There are 1,200 services offered in local government. Some can be lifesaving and can shape a future generation. No pressure.
by Emily Worthington
As a Communications Officer for Children’s Services at a local authority, my job is to help engage all of the staff who work with children and young people (not just at the council but across partner agencies too) and also improve the public perception of Children’s Services. Simple, I hear you say!
I sort of fell into the role, after helping the service with a campaign to recruit more experienced social workers (if you weren’t aware, there are not enough and recruitment of social workers is a nationwide issue).
It’s no secret that Children’s Services across the country face serious challenges, and understandably social workers in particular are pretty wary of the media (see the response to the recent Channel 4 Dispatches here and here).
This can make my job tough. But it’s also really rewarding when social workers get the recognition they deserve.
Five challenges I’ve experienced:
1. Busy staff
Getting messages through to staff who are busy making a difference to children and young people is a pretty typical challenge of local government comms in general. With dwindling budgets, staff are doing more and don’t have time to read that massively important message you have crafted and most agree that they don’t see enough of their senior managers. Killing two birds with one stone, we took the messages on the road during a serious of events, with the Director of Children’s Services personally filling staff in on the ongoing improvements to their service and answering their questions face-to-face.
2. Bad news sells
Improving the reputation of an “inadequate” service is tough when we all know bad news sells better than good news. This has been a slow burn but it feels like I may be making some progress. Locally, the low public opinion of Children’s Services is being addressed with regular updates via social media and the local press about the progress being made. We also let the local radio station visit one of our social care offices and report a “Day in the life of Children’s Services” to dispel some of the fears the public seem to have about social workers. Addressing Somerset’s reputation within the children social care sector has also been crucial to helping with the recruitment of permanent social workers. Trade magazines like Children and Young People Now and Community Care have both featured articles about our improvement work and how we value our staff.
A juicy human interest story is what we all strive for, but what about consent? Our staff do incredible work with some of the most vulnerable children and young people in Somerset. I often hear about the support we provide and how it has made a difference to a child or family but understandably there are consent issues when it comes to vulnerable children and inevitably it becomes impossible to publicise these good news stories. To get around this we invited children and young people to nominate their social workers for a new Children’s Social Worker of the Year Award at the Council’s Staff Awards. We had 68 nominations and we were able to publish the heart-warming comments we received such as; “He always listens and I don’t feel alone” and “We play snooker together and we talk about my stuff and she is really sweet and confident in me.”
Perhaps another obvious one that all local government comms people will relate to. When I began working with Children’s Services I naively assumed that people who work with children and young people write and speak in Plain English. Boy, was I wrong! Acronyms and technical terms fly around and multiply as email threads get longer, and by the time something reaches me with a “See below – good news for staff newsletter?” I feel like I’m translating another language that Google Translate doesn’t recognise.
5. I’m an “expert” in comms not in Children’s Services
I would never presume to be an expert in anything, but I do know that I am definitely not an expert in child protection procedures, youth work, family support work or any of the other varied services we offer children and their families. It can be a challenge to navigate a sea of jargon, but at least I have some information. The real challenge is when you are just given a topic and asked to create a poster or a briefing for councillors or a press release, with the expectation that you will understand said topic. Luckily, having conversations and setting realistic expectations have made this a once in a blue moon challenge for me, but I know this is something that plagues plenty of comms people, in plenty of sectors.
Emily Worthington is a PR and Communications Officer in the South West.
Picture credit: Nationaal Archief / Flickr