Haringey’s reputation would always have been damaged by the death of Baby P.But could the negative publicity have been reduced if the council had adopted a more sympathetic stance?
Many feel it was children’s services chief Sharon Shoesmith’s failure to convince the press she felt remorse, despite an inexcusable media witch-hunt, that ultimately led to her and the council’s downfall even though councillors issued apologies.
The council appeared to have learned few lessons from the fall-out over the Victoria Climbié case in 2000, which also took place in the borough.
Haringey’s experience is extreme but all children’s and adults’ services departments could find themselves in similar situations. Negative news agendas combined with the delicate nature of social care make social workers easy prey for the press. But what is sometimes missed is a council’s ability to influence the news agenda and even generate positive coverage.
Oliver Finegold, media relations manager at Westminster Council, says that the media strategy councils should take depends on the case involved. So, for example, when a child has died a compassionate, quick response is essential.
“Saying you are sorry is not the same as admitting you are wrong and you need to act quickly and decisively,” he says.
If councils bury their heads in the sand others will speak for them and put across an incorrect picture, he says. A human face backing an apology is also important. A professional in a position of authority who is genuinely remorseful is a powerful image. Finegold believes that in cases involving child deaths the lead member or director of children’s services must be the one to speak.
“A lot of organisations hide behind a spokesperson. The councillor might not want to go on TV but it’s absolutely vital that the public see that somebody at the top of the council has taken charge.”
However tempting, councils also need to avoid falling into the trap of using statistics as defence – as Shoesmith did – because this won’t rub with the public or the press, says Giles Roca, head of communications at Essex Council.
“You shouldn’t hide behind statistics. If it’s a human interest story you should not just say the joint area review [JAR] report says we are good or adequate.”
At the end of January, Edinburgh Council featured on the front page of the Scottish edition of the The Daily Mail for three days in a row. The story concerned two children removed from their mother and placed for adoption with two gay men rather than their grandparents.
Stewart Argo, media manager for the council, says the authority was surprised by the scale of the coverage. The council’s hands were tied in terms of what it could say due to confidentiality. With this in mind, he says, councils can instead adopt a wider approach in their responses, commenting on the issues rather than individual cases.
“We put across our general approach on adoption and the fact that there isn’t a quota in place. We also said that paramount consideration is always going to be what’s in the best interest of the child.”
Local authorities also need to be aware that a negative story can continue to run in different forms, he warns. The gay adoption story was mentioned in a later piece about the council funding LGBT Youth Scotland, an organisation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people, despite having no direct connection.
“The Daily Mail is looking at any number of possible angles to keep the story running,” he says. “People need to know what to do in the immediate media aftermath.”
Local media are also very important. Ben Pinnington, director of Artemis Media and Public Affairs, a PR and public affairs agency that works with the public and private sector, says: “I would argue that the regional media is the most important form of media for social services because they are working in the local area. Newspapers are at the heart of the local community.”
Westminster and Essex social services have both had recent positive media coverage. Roca says a key part of this involves the communications team understanding what the media is interested in and being able to spot things that may be newsworthy.
“You need to personalise things and bring individual social workers and the people that they work with to life. It’s the job of communications teams to support our social workers and explain what they actually do.”
The 24-hour nature of media coverage means journalists have a lot of time to fill. As a result if something is new, interesting and presented in an easily accessible format Roca says there is a good chance it will be picked up. By doing this, Essex recently had coverage in The Guardian and on BBC1 on putting social pedagogues in its children’s homes.
Online media also presents a number of opportunities for social services to obtain positive coverage. Pinnington believes this is a developing area and says councils should make short film packages to accompany press releases as indications are these will soon be in high demand.
“YouTube is currently the second most popular search engine and web casting [short video clips on the web] is going to become very significant,” he says.
Finegold says press officers should also look for opportunities presented by national announcements or major events such as the Laming report on child protection (see case study box).
“When the Laming report came out the press rang and said do you have any social workers we can speak to for reaction. It was a great opportunity for our social workers to show them exactly what they do and the press were really grateful.”
Do’s and Don’ts of dealing with the media
Do pay extra attention to developing a good relationship with your local media.
Do make social workers and other professionals aware of the dangers of putting their details on social networking sites that are easily accessible to the press.
Do target particular journalists in specific media with certain stories.
Do try to personalise the work that social workers do by focusing on the people and professionals involved.
Do try to spot the potential for coverage in new initiatives or off the back of national announcements or events.
Do say sorry when something tragic has occurred and issue an apology. This is not the same as taking blame.
Don’t keep quiet when a bad story breaks, instead provide an honest response quickly.
Don’t attribute responses to a faceless spokesperson. They need to come from someone high up in the council connected with the situation who will do interviews if required.
Case Study: Julian Ellis, children’s social worker, Westminster
‘Press were fair and portrayed us positively’
Around the time the Laming report was published in March, Julian Ellis, a children’s social worker at Westminster Council and a colleague did interviews with BBC Radio 5 Live, the Radio 4’s Today programme and Channel 4 News after journalists contacted the authority.
For Ellis it was a good experience and an opportunity to let the public know what social workers do. He also felt supported by the council. A press officer accompanied him to one of the interviews and help was on offer had he wanted it for the other two.
“I thought it [the coverage] showed Westminster in a positive light,” he says. “We didn’t talk about particular cases but what it was like to be a jobbing social worker in a child protection and court team.
“I felt the coverage was balanced. They wanted to know what we did and were very fair by not asking us to comment on Baby P. Bringing people to talk to the media is a way of demystifying social work and putting our point of view across.”
Ellis says social workers doing media work have to be prepared for interviews to take a long time and only part, or sometimes none, of it being used. On the upside he explains how one interview can be used in more than one place, with many media organisations sharing output.
Published in the 21 May 2009 edition of Community Care under ‘Making the news’