At a meeting attended primarily by private and public agency executives, the following observations were overheard:
· “You would have less turnover if your staff wasn’t constantly being demonized by the media.”
· “You need to educate legislators on the causes of child abuse and neglect so they understand you better and leave you alone.”
· “If you developed universal position papers and distributed them you could reduce all the negativity surrounding child welfare.”
At almost every conference, gathering, or meeting you have heard members of the child protection community argue for more and better communication with the media and the community. However, the call for action is typically a discreet, one-time activity. If “X” is done, then the problem will be lessened and things will be instantly better. Unfortunately, position papers, informative brochures, single presentations, individual conversations, or other such one-time actions, although very important, are inadequate. They by themselves can neither balance media criticism nor meet public expectations.
Included in the list of inadequate strategies are, of course, single contacts with reporters, feature stories, and TV or radio interviews. Yes, these types of interactions are valuable and handling them well is critical. Nonetheless, by themselves they cannot do the strategic communication job that must be done.
You can consistently do the right things right, with few errors or omissions. Still, unless the public understands what those right things are, why they are right, and how you go about doing them, pats on the back will be in short supply. Even more to the point, mistrust, criticism, and negative stories will be the primary message the public hears.
Power messages, then, are your agency’s counter-messages to the public. Each power message must be continuous, sustained, and as strong or stronger than the negative message the public regularly gets through the media.
The point here is simple. Negative public attitudes and beliefs do not change quickly or easily, especially when they are daily reinforced by national, state, and local stories from other communities that have no direct relationship to you or your agency. Your public relations success thus depends on how effective you are in assuring that your messages are clear enough and powerful enough to counteract the ongoing negative conditioning of the public by the media.
A respected reporter for a large, urban daily newspaper made this observation: “Reporters and editors love child welfare stories. First, they make good news, complete with small children and high human interest. Second, it is like hitting a pillow. You can just keep hitting and it never hits back. That makes the stories not only interesting but also makes them safe.” Effective power messages, then, must hit back.
This would be difficult enough if the public’s attitudes, beliefs, and focus stayed constant. They do not. Rather, they shift, depending on what the hot issue is today, on what aspect of child protection receives attention. This shift can one day emphasize investigations and child safety and on the next day emphasize foster care or adoptions. The shift can be toward the state and state-wide issues and immediately turn to a specific case in a particular community. Power messages have to follow the shift and anticipate it at times to assure that the child protection power message coincides with where the public’s focus is right now.
Your goal is to keep your power messages aligned with public expectations and interests. If you are not able to do this by clearly defining what you do and communicating appropriate accountability measurements for what you do, the media and others will do it for you. The outcome will be your being told what you should do and how that should be measured. That then becomes the standard against which the public judges your agency and what’s more, that standard itself shifts depending on today’s hot story.
Creating and sustaining effective public relations initiatives starts with explicitly determining what your agency does, what your core commitments to the public are. Core commitments are the standard, the outcomes for which you are willing to be held accountable.
At a broad level, the standard, what you do, is incorporated in your agency’s mission statement. The mission is a simple statement of what you do, framed in a value-based context highlighting why what you do is important. At an abstract level, you are serving the public, doing what most members of the public value and would do for themselves, if they had the necessary time and skills.
Additionally, agency goal statements, strategic plans, community forums, and continuous quality improvement efforts help define what you do. In turn, they serve to help the public understand and accept what you do, why you do it, and how well you do it.
Beyond defining your agency’s core commitments, you need to assure that those commitments are aligned with what the public wants and values. For example, you know that the public’s central child protection value is child safety. To align with public value, then, child safety must in turn be your agency’s highest priority, its first core commitment.
This and other core commitments then become the base for all public relations, the source of power in your power messages. Just as nothing plays as well as the truth, no public message is stronger than a message that incorporates public values that are already strongly held by the public.
· Any public relations effort, large or small, transforms into a power message when one or more core values are incorporated into the message.
· In child protection, the strongest power messages always incorporate a core commitment to child safety.
Successful public relations, likewise, focus the public’s attention on what your agency should reasonably be held accountable for. We can do “X” and you should hold us accountable for doing it. At the same time, we cannot do “Y” and do not accept responsibility for assuring that it is done.
For example, a child protection agency can and does reduce the likelihood of children, with whom it has contact, being abused and should be held accountable for doing that. At the same time, no single agency can guarantee the safety of all children with whom it has or has had contact and cannot accept responsibility for that as a standard of accountability. Defining and clearly communicating what you cannot do is just as important as defining what you can do.
Beyond child safety, the public is not as cohesive or articulate about what it values. Your public relations efforts, then, need to help your community and your agency jointly identify and clarify other important values. These secondary or supporting values underpin all agency programs and services. For example, along with protection (child safety), LCCS and the Lorain County community value partnering, permanence, and prevention.
If you do not openly and enthusiastically partner with your community in this value identification and acceptance process, you are not strategically communicating. Sharing the effort means customizing and targeting your messages, inviting comments and criticism, and providing feedback to the public. Partnering with your community goes beyond value identification and acceptance, though. Agencies committed to ongoing public relations invite their communities to participate not only in agency accomplishments but in the measurement of progress or lack of progress toward the mutually accepted values and goals.
To illustrate, LCCS’ core business includes competent, thorough, and timely investigations of all child abuse and neglect complaints. This activity is, of course, in support of the core value of child safety.
The success of the service is measured through internal statistical analysis, state driven data analysis, and feedback from law enforcement, other agencies, and those who make the abuse complaints. The programming loop goes from value identification and acceptance (child safety) to action (investigations) to measurement (statistics and community feedback.)
The power message is, then, LCCS receives over three hundred abuse and neglect complaints each month. All are thoroughly assessed by our professional staff and if appropriate, investigated (including seeing the child face-to-face) within one hour if the child may be at immediate risk and within 24-hours in all other cases. This message is repeated often and in as many contexts as possible.
An important strategic outcome here is simple. When a reporter calls and asks if the agency is involved with a case the reporter heard about over the police scanner, the spokesperson can say, “Yes, LCCS is investigating.” As a result of hearing the strategic message in other contexts, the reporter and the public know that LCCS is investigating, is taking action to protect the child, and is accepting its responsibility to the public. The response to the reporter serves as another iteration of the same power message.
Now, focus on your core business, on those services that you must pursue whether you pursue anything else or not. What are the most important services that you actively pursue and for which you are held publicly accountable? You may think of these as your primary services. For example, your primary services may include investigations, in-home services, foster care, family preservation, or adoptions.
For each primary service in your list, describe one way you can demonstrate your agency’s success in achieving the major outcome associated with the service. Also, develop one strategic message for each primary service.
For example, for investigations, LCCS can cite statistics that demonstrate the extent to which all children included in investigations are seen face-to-face by an LCCS worker within 24-hours of the agency’s receiving the initial report. (The strategic message, in this case, is keep our children safe.) For foster care, LCCS can cite statistics showing the extent to which all children going into foster care are appropriately placed in foster homes in Lorain County. (The strategic message is, in this case, keep our kids at home.)