This is the latest in a series of stories that have included the Rochdale child abuse case and at the Local Government Association conference last week extensive debate about the future of adult social care.
Every time a story of this kind, about vulnerable children and adults, emerges the reputation of local government seems to take a knock. We seem unable or unwilling in many cases to explain and defend our action in these areas which account for two thirds of council budget.
There are some powerful and impressive exceptions such as Coventry and Bristol City Council’s work with television programmes to highlight the tireless efforts of social workers to improve the lives of people living in difficult circumstances.
But generally local government public relations practitioners need to work harder to explain the challenges that social work faces so that the public understand and can sympathise with those who undertake this work.
And senior social workers must abandon the mentality that everything is ‘excellent’. Managers in these services are conditioned by years of terrible headlines and detailed inspections so they are hugely nervous of revealing any hint of a problem.
They don’t attempt to frame a story about the difficulties and limits of social work when dealing with troubled families. Better public relations must start with a narrative that shows that even great social work cannot solve all the problems of those who are most in need. Personal responsibility and the support of family and community is part of the solution.
Then the communications team can put the case for the services, recognising the hard headed benefits of effective public relations. The best promotional campaigns tangibly improve lives and reduce costs when good publicity generates new adoptive parents or foster carers. Stories about well run care homes reassure worried relatives and reduce the time and trouble of dealing with customer complaints and a sustained campaign to show local and national best practice will bring new recruits into the social care professions.
Finally, we will always have to react quickly and sympathetically when tragedy occurs, whether it is child neglect or cruelty to a vulnerable adult. The reputational damage to the organisation can be mitigated through rapid communication of the facts, an honest apology where this is needed and a clear explanation of the measures that have been put in place to prevent a recurrence.
An example of how proactive campaigns can really make an impact in the community was ‘The Big SHOUT’ event organised in June by the tri-borough London councils of Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster.
The three councils, who merged their children’s services departments – along with adult social care and libraries – a year ago to save money and protect frontline services, held the event at Chelsea Football Club, inviting a total of 300 teenagers from the three boroughs to attend.
The young people had the opportunity to talk to senior officials from the council and police, and share their opinions on important topics like mental and sexual health and their relationship with the police.
The teenagers also accessed a wealth of information on employment and training opportunities, and heard inspirational talks from top-achieving sports stars like former England and Chelsea footballer Graeme Le Saux.
The Big SHOUT also saw the launch of the three councils’ Summer in the City guide, containing hundreds of council-led activities for young people over the summer including everything from street dance to jewellery making and baseball cap designs. The event was groundbreaking in terms of empowering local young people to speak their minds and explore new opportunities.
The communication of social work will get harder, not easier as public health returns to the remit of councils. Working with the health service will bring with it new challenges as NHS staff have to deal with the democratic scrutiny of working in local government.
Working in this new capacity and retaining public trust will require honesty, openness and a willingness to engage in public debate.
Alex Aiken is director of comms and strategy at Westminster City Council.