The UK social work sector is under growing pressure to develop a more open relationship with the public after research by Community Care showed more than half of councils ban practitioners from engaging with the media.
Our exclusive survey of local government communications teams found that two-thirds of respondents described their social work colleagues as “reluctant” or “extremely unwilling” to engage with journalists.
The findings prompted Moira Gibb, chair of the Social Work Task Force, to call for a more open culture in communicating with the public about the social work role, particularly in local government.
The survey of 44 councils across the UK comes two months after the second interim report of the Social Work Task Force raised concerns that a lack of understanding about the profession was harming its image in the media and wider public.
As part of our Stand Up Now for Social Work campaign, which aims to improve the public perception of the profession through more positive and balanced media coverage, we asked communications teams about their strategies, and achievements in promoting their social care services.
Although the majority (80%) employed at least one press officer dedicated to promoting social care, the overall findings showed a mixed picture of performance regarding awareness and co-operation within councils in using the media to raise the profile of services.
Some 54% of councils said there had been at least one positive story about their children’s social care services in the national media in the past year, with 52% saying the same about adult services. Some 70% said at least four positive stories about their children’s services had been carried by local media, with nearly 60% saying the same for adult services.
But when it came to the number of statements issued to the media for negative social care stories in the last 12 months, the highest proportion of councils (40%) said they had released 10 or more.
Unison, which represents 40,000 social workers across the UK, and the Local Government Association are urging councils to become more proactive in promoting positive stories about social work via the media.
Iain Wilton, the LGA’s programme director for media and campaigns, said this would “counter-balance the high-profile coverage which a small number of child protection cases tend to attract” and be a crucial step towards recruiting the best people into the job.
Yet inside councils, communications teams described social workers as the least helpful contacts within their authorities compared to managers, directors and councillors. In the previous 12 months half of respondents to our survey said no practitioners had contacted them to flag up a potential good news story, whereas 96% said directors had done this at least once.
In response to our survey findings, Moira Gibb called on employers to relax restrictions on frontline staff in discussing practice issues with the media.
“How can social workers explain to the public what these services do if they’re not able to tell people about it?” she asked.
“We have to get better at explaining what is done and why. People have been anxious about confidentiality, which of course has to be respected, but we can generalise and use examples.
“We want local authorities to have a strategic approach, as major employers of social workers, in helping the public to understand their work.”
Gibb added: “This is a bigger issue for social work, where people don’t come into contact with services as they do with teachers or doctors.”
Gibb said a national college of social work, proposed by the taskforce in its interim report, would aim to foster relations with the media and improve public understanding.
Directors first port of call for comments
All council communications teams said they would normally approach directors of services to comment on a social care issue in response to a media inquiry or for a press release. Three-quarters might call on councillors and 70% social work managers. Only one in 10 would approach frontline social workers.
Lynne Clifford, chair of the Association of Social Care Communicators, said council policies on frontline staff engaging with the media were often driven by political concerns: “Social workers may not give the ‘party line’ or be cognisant of the full picture, including politics.”
Several councils offered media training to various groups of staff to prepare them for the role, with the highest proportion (96%) making it available to directors.
Although 37% of councils said courses were offered to social workers, social care consultant Harvey Gallagher, of the Care Matters Partnership, urged local authorities to increase take-up in this area. “We need to address the widespread public misunderstanding of the social work role.”
Local newspapers’ knowledge of social work ‘poor’
Two-thirds of councils who took part in the survey have contacted local and national media outlets at least once in the past year to point out errors in coverage relating to council social care services.
In addition, nearly half rated their local newspapers’ knowledge of social care issues as poor.
David Holdstock, head of corporate communications at the London Borough of Hillingdon and national chair of LG Communications, the professional body for council communicators, said it was up to council press officers to help journalists give a balanced and accurate view of social care. “We’re expecting non-specialist reporters to understand 800 different council services,” he said. “Communications teams need to give them the materials to do this.”
Despite this perceived lack of knowledge, communications teams were positive about their relationship with local journalists. Most (68%) said they had an adequate relationship with the local media, while 14% described it as “very effective”. This was reflected in the amount of respondents – 67% – who said their local newspapers were fairly balanced in reporting social cares issues, and in particular social work.
Helga Pile, head of social care at Unison, urged communications teams to develop better relationships with local journalists. “They should see the local media as an important way to make taxpayers aware of services.”
How Northants explain social work through the local press
Some local authorities are successfully using the media to explain the social work role in a positive way. Northamptonshire Council worked with journalists at the Chronicle and Echo earlier this year to produce “Inside Social Services”, a series of features highlighting the different roles of children’s social workers. After two months of discussions, four double-page and one single-page articles were published during one week in July 2009 in the newspaper, which proudly declared its “unprecedented access” to the council’s social work teams. Kate Edmondson, media relations specialist at Northamptonshire Council, explains how it was done.
“When the government’s response to Lord Laming’s national review of child protection came out in May the Chronicle and Echo phoned to ask if they could do a ‘day in the life’ feature shadowing a social worker. I suggested doing a more in-depth look at the range of responsibilities of social workers and sent a proposal to our head of children’s services explaining the advantages and pitfalls. He agreed that it was important to show the community the positive side of children’s social work, and once I had his approval I set about arranging interviews and photographs with frontline social workers and team managers. We were really pleased with the series which featured staff from referrals, family support, disabled children, fostering, and child protection. We trusted the newspaper to do a good job and they didn’t let us down. The relationship with local media is the key to this. I explained to the social workers what to expect during the interviews but they didn’t take a lot of persuading because of that trust. Our director of children and young people, Paul Burnett, said it was the most positive reflection of the social work role he had seen in all the local authorities he had worked for.”
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