Why we let Panorama film our council's social care work

Some people might think it would be reputational suicide for a council to agree to a request from BBC One's Panorama to make a documentary about its difficulties in providing social care.

Somerset County Council took a big risk in allowing Panorama to film but it was worth it, argues Mark Ford
Somerset County Council took a big risk in allowing Panorama to film but it was worth it, argues Mark Ford

Yet that’s what we at Somerset County Council decided to do last year, after hearing them out and deciding that the opportunity to highlight the issue of social care and the resources needed outweighed the risk of negative publicity.

They told us what they were aiming do, which wasn't to paint a rosy picture of the council and social care; it was to put into people’s living rooms an accurate representation of how difficult social care is and how much it needs a long-term funding solution, and that's what they did.

One year and some 120 hours of footage later, our calculated leap of faith has paid off.

Panorama has made a two-part documentary that has catapulted social care onto the news agenda and sparked a debate over the burden it places on councils with shrinking budgets.

Everyone who’s seen the documentary has been moved by it – they find it very powerful. It's getting traction at government level and MPs have been watching it and talking about it.

But none of this would have happened if it wasn't for Stephen Chandler, director of adult services. 

He understands the value of PR and talking about his service, so he was very keen and positive about Panorama wanting to film his staff, and was critical in persuading the council’s leader and chief executive to agree to Panorama’s request.

The documentary team made it clear from the start that, while they had editorial control, we would be able to raise any concerns over inaccuracies or unfair representations and they would make changes if necessary.

They were totally honest about what they wanted to get, and some of the stuff in there posed a few difficult questions for us; but they were fair and reasonable throughout.

We wanted to make sure that people were warmed up to it and knew that it wasn't going to be a puff piece nor was it going to be a hatchet job.

Mark Ford, comms manager at Somerset County Council

They accepted a little bit of feedback, but there was nothing that made us say: "No, that's not accurate."

In all of this, you have to remember that frontline staff consented to having a camera crew following them around, so they are the ones who have really gone out on a limb to let Panorama in.

Now read: Council's "courageous" decision on Panorama documentary puts adult social care on the political agenda

It was a bit nervy waiting to see the first cut of the documentary a few weeks ago, and there was a collective sigh of relief once we’d seen it.

We placed some comment pieces in key publications in the run-up to last week’s broadcast of the first part of the documentary. 

We wanted to make sure that people were warmed-up to it and knew that it wasn't going to be a puff piece, nor was it going to be a hatchet job.

I don't think anyone has ever taken social care and so effectively put it in people's living rooms. 

It’s trying to bring to life something that people don’t see very often.

More than anything, what we are really hoping is that this gets some traction on the issue, but also raises our profile for recruitment, because there's a national shortage of social workers. 

So we hope that a bit of profile for us as a constructive, proactive organisation when it comes to social care will make a few people think about applying for jobs with us.

The second episode airs this evening. 

We need to not let it end here, and see where we can build on it. To continue the lobbying side of things, but also go back through it and see what we can do in terms of recruitment off the back of it. 

It would be brilliant if, out of this, we get some more social workers joining us who are full of enthusiasm. That would be great.

Mark Ford is the comms manager at Somerset County Council 

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