Two UK stories have dominated the headlines recently: the Rotherham child exploitation scandal and the case of Ashya King. The first is a catastrophic example of public servants’ failure to act. In contrast, the clearly complex and deeply emotive Ashya case has been portrayed by much of the media as a case of officials acting overzealously.
Although these cases are extreme, they serve to remind all of us in public sector comms that the protection of vulnerable people is pretty much the most important thing our organisations do, and that our role in supporting those who do that work is one of our most important and challenging tasks.
Social care professionals are often very wary of the media. They see complex and harrowing cases, of which they often know many unpublished details, condensed into simplified and sometimes sensationalised news bites. They see their fellow professionals vilified both for their actions and their failures to act. Sometimes that vilification is just, and sometimes not. But the deep emotional response created by child protection stories in particular generates a media heat that is understandably quite frightening to those on the social work frontline.
That wariness often extends to those people who can help them negotiate the media minefield; their PR colleagues.
Some social work managers perceive the press office to be almost indistinguishable from the press itself; part of a world that makes them feel nervous and defensive. It’s our job to build up relationships of trust and to help them understand our role, so that when we have to give advice and guidance, we are listened to and that advice is acted upon.
Thankfully, most public service communicators will never have to deal with a Rotherham scenario or a case like the death of baby Peter Connelly. But most will have to deal with a child protection story of some kind during their careers. When that time comes, those relationships and that trust with social care colleagues must already be firmly established. It’s too late to start building bridges when that serious case review lands on your desk, or that call from the Daily Mail comes in. We have a professional duty to develop a proper understanding of this area of work, its challenges and its successes.
Social care is a world where failures, misjudgements and mistakes, whether individual or institutional, can have devastating consequences. It’s also a world where dedicated professionals are working with some of the most vulnerable people in society, protecting them and changing their lives for the better.
As public service communicators, our job is to tell those stories, so that alongside those cases like Rotherham, where things have clearly gone so wrong, we can show the valuable and important work happening across the country, every single day.
Polly Cziok is head of comms and consultation at the London Borough of Hackney