Communicating children's services

Communicating the day-to-day work of children's services can be a challenge but is also vital. Jo Stephenson speaks to communication experts to identify 10 key ways to do this effectively.

The importance of good communication in the public sector was starkly illustrated by the Grenfell Tower fire, where lack of information and apparent lack of action added to the misery of those affected.

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) responded to the criticism heaped on Kensington and Chelsea Council by highlighting the need for all services to take communications more seriously both when it comes to day-to-day engagement with the public and in responding to a crisis.

While efforts to communicate the work of children's services have got better in recent years, it is certainly something the sector could and should continue to improve, says Anthony Dhadwal, senior press officer at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW).

"People are naturally wary because there is this very negative perception of children's services," he says. "But we have to keep trying to engage to make a dent in that and repel the idea that social workers are child snatchers and people who fail at their jobs."

1. Make it integral

For those wondering why communications has anything to do with the nitty gritty of work with vulnerable children and families, James Mellor, assistant director of communications at Barnardo's spells it out.

"Working with children and young people is the most important thing we do. However, if we get communications right we can - put simply - do more of it and do it better," he says.

Good communication is what encourages people to volunteer or donate, informs commissioners, which helps when pitching for contracts, and can achieve change in legislation and policy that makes a difference to millions of young lives - such as the campaign for compulsory sex and relationships education.

This is why communications should be seen as an integral part of children's services that helps deliver key goals and not as an "add-on", says George Ames, director of client services at Forster Communications.

2. Involve frontline staff

Communicating the work of children's services is the role of everyone from the chief executive or director of children's services to reception staff, says Mellor. "Our role in the communications department is to facilitate that and advise on how best to do it," he adds.

However, the sensitive nature of work with children and families can prevent councils and others from allowing frontline staff to speak to the media.

"Social workers want to be more involved so we need to start lifting some of these barriers," says BASW's Dhadwal. "They understand the issues and are quite media savvy anyway because their sector is often under attack."

He believes hearing directly from social workers - rather than sending out corporate statements - can help boost perceptions of the profession with the onus on management to provide support, encouragement and training.

Melanie Adegbite is an independent social worker who regularly speaks to the media about social work. "It's important people understand the role of social workers and the difficult decisions we have to make," she says.

"There are lots of misconceptions and it bothers me that we are not sometimes fairly represented."

Showing the "human" face of social work is not just about improving its image but can also encourage children and families to contact and engage with social services and realise "we are not ogres", says Adegbite.

3. Young people tell it best

Ultimately the people who best communicate the work of children's services are the children and young people themselves.

At Barnardo's, press officers have built up trusting relationships with families, ensuring media requests are handled sensitively.

"We are quite strict on consent," says Mellor. "Like everyone we have consent forms but we tend to go back to them for every occasion to make sure they are happy."

Protecting young people means thinking carefully about how they might be portrayed (see case study on Positive Futures, p29) and can mean saying "no" to media requests and other PR opportunities, says Ames.

"When you are putting a young person up for interview it is vital that they aren't left exposed or at all unsupported, and that they fully understand the opportunity they are taking part in and are comfortable with that," he says.

4. Have a clear message

Good communication is about being clear what you want to say and who you are saying it to, says Ben Rochelle, senior political consultant at the Whitehouse Consultancy, which regularly supports charities, and organisations in the education sector.

The way children's services organisations communicate with service users will be different to the way they reach out to commissioners or local politicians.

However, having a punchy and engaging slogan or brand for a campaign - complete with hashtag - is "always helpful", says Rochelle.

The importance of targeting the right people in a constructive way was brought to the fore when his consultancy worked with a youth homelessness charity in East London that found itself on the verge of bankruptcy due to an unwarranted VAT bill on the construction of a block of flats.

General awareness of the charity was low so the firm identified relevant MPs and councillors who could take forward its concerns and highlight the vital work it was doing.

It mobilised charity patrons to write letters to newspapers and appear on BBC London.

Crucially, it also ran a campaign to encourage the young people who relied on the charity to write to their MP. All of this had a "significant impact" in ensuring the VAT bill was ripped up.

5. Make it two-way

Ensuring communication is two-way is key, says Catherine Grinyer, who specialises in diversity and inclusion in communications and is former chair of the CIPR's diversity and inclusion forum.

"We shouldn't just be pushing out messages when we feel we have got something to say, we should be seeking to engage our audience in that two-way dialogue," she says.

Organisations that communicate regularly in this way have higher satisfaction among service users and greater engagement and participation with target audiences, she adds.

"Engage children, parents and carers in the design and delivery of your campaign from the start and use them to find out which communications channels you should be using," says Grinyer.

The Social Care Institute for Excellence ensured young people were at the heart of its recent investigation into ways to improve mental health services for children in care (see case study, left).

Avoid the jargon and acronyms that children's services speak and remember the average reading age among adults in the UK is nine, says Grinyer, so ensure you use plain English.

Programmes like Microsoft Word have built in reading age checkers. "This costs nothing yet will make a huge difference to adults with learning disabilities, children and families where English is not their first language and those that perhaps didn't benefit from a post-16 education," she says.

Bear in mind that actively engaging with your audience - especially via social media - means you need to listen and respond and that can mean "having difficult conversations".

6. Be proactive

It is easy to slip into a pattern of responding to media requests or focus activity on a handful of events but the key to good communications is being pro-active and finding creative ways to tell people about your day-to-day work with children.

"There are great ways to amplify your message that don't revolve around a big launch but do tell people your story, why you are there and about the services that could be relevant to them and their children," says Grinyer.

Everyone is "desperate for fresh content on their websites" so offering to provide a guest blog or Q&A is a great way to get your message across.

Inviting journalists to meet managers and staff and discuss ways you could collaborate on campaigns or a series of articles helps tackle misconceptions and stereotypes all round.

Having a pro-active approach will also stand you in good stead when there is something less good to talk about.

Grinyer cites her children's school as an excellent example. Several years ago it had a bad reputation and a new head teacher was on a mission to turn things around. Key to that was regularly communicating what the school was doing, from new uniforms to policy changes.

Recently when the poor results of a school kitchen inspection were reported in local media, parents and others who previously may have complained rallied round.

"By communicating the day-to-day stuff you are building your brand reputation. In the voluntary and public sectors people don't talk about brand awareness and reputation in the way the private sector does but it is absolutely as relevant," says Grinyer.

7. Planning is everything

Ensuring the breathing space to plan ahead may be easier said than done when you have a small communications team but it makes all the difference.

"Taking time to prepare content you want to promote rather than just reacting to things means you are far more likely to position yourself in the way you want," says Ames.

This means ensuring you have the best case studies, spokespeople and content ready to go and, crucially, you are prepared for a crisis.

Scenario planning - where communications teams work with children's service directors, lead members and others to establish what should happen in challenging situations - is key, says Grinyer.

"Doing some scenario planning means you are not scrabbling around for the right wording or who has sign off on it.

"It means you know what to do and who is authorised to talk on behalf of the organisation."

8. Be clear when things go wrong

When children's services are faced with criticism or something has gone wrong, the worst thing they can say is "no comment", says Grinyer.

This is true when it comes to the publication of an unfavourable inspection report or serious case review.

"A report is black and white but it doesn't tell the full story so I would always urge organisations to get their own account of events out there," she says.

Explain how you plan to respond to issues of concern and be open to feedback. Councils should not be afraid of staging open forums that give people the chance to have their say.

"Communications shouldn't be there to promote half truths," adds Ames. "With something like a children's service closing down it is important to explain why that is happening and consider the needs of different stakeholders."

Where mistakes have been made then it is important to apologise, stresses Rochelle.

"If you are at fault, say sorry," he says. "If you can't provide solutions straight away, that's fine, but make it clear you are seeking to address any issues and will come back with solutions within a set timeframe."

The worst possible scenario that children's services face is the death of a child. Planning how you will communicate around a situation like this may sound callous but can spare those affected additional pain.

9. Make the most of social media

Social media has changed the face of communications and it is something children's services should embrace, says Rochelle.

For example, staff who work for Stockport Family children's services are actively encouraged to use social media (see case study) to share positive messages.

The fast pace of social media and concerns that staff may use it in a way that reflects badly on an organisation means some in the sector are understandably nervous - it requires a different tone of voice and is not a form of communication that works with a lengthy sign-off process.

"You need people who understand how social media works, can construct a Tweet and know how to generate followers and support," says Rochelle.

10. Celebrate success

If the sector really wants to tackle negative perceptions then it must try harder to share examples of where children's services have transformed lives, says BASW's Dhadwal.

"What hurts us most is the disaster stories, so let's give them more of the opposite - stories and pictures of people with the social worker who changed their life."

He acknowledges this is hard but not impossible and believes councils should put more resources into identifying and promoting positive case studies.

The media are interested, says James Mellor from Barnardo's. One young woman helped by a service in Manchester for those who have been sexually exploited arrived too traumatised to speak and was only able to communicate through drawing. Three years on and she has just started a university course.

While she cannot be named, Barnardo's hopes to work with her to use her story as an anonymised case study. "You'd have to have a very hard heart not to think that was an amazing story of success," concludes Mellor.

The Service: Stockport Family, Stockport Council

The official launch of Stockport Family in 2016 was the culmination of a major shift in the way children's services were delivered, bringing together children's social care and health services - and other key partners - to provide an integrated, restorative approach.

One of the key challenges in launching a new service has been raising awareness of what it does both internally among the wider council and professionals who might refer families and externally so children, young people and families know what is on offer.

When it comes to internal communications, Stockport Council's communications team recently set in motion a strategy to boost awareness of the service, explains Max Wieland, senior communications and marketing officer.

This focuses on a specific area each quarter and the team is currently promoting the work of the youth offending service through the weekly email sent to staff by Stockport Family director of operations Deborah Woodcock, pop up messages that go direct to people's desktops and a short quiz.

Woodcock's weekly email celebrates the work of the whole service and focuses on "upbeat, positive messages" highlighting "great feedback from families as well as training, events and other items of interest", says Wieland.

The team is also developing a monthly email round-up that will be set up to provide insight into how many people actually read it or click on links.

When it comes to communicating the work of the service more generally, social media has a big part to play.

Woodcock herself is very active on Twitter and other staff are encouraged to use social media to share information about the service's activities.

"As a service we have over 100 colleagues on Twitter and that's a big change compared to other services where there is a bit of hesitation and they just have a corporate account," says Wieland.

Staff are given guidance on the pros and cons of social media as well as common pitfalls.

Going forward, the team is keen to do more to promote understanding and recognition of Stockport Family to the general public.

Part of that is about ensuring a strong and visible brand, explains Wieland. This includes making sure all services under the Stockport Family umbrella make the most of social media, use the service's colourful and instantly identifiable jigsaw piece logo, and spread the same core message - that the service is all about working with families and building on their strengths.

It is also about using a variety of channels to promote Stockport Family's work including the council's e-newsletter.

The council used to publish four 20-page newspapers each year, sent out to all Stockport residents. But this has been reduced to an annual publication to save money.

The emphasis is now on promoting an electronic version. "We wanted to keep it bite-sized and relevant and mainly signpost people to different areas of our website," says Wieland. "We started last October with 500 subscribers and are now at 9,000."

This has mainly been achieved by targeting people who receive other email updates and through social media. The council is also teaming up with businesses that form part of a major town centre regeneration project to offer restaurant vouchers, cinema tickets and gym passes to people who sign up to receive the e-newsletter.

Other opportunities to promote the work of Stockport Family include entering the service in sector awards and the council's own annual staff conference and awards, which took place in July this year. Next year the plan is to do even more to publicise this to help raise awareness of what staff do, says Wieland.

Last year, the council took part in the national Our Day initiative to promote the work of local government. "It was a big day last year where we tweeted loads and a lot of that was around Stockport Family," says Wieland. The plan for this year's Our Day event on 21 November was to focus on "services for young people".

The Report: Improving Mental Health Support For Our Children and Young People (Scie)

Good-quality mental health support is vital to children and young people in care and this is the core message of a new report, published last month by the Social Care Institute for Excellence (Scie).

Drawn up by an expert working group, the report was co-produced with children and young people who shared their views and experiences of mental health provision and the improvements needed.

"We can't say what is best for children and young people without involving them," explains project lead Lucy Milich. "Part of that is ensuring everyone can contribute - not just those that are verbally articulate."

Young people taking part could also contribute film, photography or art.

"It's not just a case of getting the young people in, it is also supporting them before, during and after," says Milich. This included providing a dedicated "time out" room with magazines, food and a trained adult on hand.

Jack - one of the young people on the main expert working group - was supported to speak at a conference, delivering a session to 150 adults alongside working group chair Dame Christine Lenehan and Scie chair Paul Burstow. This included training on public speaking.

It was important for the report's findings to be communicated by a young service user. "One of our main messages is if you want to develop or deliver new services you have to involve the young people in those services," says Milich.

"There is a big difference between a young person saying that and an adult saying that. People were really struck by what Jack said and it definitely had an impact."

A lot of work went into preparing for the launch at the House of Lords and communicating the report's findings to maximise impact, explains Scie press and public affairs manager Steve Palmer.

Scie created a dedicated young person's website promoted widely on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Palmer sent press releases to national media and had spokespeople on standby from 6am to 1am on the launch day to enable coverage on breakfast shows to late-night radio phone-ins.

Blogs for the Scie website by young people and expert group members were lined up and ready to go as were blogs for external sites covering mental health and social work by Scie chair Burstow.

In addition, Scie set up a website for professionals and sent out a targeted email to encourage them to read the report and share it with others.

Careful consideration was needed when it came to giving press access to young people involved in the project.

"Because of the nature of the project, discussing mental health and wellbeing, we had to balance getting media coverage against protecting the young people from too much exposure," says Palmer.

The Project: Positive Futures, Forster Communications

Positive Futures was a flagship government scheme aimed at steering disadvantaged young people away from antisocial behaviour through sport and leisure activities.

Initially managed by the Home Office's Drug Strategy Directorate, it was delivered locally by local authorities, charities, sports clubs, police and youth offending teams.

Promoting a scheme of this type came with various challenges, explains George Ames, director of client services at Forster Communications, the firm employed by government to manage public relations.

"With local media we were careful to avoid reference to the drug strategy directorate, ‘at risk' young people or that sense of referral because that fuels a stereotype," explains Ames, who says the team worked on getting coverage of positive case studies.

"The programme was about building self-esteem and confidence so it would be completely counter to its objectives to have someone positioned as a ‘feral teenager'.

"It was about young people seeing themselves in the media doing something good and being proud of that whether it was winning a tournament or completing a piece of community volunteering."

Another challenge was the fact the programme involved different partners all with their own goals and communications objectives.

The solution was to set up joint planning sessions where communications leads came together to talk about plans and priorities as well as what was going on with the programme on the ground, says Ames.

"What came out of that was local communications plans which nodded to the needs of all the different partners," he says. "It provided a consistent set of messaging for talking about the programme when partners were doing things on their own but also explored opportunities to collaborate."

One element of the programme was boxing. When The Guardian ran a piece with the headline "Boxing is good for you, Blunkett tells the poor", referring to then Home Secretary David Blunkett, this was frustrating.

"It was a classic example of an over-enthusiastic sub-editor but actually the story beneath it was extremely positive about the benefits boxing brought and why," says Ames.

"You need to look at risk and gain. If you want a profile in the national newspapers about the impact you're making you need something with a bit of a grip to it but equally you've got to be happy that it being presented in a certain way is not going to create more trouble than it's worth."

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