [of their job] because a lot of bad publicity comes from limited knowledge."
Heads above the parapet
Cliff Bush, chair of the Surrey Coalition of Disabled People, agrees that people in these roles have to be able to react and deal with media questions because they "are there to put their heads above the parapet. When you challenged them it was interesting to see how they reacted. It's important that they understand the job isn't just about commissioning, it's also about challenging where things are going wrong."
This point was picked up by Richard Davy, operations manager at Surrey Independent Living Council: "It put everybody on the spot in the same way. Their presentation skills came across. Sincerity is a good way of measuring people so it was interesting to see how naturally they responded to questions they weren't expecting."
As David Hodge, Surrey Council's deputy leader, says: "[Using a journalist] may be radical to some, but it's common sense. You can't expect senior officers who will deal with the press not to be able to take part in this sort of idea. It worked for us and we intend to do it for all senior officers now."
* Join the debate on CareSpace about whether social workers are scared of journalists.
Sarah Mitchell, director of adult social care, on Surrey Council and the media
"I wanted it to be real. If something were to happen, a journalist would be on the phone asking questions, so we wanted to see how they reacted.
"We need to talk to the media more, about the good things we do, about the lives we change, and the people we protect. There is real ignorance about the role of social work. We can't change this through expensive sporadic recruitment campaigns but through engaging the media in what we do through stories like 'a day in the life of a home carer' and interviewing people who use services.
"We should talk more about our work generally and then the media will not be so ill-informed when things go wrong. We cannot discuss individual cases but we can discuss the issues involved in different types of work and that is often better coming from practitioners than senior managers.
"In Surrey we want to showcase what we do and we will be encouraging journalists to get involved with learning about what we do and the trade off for them is getting to know when things are happening.
"When bad news is going to break I make sure we brief the media first - don't wait for them to contact you. I always want to do private face-to-face interviews or over the phone. Be as open as you can be. When bad news hits people want to understand the issues more than the detail of the case - could it happen to me, my loved ones, what are you going to do to make sure it doesn't happen again, who is going to take the rap and why? It's important to be as open as we can be and sometimes that means letting the press in.
"But the press need to behave responsibly too - these are vulnerable people scared by alarmist headlines.
"The difficulty is that people don't have any insight into the lives of those we deal with and can't believe that they can be so bad and so complex."
Public understanding and the Social Work Task Force
The Social Work Task Force made launching a new programme of action on public understanding of social work one of its 15 recommendations to improve the profession in England. Specific plans include:
• A long term strategy for media relations helping the media to understand social work on an ongoing basis and at times of heightened interest.
• The development of clear lines of responsibility for handling information when a news story involving social work breaks, nationally or locally.
• A continuously refreshed "bank" of stories and case studies that help to illustrate good social work practice, creating a benchmark for the public of the positive impact social work can have.
• Employers taking responsibility for promoting constructive relationships between frontline social workers and local media and able to draw on expert advice in handling stories as they break.