The history of PR is a history of a battle for what is reality and how people will see and understand reality.
This quote from Stuart Ewan, a professor of public relations at the City University of New York, sums up the current issues social workers face in getting out the true story of their profession; we are losing the battle for the narrative of what we do.
Why does this matter so much?
It’s because without publicity there can be no public support, and without public support there is little hope for meaningful change.
Take the example of the junior doctors’ current struggles against the new contract being imposed upon them. Even though the strikes have caused considerable disturbance and delay to patients, there is a general feeling of support from both the general public and national media for the doctors’ struggle. Many different professionals, those working on the frontline and not just union or association figureheads, have been given the opportunity to share their stories and use this to curry favour for their plight.
Different careers in social work.
This creates a positive PR image because doctors are generally seen as hard-working and altruistic figures and there is a professional respect for their views; stemming from a history of Doctors being revered in their communities and a central hub of local societies.
Looking at some of the newspaper stories about social work over the past five years, we can see how our public image is in stark contrast to that of our healthcare colleagues.
"Professionals failed 'invisible' boy" (The Guardian, 2012: Daniel Pelka) (read original article)
"Social services ignored 18 warnings about boy, 7, who died after suffering years of abuse" (The Telegraph, 2015: Blake Fowler) (read original article)
"Services missed chances to save tragic Ayeeshia before she was stamped to death by her self-confessed 'crap mother'" (Daily Mail, 2016: Ayeeshia Smith) (read original article)
A narrative of failure, a story of mistakes, and a focus on the missed chances of social workers instead of the monstrous acts of parents and carers who cause harm.
Career aspirations in social work.
Research by Community Care found that there was a lack of social work success stories in the national media, 60% of all stories were about a crisis and there was very little coverage about the reality of our day-to-day job. When asked why they tended to focus on failings, Ray Jones found that reporters claimed their ‘motivation is not about selling papers but about taking the moral high ground'. Studying this same area, Stanley and Manthorpe found that the ‘media will continue to emphasise the human drama and ‘bad news’ aspects of inquiries since this contributes to news value’.
As we know all too well within social care, it is difficult to change a person’s actions when they genuinely believe they are doing the right thing. It is even harder when this is backed up by a worldwide media culture where bad news is seen as more captivating.
So what is the reality of social work and how can we start winning the battle for hearts and minds?
The reality is that, for all the doom and gloom, we are a profession that does a great deal of good in the world. Recent statistics show that:
• Two-thirds of clients served by social workers benefit in measurable ways.
• Over 390,000 children assessed as ‘children in need’ in England receive support from social care and other services to promote their welfare.
• There are 'broadly positive' outcomes for adults who access social work services.
As well as the reward of knowing we’re making a difference in the world and fighting for people who often have nobody else on their side, social work is a vibrant and modern profession that offers a lifelong career opportunity. With 20% of all children’s services positions vacant, new ways of entering the career via fast-track training, a government focus on innovation, opportunities for flexible or independent working and planned changes to introduce new levels of accreditation, there is an argument that there has never been a better time to consider entering the career.
Is the job easy? Not always.
Is it worth it? Definitely.
So how can social workers change perceptions?
We know what a good job we do and the many hundreds and thousands of people we support every day have their lives improved by our dedication, but how do we get this message out there?
1) Challenge the media representation
Write to newspapers, call radio shows and comment on the internet. Challenge negative press with well-reasoned and thought provoking responses.
2) Share best practice
Attend networking events, set up practice/study groups, arrange team supervisions and engage with your Union and BASW (who will only be as good as you make them- so challenge them to improve if they need to!)
3) Let people know what we do
Spread the good news (confidentially), campaign, be proud of what you do and pitch articles and opinion pieces to newspapers and magazines.
4) Celebrate success
Reward yourself, see the good in what you do, clearly record your outcomes and embed in your personal practice the positivity that will spread.
5) Get managers and leaders to buy into the success narrative
Managers and leaders need to stop being scared of engaging with the media and start fighting for who owns the narrative of our profession.
We cannot win this battle alone and we need help in getting the good news out there, but the land is currently fertile for such a change to come about. The recent Social Work reform report recommended the launch of a ‘national public awareness campaign celebrating the positive aspects of social work, and explaining its complexities, to boost the profile of the profession’. This shows that there is cross-party support and political recognition that the image of social work needs to be improved by getting the positive stories out there.
Rather than wait for someone to come forth and lead this campaign for us, we need to consider the five steps above and take ownership of our own stories. For a profession that is so good at empowering others, we need to now take some time out to think of our own needs.
Helen Keller famously said: “I cannot do everything, but I can do something. I must not fail to do the something that I can do.”
What is the something that all of you can do to help win this battle for reality?
This piece was written by The Social Work Tutor, a practising Child Protection Social Worker and author who writes regularly about common social work issues and provides support for students and newly qualified workers in the field.