The difference for social work is that, in other services the public have their own experience to draw on when confronted by headlines. They will know how hardworking their children’s teachers are; how quickly police responded in a local emergency. But “if a member of the public has had dealings with a social worker it has invariably happened at a bad time in their lives. There is no well of goodwill in the public mind to draw on. Headlines burst into a knowledge vacuum.”
She also emphasised the lack of reform put into social work by New Labour, and the problems which arise from relying overmuch on local authority press officers who tend to `knock off at 5.00 pm’, and usually tackle more prosaic tasks – `bin collection, parking…’ “I’m sure many are perfectly good. But they are probably inexperienced when it comes to managing a media firestorm,” she said.
Serious Case Reviews don’t help: they usually disperse blame, whereas “if there is one thing guaranteed to anger journalists, it is the closing of ranks and the suspicion of a cover-up.” Add to this the fact that social workers never get a result in the same way as the police or nurses or headteachers, and you have to admit: there’s a problem.
* In popular culture there’s no social work equivalent of Casualty or Law and Order. Claire in the Community `was very funny. But Rosemary was “not sure it presents the modern face of social work that you want.” But if social workers are consulted about storylines in Eastenders, say, then she urged the profession to give its views, and get onto more sympathetic programmes such as Woman’s Hour and talk about it.
* If you are involved in a high-profile story someone with experience needs to take charge. Give as much information as possible out as soon as possible. And keep journalists in touch with developments: “It build trust… It’s useful for the local authority to build a relationship with whoever is covering a story: be helpful when you can. And do not underestimate the value of off the record briefing.”
* Journalists will be also aware of what police and other agencies are saying, so it’s important to stay in touch.
Rosemary ended optimistically: she does think things are improving. There is a growing realisation of the multi-agency approach: “I won’t say Rotherham was a good result for social work, but at least the blame was shared between the police and children’s services.” And she quoted with approval the case of Essex County Council and the `forced caesarean’ story. “The media assume social work won’t fight back: Essex did and got a rounded picture of events surrounding their decisions as a result.”
Rosemary Bennett is social services correspondent for the Times