Networking for public information officers

In the first of a new series, Graham Hopkins talks to national social care umbrella organisations about the importance of networking. Here, Yvette Jones, the chair of the Association of Social Care Communicators (ASCC), explains the usefulness of networking for public information officers

The word “quality” is often used as a synonym for “excellent”, even though the quality of a product or service can be good, mediocre or rubbish. The same could be said about information. Somehow we see information as being a good thing in itself.

But information can be flawed – you could be given the wrong information, not enough information or too much information. The quality of information, therefore, is critical. And communicating it well in the social care world is an undisputed skill. Poor, misplaced or non-existent communication usually lies at the heart of everything, from a gripe to every social care inquiry, scandal or tragedy.

It’s a shame, then, that public information officers are often undervalued and unrecognised. We hear a lot about the message but not about the messengers. Their national organisation was set up in 1986 as the Social Services Information Network before the name changed in 2003 to the Association of Social Care Communicators (ASCC).

“I first joined the organisation in 1999 when I first moved into this field,” says Yvette Jones, ASCC chair and public liaison and complaints manager for West Berkshire Council. “It was a group of people who met regionally with a national group in the background producing a newsletter. It was much more management information-focused, but the ASCC is now about communicating.”

The split of adults’ and children’s services has influenced where public information officers sit geographically and politically. However, there is a trend towards providing more corporate information services, including in local authorities.

“As care services merge or move, people are also being moved on,” says Jones. “Some who have been working for several years in a social care setting producing social care information are finding themselves as part of a more corporate approach with the danger that specialised knowledge could be lost.”

And Jones believes that social care information is a unique challenge. “It’s a very different job providing information to the public about services they don’t want or need to use at the moment but might need in the future,” she says.

“Compare that with telling the public what their town centre is going to look like at the end of the consultation period, or how to prevent your turkey giving you food poisoning at Christmas. It’s a very different target audience with very different needs.”

So has this trend affected membership? “We’ve had some drift,” admits Jones, “but on the other hand we are getting new members with no or little skills, experience or knowledge and it’s quite a challenge to pull all that together.”

This is where networking comes into its own. “We learn from each other,” says Jones. “In this job you often work in isolation and you need to go outside your own organisation to find like-minded people. Social workers can access training across the board on child protection or record keeping. But how many times do you see training in handling the media or writing a leaflet?

So that’s why we set up our own workshops and conferences to share knowledge. The best way you can learn in this field is from peer interaction.”

The ASCC website is sponsored by the Social Care Institute for Excellence (Scie), and is another portal for networking. Along with the annual conference, regional meetings and newsletters, the website provides various ways of tapping into the skills of others “so you’re not left drowning”.

But for Jones there is also the wider angle of organisational networking. “We have such strong links now with arm’s-length bodies such as Scie, the General Social Care Council, the Commission for Social Care Inspection, the Department of Health (DH) and other major partners, we have the opportunity not only to network but to work with,” she says. “When the health and social care white paper came out, the DH had a special day presenting it to social and health care communicators – which was a positive development.”

Equally positive are the annual social care communications awards, sponsored by Community Care. This celebration of the best work in the industry helps not only to raise the profile of public information and those who work in the field, but also rewards their innovation and creativity with a £500 prize and a free conference place.

It’s good that public information officers know they are not alone. “I can’t imagine how you can do the job without having some
link to people doing the same thing,” says Jones. “I use my colleagues so much just to survive my job. You could be sitting at your desk taking hours if not days trying to put something together – you could cut that out by having the opportunity to speak with or meet other people who had already done a similar piece of work. Being a member saves you money!”

Jones says that, although she is grateful that her employer has nurtured and encouraged her, the major part of her development has been as a result of networking rather than training sessions. “Networking with colleagues gives me the most valuable input that I can’t get from anywhere else.”

With big changes afoot, small wins are vital. But can the specialist skill of social care communication retain its unique identity? It’s a big ask. But the ASCC might just have the big answers.

The single file
The network:
Association of Social Care Communicators.
Whom for: Public information officers.
Founded: 1986
Membership: 154 organisations.
Cost: £100 a year.
The Big Issues: The move towards corporate information work – potential loss of expertise in the social care sector; and moves towards joint working with health and other partners – requiring joined-up public information.
Conference: 8-10 October, Marriott Hotel, Bristol.

ASCC Social Care Communication Award Winner 2005

Newcastle City Council: Fostering recruitment campaign for carers from ethnic minorities
Having identified an urgent need for 30 children to be placed with foster carers from ethnic minorities, research showed the need for a specialised worker to support and recruit such potential carers.

Previous campaigns had proved unpopular and unsuccessful. Imagery and words produced for other audiences were not working nor was translation of basic recruitment information for mass distribution. With an ethnic minority population of only 7 per cent, activities needed to be targeted effectively.

Campaign objectives

  • Recruit foster carers to give children first-hand experience of their culture, religion and language.
  • Educate communities about the need for foster carers and ask them to “help a child from your community”.
  • Stimulate positive word-of-mouth about fostering within ethnic minority communities.

    Campaign outline
    Focus on one-to-one communication with community groups, supported by profile-raising PR and advertising, promotional materials and events. Aim to make people understand why they are needed and feel valued and supported.

    Tactics: One to one work

  • Visits to community groups.
  • Talking to people in their own communities.
  • Training interpreters.
  • Talking to mothers at drama group for Asian children.
  • Developing “support fostering” – encouraging people without spare rooms to support families needing help in their own homes.

    Tactics: Supporting one-to-one work with communities

  • Annual lord mayor’s reception and certificate presentation.
  • Community events, sponsorship and exhibitions.
  • New imagery for billboards, flyers, posters, postcards.
  • Community radio ads and interviews.
  • Interviews on mainstream BBC radio and Asian programmes.
  • Local press coverage.

    From March 2004 to August 2005 19 newly qualified carers and 16 new trainees were recruited. The campaign has since been adopted as corporate best practice and has been extended to the refugee community.

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