The media is a difficult beast to tame, and the sensitive nature of social care stories makes this even more the case. Here we have created two scenarios, one positive and one negative, and asked three media professionals to give their opinions on how a council should manage the situation. While the press will always lean toward negative stories, each professional we talked to agreed that there is also space for positive coverage – as long as it is presented in the correct way.
How to promote GOOD news
‘She’s been placing children successfully for 18 years’
It will be 20 years this week that Jane Bond, 45, began working with looked-after children at X Council. Children’s social work is known for its high turnover rate and recruitment difficulties but Bond, a qualified social worker, has bucked the trend and worked matching children with foster carers for 18 years before moving to the leaving care team where she now works helping to prepare youngsters for independent living.
Looked-after children often have numerous placements but this is not the case for Bond’s clients, most of whom have enjoyed successful relationships with their foster carers. She is still in contact with many of the children she has helped to place over the years, as well as some of their foster carers. She even attended two weddings of children she had placed around 10 years earlier.
Jo Smith, 22, was placed with a foster family by Bond in 1985, and is still in contact with her today. “Jane is amazing, nothing was ever too much trouble. She always came to visit me when she said she would, which meant a lot.”
Bond says: “I really enjoy my work and it’s been a privilege to work with all of the children I have met over the years.”
Responses to Jane Bond’s story from the media professionals:
Ian Coldwell, PR Manager
The challenge here is to ensure that the media focuses on the contribution of the social worker. The heart-warming story of the child in care or the selfless commitment of foster parents is an easy sell for most media but we want to focus on the social worker too.
The key is to be explicit about the skills and contribution of the social worker and associate her with the positive outcomes. To achieve this, the hook for the story needs to be the success and longevity of the placements, focusing on Jane’s approach and why it is successful.
Real case studies of foster parents and care leavers can then be brought in to provide strong human interest material and show how Jane’s contribution improved people’s lives.
Ian Coldwell is managing director of Pagoda Public Relations, which is working on the Association of Directors of Social Work’s campaign to improve understanding of social work in Scotland.
David Holdstock, press officer
Here, the media needs to have access to people such as Jo Smith, the now grown-up looked-after child, and her foster carers. People make the best stories and their own words have more impact. This is all about the real difference that social care workers can make to people’s lives.
If we can get access to the wedding photos, or better still involve the media in a wedding, we can show the positive side of looking after vulnerable children.
David Holdstock is head of corporate communications at Hillingdon Council and chair of LG Communications, a national association of local government communication professionals.
Mark Easton, BBC journalist
Getting good news stories into the press is always harder than getting bad news in. This needs an event if the press release is to make it beyond the recycle bin. I feel a party coming on – attended by many of the children and families who have worked with Jane across those 20 years.
Photographs, video, bits of children’s artwork or cards that might have been collected from those two decades should get their day in the sun. Key interviewees should be lined up – including children if at all possible.
This is really a story about children’s happiness. There might be national press interest if the council could get a minister or a senior figure in the sector to have a slice of the celebratory cake and to put Jane’s feat in context.
Mark Easton is home editor for BBC News
How to manage BAD news
Council fails to act on child protection concerns
A six-month-old baby girl has died after a blow to the head from her mother’s boyfriend. Serious bruising to her body indicates she has been beaten on a number of occasions over a sustained period. The child has been on the child protection register since birth. A social worker was assigned to the case immediately because the mother is an alcoholic. However, only one visit has taken place, when the child was two-weeks-old, has taken place and the child was not seen because the mother told the social worker the baby was sleeping.
In the five months which have passed following the visit the council failed to act on child protection concerns raised three times by a neighbour or on a health visitor’s report citing concerns about the boyfriend’s manner around the child. It was also unaware that the boyfriend was known to police for domestic violence against the mother. The neighbour is talking to the press.
A serious case review of the case found a lack of information-sharing between agencies and that professionals worked in isolation. At the children’s services department the review found a backlog of unallocated child protection cases, poor record-keeping by social workers, staff shortages and a chaotic atmosphere. No assessment of the mother’s boyfriend had taken place.
Responses to the child protection failure story from the media professionals:
Any response that does not reflect the gravity of the situation would be a PR disaster.
Full responsibility must be taken for any errors, with resignations, suspensions and sackings announced as applicable. A fulsome apology should be issued to the relatives of the dead baby and a more general apology given to all those families and children who were let down by the failures of the council.
The council should ask that an inquiry be undertaken, rather than wait for the inevitable.
The authority must stress that the situation is unacceptable and that it will do whatever it takes to put the welfare of children in the borough first.
Confidence will have been shattered by these revelations and will not be rebuilt by trying to defend the status quo.
It is during such times that communicators can demonstrate the value we add to our organisation because national stories like these can make or break reputations. The key to steering an organisation through such a crisis is good planning, developing a clear strategy, having a believable spokesperson and, most of all, saying sorry when we get it wrong.
When something on this scale happens, people rightly expect us to be accountable, and if we get things wrong we must say so – and we must do so quickly.
Working collaboratively with all agencies involved to ensure consistent messages, it is also important to show what is being done so that the chances of something similar happening again are greatly reduced. And don’t forget internal communications – staff need to know what is happening.
The media strategy must rebuild confidence in social work services and the council’s ability to manage those services. It is clear that this was not a one-off problem arising from the actions of one social worker. The case reflects serious failings in the management of the service, and a lack of co-ordination between agencies.
Under these circumstances the council’s media strategy needs to focus on two things. Firstly the council needs to be seen to act decisively to improve the management of the service and address the failings identified.
Secondly, it needs to separate the failings of the system from the professionalism of individual social workers.
This is an opportunity to restate the council’s confidence in the commitment and expertise of its individual members of staff.
The aims of our campaign
Community Care‘s Stand Up Now for Social Work campaign is working to improve media coverage. We are calling for:
1 The media to portray social work in an accurate and balanced way.
2 The government to support and promote
respect for the social work profession.
3 Employers to promote positive images of social work and support staff to talk about their successes.
Published in the 7 May 2009 edition of Community Care under the heading ‘The two sides of dealing with the press’