A version of this article  appeared in "Community Care" magazine 24 February-1 March 2000 under the title "Managing the media". It is reproduced here with the agreement of the editor.

Polishing the Image

The public image of social services is very poor. We owe it to our clients and ourselves to take public information seriously. We must learn to communicate with the media more effectively.

Undoubtedly a major cause of the poor image of social services is the high profile deaths and serious injuries of children as a result of abuse, since the death of Maria Colwell in 1973. In spite of frequent findings that the weakness was in poor co-ordination among the key services the public seem less willing to blame the police and the health professionals. That is at least partly because both of them handle information and the media better than social services.

The media and the public will draw their own conclusions about the significance of events but we can create a positive influence. Unfortunately we continue to miss opportunities, even at the highest level. The following is a case study in how not to convey information to the public.

The Social Services Inspectorate for Wales have just issued a report "Inspection of Children’s Services: Management and Practice in Caerphilly County Borough Council." The report finds an improving service but with a mountain still to climb and it identifies some priorities for the authority to address. Not long before the inspection took place the service had been close to the point of collapse and some heavy duty intervention from the Welsh Office so any improvement was welcome.

The local press reported the inspection in inch high red headlines: "NEW REPORT SLAMS CHILDCARE SERVICES". This strident banner had its origins in the press release from the National Assembly the opening sentence of which reads, "The inspection…….has concluded that, despite improvements, the service is still suffering from past problems……" The second paragraph actually contains the phrase "close to breaking point", though I have been unable to find the phrase in the report itself. The release refers to some of the positives in later paragraphs but editors are given a clear "line to take" in the opening paragraphs.

The significance of this is the tone and emphasis of the press release rather than its content. The opening sentence actually says, "The inspection concludes that the service is improving;" but the key message is, "It is still suffering from past problems." To anyone who knows about the dynamics of organisational change that is a statement of blinding banality though the release conveys it as the key finding of the report. In short it distorts the content of its own report and makes another significant contribution to undermining public and customer confidence in social services.

I’m certainly not suggesting that bad news should be suppressed or distorted but "truth is never pure, and rarely simple." The key messages in this particular case were:-

  1. The service is improving.
  2. There is much to be done (itemised).
  3. It (may not be) improving quickly enough.
  4. Until it is good enough we will be watching them.
1 & 4 actually promote confidence: they contain a positive statement, however cautiously drawn, and a demand for continuing improvement. The list at 2 potentially improves public understanding of the service and the issues. But 3 should either be explicit, with some indication of what "quickly enough" might mean, or absent.

The order and tone of information is often critical. We need to think about who our audience is and how we convey ideas and information to them.

Keith Fletcher is a social care consultant and author of Best Value Social Services, SSSP Publications and Negotiation for Health & Social Services Professionals, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

SSSP Ltd. February 2000