Why councils should embrace social media online

Care consultant Shirley Ayres tells Julie Griffiths that employers are denying practitioners a powerful way of engaging clients by restricting their access to social media websites

There can be few social workers unaware of the popularity of social media websites such as Linkedin and Facebook. But how many use them as a means of communicating with clients and to further professional development? Too few, according to social care consultant Shirley Ayres (pictured).

A self-confessed social media addict, Ayres says councils and social workers need to embrace social networking.

“It can empower people who need to find out about services,” she says. “And young people are so comfortable with social media that it makes sense to use it as a channel of communication and means of engaging with clients.”

She says some young people are already using social media to build a support network for themselves, such as the Care Leavers Association which has set up an online forum Care Leavers Reunited. As well as reconnecting with those they may have known from being in care, they can get in touch with social workers from their past.

“We know that people value the consistency of relationships and a social worker is part of a person’s history. This is a way of keeping a connection.”

For social workers, social media can offer a means of sharing good practice and troubleshooting. At a time when cutbacks make it hard to attend networking events and meetings, social media offers an alternative to face-to-face get-togethers, says Ayres.

International benefits

For example, she heads up a networking group on Linkedin for professionals working with children and young people in care where they can share good practice and discuss problems. She adds that one of the bonuses of social media is that networking and learning is not restricted to the UK.

“I talk to people in New Zealand, Australia and the USA as well as across the UK. Within half an hour, you can look at best practice in New Zealand and find people who can share their thoughts and ideas.”

However, there are barriers to a greater use of social media in social work. One of the most prevalent is the perceived threat of breaching confidentiality. But this is unfounded in most scenarios, Ayres claims. Groups can usually restrict membership so that those joining need to be approved which minimises the risk of interlopers.

Then there are those local authorities that have blocked access to social networking sites to ensure staff do not waste time on them when they should be working.

But the biggest barrier, she says, is mindset. While some local authorities are likely to have outdated IT policies and a fear of social networking, others want to control the flow of information and feel nervous about the prospect of employees freely discussing their problems at work.

Embracing change

However, forward-thinking authorities are embracing it. Ayres estimates that 15 out of the 33 London boroughs allow staff to use social media while Blackburn with Darwen Council takes it even further by encouraging staff to tweet and get involved in Linkedin.

Social workers who want to persuade their employers to join the ranks of enlightened councils should focus on the cost-saving potential of social media, she says.

This includes cheap but effective networking and professional development. To help alleviate employers’ fears or misgivings, Ayres suggests social workers point to examples where it has worked elsewhere.

“The bottom line is that councils choosing not to move with the times will miss a trick. Young people are growing up with social media so it is a comfortable and natural way for them to communicate. It makes no sense for a local authority to ignore that communities increasingly use social media to be in contact and share information.

“It’s happening whether social workers are there or not. This is not something we should be afraid of,” she says.

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