A tidal wave of historic allegations of sexual offences has emerged. First Saville. Now football. One experienced former police communicator with experience of cases of sexual assault looks back at period public information films on 'stranger danger'... and then looks at those in positions of trust whose trust is now being questioned.
by Christine Townsend
A number of have people have, unsurprisingly, commented on the developing stories surrounding the allegations of historic sex abuse of young footballers spanning many decades. Having previously worked in police communications, I'm often asked why the police in this period seemingly failed so many by not catching these alleged paedophiles.
It certainly seems that crimes of yesteryear - such as Saville - that have only in recent times come to light would never happen now and that it was a different time when many turned a blind eye. Those who face allegations have strenuously maintained no wrong doing and they are yet to go through the courts. However, it is important to try to look at the context in which these horrific crimes happened and perhaps learn from how things were done 'in the good old days' in terms of communications.
I have long since harboured a fascination with the public information film. They shaped my childhood and my memories of being sat in a chilly school hall watching a wobbly film on a projector with a concerned looking WPC are undoubtedly shared by many who were born in the seventies.
The themes were wide and varied and also echoed on one of three TV channels - not playing on building sites, look left, look right, look left again, when you hear the siren for nuclear fall out, hide under a door, be seen, be heard, do this, do that, chuck a damp tea cloth over a burning chip pan - and most importantly - stranger danger (the fear of which was only to be surpassed by the eighties 'AIDS, don't die of ignorance' campaign).
Who can ever forget Charly Says?
We were told by a well meaning and reasonably funded public body that strangers were evil and we should by no means approach or speak to them - let alone be tempted by puppies and sweets and be taken in by the lie that our mums would really send a bloke in donkey jacket to pick us up from school even though we had no idea who he was.
And herein lies the problem.
The fostering of fear of the stranger only served to give us the unfounded and now, so painfully untrue notion that all family and friends were safe and to be trusted. We were told that if we were approached by a stranger that we should tell someone we trust like a policeman (the irony now not lost on anyone dealing with historic sex abuse cases).
At the time, BBC Crimewatch was just gaining popularity and my secret viewings as a child only confirmed that young girls and women were murdered by strangers. Horrific identikit pictures of Bad Men in newspapers made sure I knew who to swerve after school. There was never any suggestion that someone we knew would do such awful things to children. We wouldn't be believed.
It wouldn't be such a leap then to consider that a contributing factor as to why there are only now massive swathes of these awful allegations coming to light is because we were told things like that just didn't happen. The Government were telling us that, quite literally, only strangers were the danger.
Many of these films gave me nightmares as a small child and to be remembering them some thirty years later means that they certainly had an impact, but whether that's for the right reasons or not is questionable. It is worth considering whether as professional communicators in the public sector (and any industry that has a responsibility to keep people safe, healthy and reasonably well-adjusted) that we have a greater responsibility to really consider the far-reaching impact of campaigns and the messaging.
That's not to say that things haven't greatly improved. It's impossible to tell what factors in thirty years from now will make people look back and laugh at our curiously quaint ways of communicating. We can, however, reflect and see where things worked and where they didn't. We do this after every campaign, but isn't it worth looking back further to intelligently inform our comms decisions?
The narrative has now so clearly changed seemingly and hopefully for the better, so the delayed reporting is not surprising. The passage of time has by no means made things easier, but hopefully the progressive attitude of society towards sex abuse has perhaps enabled the investigative process to take place whereas in days gone by, pen would never have even been put to paper.
There are certainly so many other factors that have played a part in every single awful report of a sexual offence but by considering messages, languages, imagery and ultimately, the motivation behind a public information campaign, we have an amazing opportunity to protect people not just through a month long drink drive campaign or when its flu season, but for generations to come.
Christine Townsend (@ctownsenduk) is the founder of MusterPoint.co.uk - a social media and media management system built for the public sector and emergency services. She worked in crisis communications for fifteen years in the emergency services and central government.
Picture credit: Jobs for Felons Hub / Flickr