Perceptions And The Media:
Just tell us how to deal with those reporters and everything will be fine. You know who those reporters are. They are those people who are always negative, are misinformed, do not understand, and never get it right anyway. They take one or two isolated incidents and blow them totally out of proportion. Their only goal is to sell more newspapers.
Of course, were you to listen to those reporters, you might hear a different perspective. Just tell us how to deal with those child protection people and everything will be fine. You know who those child protection people are. They are those people who are always hiding behind confidentiality, have nothing more helpful to say than, “No comment,” and are covering up their mistakes and incompetence. They are only interested in putting in their time, collecting their paychecks, and covering their behinds. The public needs to know just how its tax dollars are being wasted.
If you believe this fairly characterizes the reporters you work with in your community, you have a huge public relations opportunity. Your challenge is to get your reporters to relate to you and your agency more positively, to be sure they are always well-informed, to help them understand, and to make it easy for them to get it right.
If this fairly characterizes how you and your agency are perceived by the reporters you work with in your community, you have still another public relations opportunity. Your challenge is to help them understand that, although the privacy rights of your clients are important and must be respected, there is information you can share and are many areas you can openly discuss. You do have a responsibility to inform the public and you take that responsibility seriously. The reporters and the public need to know that although you are not perfect, you seldom make significant mistakes. Agency staff, foster parents, and volunteers are well-trained and competent. The people associated with the agency are sincerely committed to the safety, permanence, and well-being of each child for whom they are responsible.
In most communities, the truth lies somewhere between the extremes. Child protection people are not completely comfortable with and trusting of reporters, and the reporters remain at least somewhat skeptical when dealing with the child protection people. Nonetheless, there is a significant level of mutual trust and good will. When the media arena expands to include a statewide or national perspective, though, the levels of mutual trust and good will so carefully cultivated at the community level are no longer possible.
Community level trust and good will are built on ongoing relationships, direct experience, and the need to work with each other tomorrow. At the state and national levels, there usually are no ongoing relationships and probably no relationships at all. The reporters and child protection people have no direct experience with each other and will never work with each other. Also, the issues are quite different.
At the community level, the story is typically about a specific case or situation. At other times, it may be about the perspective of an individual or advocacy group that is critical of the agency. Even in those cases, though, the criticism is ordinarily limited to specific, local points or issues. At the state and national levels, alternatively, the criticism is most always broad and sweeping. Further, the critics are usually legislators, high-level state or federal officials, or others several steps removed from the local community and the local child protection agency.
At first, it may seem that state and national stories are too far removed from you and your agency to warrant much attention. Unfortunately, they are not. Wire services and the electronic media can and do pick up these stories and people in your community are well aware of them. Even though the stories may not be specifically about your agency or foster families, the stories are usually so broad and inclusive that many if not most people in your community assume that they do, at least to some extent, apply to your agency, your staff, and your foster parents. Through this very human process of generalization, the state or national story becomes local, whether it is true in your community or not.
Consider each of the following headlines. If it is a state level story, assume that it is referring to your state. Your local reporter calls you and tells you that the story came over the wire. She then reads the headline to you and asks you to comment.
For each headline, develop a one sentence response. That will be the quote from you that the reporter uses in her story. The lead for the reporter’s story about the first headline might be:
A senior official in The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services says, “The system is broken,” referring to Ohio’s child protection system. Patti-Jo Burtnett, Spokesperson for Lorain County Children Services, disagrees ”
· The System is Broken.
· There is a Statewide Crisis in Foster Care
· Governor Calls for Sweeping Child Welfare Reforms
· Foster Parents Poorly Trained and Financially Motivated
· Child Welfare Workers Overwhelmed and Under-qualified
· System Not Protecting Country’s Most Vulnerable Children
· Congress To Investigate Failure of Child Protection System
· Social Workers Take Children, Parents’ Rights Ignored