Public Relations & The Media

It is not unusual to talk with child welfare professionals who are quick to acknowledge the value and importance of public relations only to hear them go on to say something like, 'We are very proud of our letterhead, brochures, advertising, and speakers' bureau. Our public relations are important and we believe in doing it right.' They may go on to talk about using mailing lists and personal visits to market their services or special advertising campaigns to get the story out to potential foster families. These are, of course, all very important activities but fall far short of a well-considered public relations program.

This serious misunderstanding of public relations and its critical role in achieving agency excellence is based on a confusion of terms. First, public relations is not advertising, although advertising is usually an element in a successful public relations program. Advertising is intended to call public attention to a product, service, event, or opportunity. The public or a segment of the public is made aware of whatever is being advertised with the goal of their buying the product, using the service, attending the event, or taking advantage of the opportunity. Most brochures, newspaper ads, TV and radio spots, many signs, and some presentations to groups and organizations are advertising.

Public relations is not 'public information' either, although effective public information activities are critical to successful public relations. Many agencies have a Public Information Officer (PIO) who is responsible for informing the public. This function may include, for example, the development of an informative brochure on an agency-related topic such as child abuse or teenage sexuality. The goal is to inform the public or a segment of the public about something of potential interest or importance to them. If successful, they will be better informed. Most speakers' bureau activities, radio and TV interviews, calls from reporters, and contacts by community groups and organizations are public information opportunities. Handling them well is essential.

Finally, public relations is not marketing, although no agency, public or private, can achieve excellence in today's service environment without well-developed marketing expertise. It helps to think of marketing taking place within a market. In this sense, a market consists of those people (and organizations) who will potentially do business with the agency, to the agency's benefit. It also consists of those people who may influence market participants to refrain from doing business with the agency.

For example, one market might be potential customers and other providers of the services the agency provides or wants to provide. Another market might be potential foster parents and other agencies who are recruiting foster parents. Potential employees and other employers are a significant market for most agencies as is the resource market that includes government and private fund sources and everyone else they may choose to fund with limited dollars.

Even though the focus here is on public relations and not specifically on marketing, it is nonetheless worthwhile to at least remind you of the first law of marketing: Marketing Begins At Home. Be sure that your agency's marketing plan starts with keeping the staff you have, the foster parents you have, the customers you have, and the resources you have. Just remember that the marketing plans of other agencies have, as at least their second strategy, taking them away from you. As you will see, successful public relations likewise starts at home.

Internal Transactions:

Successful public relations, relationships with the public, start inside your agency. First and foremost, the success of your agency's public relations rests on relationships, people interacting with people. Think about a single transaction, one person interacting with another. This elementary transaction is the smallest unit or building block from which all public relations develop.

Your agency's public relations program, then, can be no stronger than the cumulative strength of the thousands and thousands of transactions in which your staff participate over time. What's more, you should assume that the quality of your staff's external transactions, interactions with the public, is the same as you see in their internal transactions, interactions with each other. Assume that they relate to the public as well or as badly as they relate to their co-workers.

Below is a list of transaction elements you can use to assess your agency's internal, interpersonal environment. You do this by rating your staff's typical functioning on each of the ten elements. Rate your staff '5' on the element if it is most always present in your staff members' transactions with each other. Use '4' for usually, '3' for much of the time, '2' for sometimes, and '1' for usually not. Staff:

  • Are friendly and positive with each other.

  • Listen calmly and respectfully when others are talking.

  • Are sensitive to and accepting of cultural, ethnic, and lifestyle differences.

  • Are where they are expected, when they are expected.

  • Are consistent and predictable, not on-again off-again; do not run hot and cold.

  • Are interested in each other's issues and concerns, problems and difficulties.

  • Have a helpful and cooperative approach with each other.

  • Keep commitments and follow through with agreements.

  • Return phone calls, respond to messages, and get back to others when asked.

  • Treat each other as well as you expect them to treat the public.

Now, add your ten ratings together and divide by 10. This gives you an internal transaction score for your agency. The foundation of your public relations program needs to be increasing the internal transaction score, following the principle of continuous quality improvement.

Here is one effective strategy to increase your agency's internal transaction score over time. Monthly, randomly select 10% of your staff to do the above rating for the agency. If your total staff is under fifty, select five staff members each month to be the raters.

Have the raters spend no more than ten minutes doing the ratings and be sure they do not consult with each other while completing the ratings. Simply have each rater complete a simple 'Internal Transaction Rating Form' you develop using the ten elements above.

When the month's forms are returned, calculate the internal transaction score on each form by adding the ratings on each item together and dividing by 10. Now, just total the internal transaction scores from the forms. Suppose you have 30 forms. You total the 30 individual internal transaction scores and then divide by 30. You divide by the number of forms you actually have returned. The resulting internal transaction score for the agency will be between 1.0 and 5.0 each month.

Although the agency scores may go up and down slightly from month to month, do not focus on the month to month fluctuations. You are looking for a gradually increasing score over several months and from year to year. Create a chart or graph so all staff can see how the score is changing over time.

Certainly, your management group will want to develop specific training and other activities to improve the agency's internal transaction score. They will also want to consistently model the desired behavior. Whether there are special activities or not, though, the simple process of measuring and posting the agency's internal transaction score each month will lead to a gradual increase in that score over time, assuming that managers and supervisors consistently model the wanted behavior.

Mission And Value Focus:

The primary purpose of your agency's public relations program is to support and further the attainment of your agency's mission. To the extent that it serves this purpose, your public relations program is successful. To the extent to which it does not, the program is inadequate and ineffectual. Looking at the Lorain County Children Services (LCCS) mission and isolating the public relations directives it contains is instructive.

  • In partnership with the community, the staff, volunteers, and foster parents of Lorain County Children Services are committed to the safety and well-being of abused, neglected, and dependent children and will provide the highest quality protection, permanency, and prevention services for children and families.

First, this mission statement directs that LCCS public relations programming supports and furthers a community partnership. Developing and fostering partnerships with community groups and organizations are, thus, not optional. They are required and are clearly the first order of business for public relations staff.

Two points here need to be highlighted. The agency does not intend to pursue its agenda or initiatives by itself. In fact, the mission statement implies that initiatives that do not include the participation of community partners should be avoided. This requires multiple partnerships along with attention to the development of new, potentially productive partnerships.

Additionally, successful partnerships are always two-way streets. This means that public relations activities must support and further the interests of the agency's partners. An important implication of this reciprocity is that the agency, and particularly its public relations staff, will frequently be involved in activities that are not directly related to child protection. They are, rather, in support of the priorities of the agency's partners.

Next, the mission statement directs that staff, volunteers, and foster parents are key participants in supporting and furthering the agency's mission. Involving foster parents, for example, in the public relations program is not optional. They are to be fully incorporated into the program as partners.

Further, the mission statement directs that public relations programming supports and furthers both the safety and well being of abused, neglected, and dependent children. It is not enough to focus on the children's being safe. Their well being must receive equal consideration. For example, this means that efforts to improve community services, increase low income housing, decrease neighborhood violence, and assure appropriate recreational opportunities for the children are not optional. They directly affect child well-being and are clearly part of the public relations directive.

Finally, agency public relations must support continuously increasing the quality of services for children and families in the community. Concurrently, those services must be available to and accessible by the children and families served by the agency. Just as importantly, those services must support and further child protection, permanence, and prevention of abuse and neglect of children.

As you can see, what at first may seem to be a simple mission statement is actually the primary action statement for the agency and for its public relations program. The agency cannot attain its mission's outcomes without effectively and successfully fostering multiple and varied relationships within the community. Public relations are not optional. They are an essential ingredient for success. The agency will succeed or fail based on, among other things, the strength of its public relations program.

Your public relations program success is, in turn, strongly dependent on the support of internal and external individuals and groups. Their support, in turn, rests on the strength of their support for your agency's mission. Unless they support the mission, they are unlikely to support the outcomes directed by it. Without that support, the success of any specific initiative is in jeopardy. Recognizing this public relations reality, carefully consider these questions.

  • How fully do your staff, volunteers, and foster families understand and support your agency's mission?

  • What regular activities are in place to educate them about your agency's mission and to increase their support for the mission?

  • What measures have been taken to assure community support for your agency's mission? For example, community participation in the development of the mission statement would be one effective way of assuring community support.

The level of internal and external support for your agency's mission rests on the extent to which there is support for the values that underpin that mission. Following a brief introductory statement, here are LCCS' guiding values. You will see that they are divided into three groups: children, families, and community.

The LCCS Board has a simple philosophy that directs the work of its staff and volunteers. They are expected to do the right things right, the first time, on time, every time, one child at a time. Combining this central expectation with our guiding values brings focus to our work and to the community's expectations for us.

Children should:

  • Have an opportunity to be children and to grow up in a permanent family that is safe, supportive, and committed to their welfare and well-being.

  • Have their basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, and spiritual nurturing met.

  • Be loved, valued, and respected.

  • Have a strong sense of self-worth and personal esteem.

  • Have the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential.

  • Be responsible and contributing members of the community.

  • Have respect for the community's standards and laws.

Families should:

  • Responsibly and pro-actively care for their children.

  • Convey strong values, a clear sense of responsibility, and realistic expectations to their children.

  • Respect and be respected for their cultural, ethnic, and economic diversity.

  • View themselves and be viewed as the basic foundation of the community.

  • Be violence-free, provide positive role models for their children, and have a strong commitment to all their members.

  • Have equal access to the full range of community resources and services.

  • Have the community's respect and support.

  • Be respectful and supportive of the community.

Our community:

  • Should value its children and families as its most important resource.

  • Invest its spiritual, economic, health care, human, and educational resources in all its families and children.

  • Identify and confront injustice.

  • Recognize and build on the strengths of all its members.

  • Provide opportunities for all its members to participate in and contribute to its success.

  • Respect, value, and support the cultural diversity of all its members.

  • Pro-actively and collaboratively advocate for and respond to the needs of all its members.

  • Eliminate the barriers that prevent children and families from reaching their full potentials.

Your Public Relations Plan:

More fully understanding the Strategic Triangle introduced in the Introduction will help you better see the direct relationship between effective public relations and successful work with the media, on the one hand, and the excellence outcomes you want and must get for abused and neglected children. The first leg of the strategic triangle is public value. This is what the public wants and values.

In child protection, the highest public value is child safety. Children must be kept safe. With effort on your part, your public, your community, can also be helped to value child permanence, child well-being, responsive services, highly qualified staff, adequate facilities, collaboration with other agencies, and other things you think are important. Even so, never lose the perspective that child safety is the public's bottom line, the primary public value.

The second leg of the strategic triangle is authorization. For example, LCCS has to receive and keep authorization from The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and the Lorain County Board of Commissioners. Then, it has to receive and keep authorization from the voting public in order to maintain its revenue base. Additionally, it has to receive and keep authorization from the court in order to get the authority it needs to intervene into the lives of children and families.

Further, it has to receive and keep authorization from the police and other community agencies and professionals with whom it needs to work to effectively carry out its mission. Beyond that, authorization must come from the schools, community groups, area businesses, and a myriad of other local, regional, state, and national sources to assure the agency's success. Note that the media is also a key participant in the agency's authorizing environment, especially given its power to shape and influence the attitudes and opinions of most everyone in the authorizing environment.

The third leg of the strategic triangle is operating capacity. This includes financial resources, qualified staff, quality foster families, adequate facilities, support from community groups and organizations, and all that combines to give the agency the capacity to do its work.

Public relations, then, are those external activities focused on knowing what the public values and assuring that the public continuously knows that the agency is providing what the public values. Further, public relations are those external activities directed to monitoring and enhancing authorization at all levels in the community and beyond. Finally, public relations are those external activities that help the public and the authorizing environment understand and support the operating capacity requirements and resource development of the agency. Effective work with the media is, of course, an integral and absolutely necessary component of the agency's ongoing public relations initiatives.

Think about your agency in relation to the strategic triangle as you develop the three :below.

  • What do you want your public, your community, to value? Child safety is understandably the primary public value related to child protection. In order of importance to you, what are the most significant public values associated with your agency beyond child safety? These will be the public value focus for your public relations activities.

  • Who authorizes your agency? In order of importance, identify the individuals, groups, or organizations whose authorization you must receive and keep in order to successfully operate. These will be the authorization focus for your public relations activities.

  • What are the key elements in your agency's operating capacity? Of course, financial resources (money) are critical to your agency's operating capacity. Money is, though, only a means to building operating capacity. You will not get more money because you need more money. Rather, you will get more money because you need to add to or enhance your operating capacity. In order of importance, what are the most important elements in your agency's operating capacity? For example, an adequate number of foster homes or a computer for each social worker might go on your list. Be sure to start with those capacity elements that you currently have that you cannot operate without. These elements will be the capacity focus for your public relations activities.

Now, using the first list you developed above and focusing on those desired public values, consider these questions:

  • How does your agency assure that it knows what your public, your community, values?

  • How does your agency assure that your public continuously knows that the agency is providing what it values?

Using the second list you developed above and focusing specifically on those authorizers, carefully consider these questions:

  • How does your agency monitor its ongoing authorization at all levels in the community and beyond?

  • What does your agency do to enhance authorization at all levels in the community and beyond?

Next, using the third list you developed above, now consider these questions specifically in terms of the operating capacity elements on your list:

  • How does your agency help the public and members of the authorizing environment better understand the operating capacity requirements and resource development of the agency?

  • What does your agency do to increase the support of your public and members of the authorizing environment for the operating capacity requirements and resource development of the agency?

Now that you have developed the value, authorization, and capacity focuses for your public relations activities, it is time to develop your public relations plan. You do this by following these steps:

Start with your value focus list. For each of the values on the list, develop one strategy to let the public know that this 'should' be an important priority for them.

For example, LCCS believes that all school-age children served by the agency should be in our community, in school, and out of trouble. The message is, 'Keep our kids at home.' Part of the value strategy is to repeat this message verbally and in writing at every opportunity.

For instance, at any meeting dealing with children, we find an opportunity to say, 'Remember, we have to keep our kids at home.' We know we are succeeding when we say, 'Remember that ' and someone else finishes the sentence for us. (Note that public relations strategies are not necessarily expensive.)

Next, shift to your authorization list. For the individuals, groups, or organizations on your list, develop a strategy to maintain and enhance the level of authorization from each.

For example, LCCS must have ongoing authorization from the Lorain County Mental Health Board (MHB) to successfully operate. In support of this ongoing authorization, LCCS supports activities and initiatives of the MHB, whether they are related directly to LCCS activities or not. The MHB is a valued partner and LCCS is committed to doing whatever it takes to help the MHB succeed. Of course, any disagreements are kept private and never discussed publicly. Disagreements, and there occasionally are some, are exclusively a behind-closed-doors activity.

Now shift to your operating capacity list. Strategies here are a little more complex. The first step is to determine exactly how the specific capacity element potentially increases child safety. Remember that child safety is the primary public value. In turn, the authorizing environment is most likely to support things that increase child safety. If an operating element is necessary to assure child safety, you are in a strong position to get the needed capacity.

For example, a significant portion of families LCCS serves either speak English as a second language or are not conversant in English. Although translation services are available, LCCS believes that clients should receive services in Spanish, when that is the client's preferred language. Importantly, services will be more effective and children will be safer if the social worker and the client converse directly with each other, without a translator. Having bi-lingual social workers is necessary to best assure child safety.

Since simply advertising for bi-lingual social workers is not effective in northern Ohio, LCCS needs the capacity to recruit on-site and face-to-face at universities in Florida, New York, and New Mexico, as examples. Given a demonstrated connection between face-to-face recruitment and child safety, the capacity to recruit on-site out of state was forthcoming. An important and related public relations activity is continuously repeating the message, 'Our children and their families need and deserve social workers and other staff who can talk with them one-on-one.'

Once you have developed a strategy for each item on your public value, authorization, and operating capacity lists, prioritize the strategies. Which ones are absolutely necessary and which ones can have a lower priority? Once you know what you will commit to doing, it is time to work your public relations plan.

A Targeted Public Relations Initiative:

This illustration highlights a public relations initiative undertaken specifically for the purpose of increasing LCCS operating capacity in the area of foster homes for adolescents. In the current context, though, your focus should be on the public relations process. The steps included in the initiative are instructive regardless of the specific target group or the specific desired outcome. With that in mind, primarily focus on the public relations process as you consider the illustration.

LCCS, as do most public child protection agencies, has a significant need for foster families specifically willing to take care of teens. This critical need presented the agency with an ideal opportunity to strategically communicate with a targeted market. The first priority was determining who the target market should be.

Ohio Families for Kids, a Kellogg Foundation funded initiative, used State and Northeast Ohio statistics to develop demographic profiles of foster and adoptive families. Using this research, LCCS looked locally for population groups that had similar demographics to regional foster families who take care of teens. Demographically speaking, Labor Union households in Lorain County have a profile most similar to the one identified through the research.

Lorain County has strong Labor affiliations and the general public places a high value on unionized labor. That, in turn, gives Labor a strong voice politically and socially in the larger Lorain County community. Organizationally, the Labor community has its own infrastructure, leadership, values, and priorities. In order to expand LCCS' operating capacity to include 'union' foster families, LCCS needed to develop and cultivate ongoing relationships with Labor's leadership. The goal here was to receive and sustain the leadership authorization needed to proceed with marketing and recruitment activities with union families.

As a result of other public relations activities, the LCCS Public Information Officer knew the business manager for one of the local labor unions. When asked, the business manager quite willingly arranged for introductions and a seat at the next meeting of the Local. Unions, just as most other groups, like to have informational speakers at their meetings and are very open to people asking for that opportunity. Being able to call the business manager, whom she already knew, gave the PIO and thus the agency an important edge. Also, the business manager was comfortable enough with the already established relationship to let union members know up-front that his plan was to begin an on-going relationship with the agency.

Over the next several months, the agency followed through from the initial meeting with additional meetings and networking opportunities with an expanding group of Union leaders. This led to increasing opportunities to directly talk about the goals of the joint initiative and to ask for input on how to best continue the recruiting process.

Being consistent, truthful about the children who need homes, and repeatedly stating the initiative's goals increased general awareness of the need. Further, the process itself led to more opportunities to attend additional meetings. It was an expanding, open partnership that created a 'public value' within the union community: teenagers need families.

Building on this public value, the process asked for more and more union input focusing on a simple question. How will you and the agency work together to find families for teens?

Through this ongoing dialog, needed union authorization to continue was gradually forthcoming. In terms of the strategic triangle, the agency and the unions focused first on value creation and union authorization before focusing specifically on increasing operating capacity: more licensed foster families for adolescents.

As the agency became better and better at talking with the target market, the need for specific literature was identified. Prior to this point, there was little reason to develop unique literature. Custom literature only works after the shared values are created and the target market is explicitly interested in having informational literature.

Developing the market-specific literature was also a shared process. Successful marketing campaigns include targeted pieces that use language and visuals to convey the identified need in a clear and familiar way to the intended audience. The usual foster care recruitment slogans such as Open Your Heart and Home were neither specific enough nor adequately tailored to the target market.

During a discussion about fostering, the need for permanence and the importance of developing needed skills for independent living, the union leaders developed the ideal one-sentence mission statement for the initiative. Part of the discussion included making a permanent connection with a teen in a relatively short time, i.e., a couple of years. Foster parenting would necessarily be intense, all the while preparing the young adult for independence and adulthood.

'Sort of like an apprenticeship,' one of the union leaders quipped. Thus, the initiative's central message was created, 'Apprenticeships needed for the biggest job of all: Life.'

Strategically, developing the literature as part of the process also added credibility. Unless you are developing literature simply for the sake of having literature, it should never be an agency-only process.

In an unanticipated but important outcome within the process, the agency formed a special partnership with the steelworkers. Their Local has an internal training facility for members' professional and personal development. LCCS was invited to offer foster parent orientation/information workshops at gatherings throughout the year, open only to union members. Several union families have gone on to receive foster care licenses through this process.

Due in part to the visibility and success of the special partnership with the Steelworkers, Locals of other labor unions have an even higher interest in continuing the process. Equally importantly, they also have a high expectation that their individual partnerships with the agency will result in a specific initiative that utilizes their unique structure and resources.

An additional hidden conclusion here needs to be highlighted and must always be kept in mind when developing targeted public relations initiatives. There is no room for one-size-fits-all approaches for agencies that are serious about fully exploiting the potential of the strategic triangle.

Now that you have considered the illustration, focusing on the public relations process, consider the following questions:

  • Keeping in mind that the public relations street is always two-way, what do you think the motivations were for the union leaders in the illustration? What was the pay-off for them?

  • From your perspective, what were the key steps in the initiative?

  • From your perspective, are there missing steps that should have been taken or steps that should have been omitted?

  • For your agency, what groups in your community might productively be targeted for public relations initiatives?

  • For each group, what are the specific outcomes you could consider in a public relations initiative with the group?

For example, you might target school principals with the goal of increasing the ease with which your investigators are able to talk privately with children at school when abuse or neglect has been reported either by school personnel or others in the community.

Now, pick one of the groups from your target list. Focus on the outcome you have identified for that group. Using the steps you identified from the illustration, develop a targeted public relations initiative plan to work with that group. Be sure to add the steps you think were missing in the illustration and omit any steps that you think were inappropriate. Your plan will look like a list or series of specific action steps. Of course, you will undoubtedly need to modify the plan as you go through the implementation process. Nonetheless, effective public relations initiatives start with a carefully developed plan. (Also, be sure to consider the potential motivations of the group. Why would they consider working with you to achieve the outcomes you have developed?)

Power Messages:

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.)


    Regardless of your talent, initiative, and resources, even the most successful public relations practitioners and strategies cannot:

    • Fool either the public or the media on any continuing basis. In the long-run, nothing plays nearly as well as the truth. People can easily see through most deceptions and misleading statements. Use public relations and communication opportunities only to disseminate the truth.

    • Turn bad practice into good. LCCS makes a simple agreement with each reporter that covers the agency. If we make a mistake or are wrong, we will admit it and share the steps we will take to prevent the problem from recurring. Along with being the right thing to do, this open, candid approach has an additional benefit. If we tell them that we handled things correctly or that we were right, they can know that it is the truth.

    • Get reporters to only write stories that show the agency in a positive light. The best way and perhaps the only way to consistently assure 'good stories' is to never make mistakes or take actions that are open to varying interpretations. Since this is not possible, your agency will be in the negative media spotlight at times. Even so, if you are truthful and forthcoming with reporters, they will generally be fair, accurate, and even-handed as they report the news involving your agency. That is as good as it can ever get.

    • Fix performance problems. Public relations works in concert with and supports all areas of your agency. If performance in a given area or of specific individuals is problematic, that is what needs to be corrected. Public relations cannot, on any sustained basis, fix or cover-up ongoing personnel problems or operating deficits.

    Consider these questions based on your perceptions and your agency's experience with public relations and the media.

    Recall one media story in which your agency was shown in a negative light.

    • Was the story factually correct? If not, what were the facts?

    • What did you find in the story to be negative or unfavorable to your agency?

    • What could or should your agency have done to prevent being put in such a negative media spotlight?

    • What did your agency do to prevent finding itself in that spotlight for the same reasons in the future?

    • What conditions or practices are currently present in your agency that make the agency vulnerable to critical media attention and what is being done today to reduce that future vulnerability?

    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

    Taking Calls From Reporters:

    How hard could it be to take a call from a reporter? You talk to all sorts of people every day about all sorts of important issues. Yet, getting a call from a reporter is, for most people, usually not accompanied by a sense of calm and being in control. The Chinese symbol for crisis comes to mind: danger and opportunity. Learning to recognize the potential danger that the call poses while appreciating the opportunity it offers is a skill that takes practice, patience, and persistence. Of course, getting good at it does not necessarily mean that you will eliminate negative news. It does mean that you will be able to deliver the message you want, in the way the reporter needs it, so that the public can be assured that your agency is upholding its end of the bargain to keep our children safe.

    Responding to the media honestly, confidently, and appropriately requires careful thought and planning. It is never a time to talk off the top of your head, say whatever comes to mind, or wing it. Alternatively, it also is not the time to throw it all out there and simply let the reporter pick-and-choose from everything you say.

    Taking reporter's calls requires some advanced guidelines. First, there is information that you never disclose. For example, LCCS never discloses the identity of the person making the complaint.

    The reporter says, 'The police report says that they made the complaint to you. Is that correct?'

    The LCCS response is, 'We don't disclose who makes complaints.'

    Reporter: 'I'm just verifying the police report. Are you involved with the situation?'

    LCCS: 'Yes, we are investigating, but we do not verify reports from other organizations or disclose the identity of people making complaints. If you have external verification such as a police report, which is a public record, we can comment-but we cannot comment unless you have that type of prior verification.'

    Neither does LCCS disclose the names or specific locations of children. The agency will disclose the children's ages and whether they are with relatives or in foster care. Saying that the child is with relatives may or may not mean that the child is still with his parents.

    Reporter: 'Will you verify that the children's names are Sue and Joe and that they are 4 and 5?'

  • LCCS: 'Yes, the youngest is 4 but the oldest child is 6.'

    Reporter: 'And their names are Sue and Joe?'

    LCCS: 'We don't disclose children's names.'

    Reporter: 'That's what the police report says.'

    LCCS--no response. This is not a question.

    Reporter: 'Are the children still in the home?'

    LCCS: 'We do not disclose the specific location of children.'

    Reporter: 'Where are the children?'

    LCCS: 'They are with relatives and we are investigating.'

    Reporter: 'Does that mean they are not with their parents?'

    LCCS: 'We don't disclose the specific location of children.'

    Yes, the process can be tedious. Nonetheless, knowing your agency's guidelines in advance better assures that you will be consistent from call to call and that you will not inadvertently disclose information that your agency does not want disclosed.

    For use when responding to the media, develop two lists. In the first list, specify the types of information that your agency will not disclose to the public, will not share with a reporter. Be sure to carefully think through exactly why you will not disclose that type of information.

    Second, develop a listing of the specific types of information you will share with reporters and disclose to the public. Carefully think through exactly why it is acceptable to disclose each type of information.

    With what you will and will not disclose firmly in mind, the guiding principal when taking a call from a reporter is:

    • Choose to Participate.

    Understanding that the public expects you to be accountable, choosing to participate in news stories gives the public a prime opportunity to see what you have done or not done and the reasons why. If you choose not to participate, the story will still be told, except your agency's perspective, your side of the story, will be missing. Reporters want and need your participation but they certainly do not have to have it to write their stories.

    When a reporter does call and you, of course, take the call, keep these points in mind from the moment you pick up the phone until you hang it up:

    • Keep a written record of each call, including the date and time of the call, the reporter's name, the specific media outlet, exact questions asked, the reporter's current deadline; and the reporter's direct phone number.

    • Read the questions asked back to the reporter to make sure you heard them correctly, confirm the reporter's deadline, and assure the reporter that you will call him back before his deadline.

    • Never answer a reporter's question during the initial call unless you are absolutely sure you have all of the facts and that your answer is true, without qualification or conditions.

    • Always give yourself a break between a reporter's asking a question and your answering it.

    This practice equally applies to both print and broadcast media. Do not agree to a live or recorded radio or television interview unless the reporter tells you, in advance, what questions he will be asking. You need time to research the situation and prepare a response. Reporters understand that. If a reporter will not accept that condition, politely decline the interview, offering to be interviewed later when you have had time to check on the information the reporter is requesting.

    If, while on the phone or during a radio or TV interview, the reporter asks you a new or follow-up question, do not respond unless you are absolutely sure that your answer is true, without qualification or conditions. Otherwise, tell him that you will get back to him with an answer just as soon as you have had an opportunity to check on the information being requested.

    • If the reporter asks you a question relating to a fact that you are absolutely certain of, just remember this:

    • Once you say it, it is nearly impossible to unsay it.

    • There are few to no second chances to get it right.

    • There is no acceptable substitute for getting it right the first time.

    If your agency has more than one designated spokesperson, discuss the reporters questions and practice your responses with each other before calling the reporter back. Role-play, with the other person playing the reporter. Along with practicing your answers, it gives you an opportunity to anticipate follow-up questions the reporter may ask. If you have pre-planned your answers to those follow-up questions, you can give your answers to the reporter, if he does in fact ask the follow-up questions you have practiced.

    This role-playing gives you a real person with whom to practice your response. Just as importantly, it will also help your agency to be consistent in case a second reporter, from a different media outlet or even the same media outlet, calls the other spokesperson with the same or related question.

    Now, call the reporter back before his deadline. In order to get your message and your response into the news article, you must call the reporter back in media time.

    When you do return the call, only answer the questions the reporter asked during the original call. Additionally, make sure that you read your answer exactly as you practiced. Say, 'When you called, you asked . The answer to your question is .'

    If the reporter asks the same question again but in different words, stick with your original answer and simply repeat it. If during the call, the reporter falls silent, resist the temptation to fill the silence with any comments. Just remember that silence is one of the oldest and most used interviewing techniques. Most people start talking to fill the silence. You never do that, not even small talk. Quietly wait until the next question is asked.

    Always thank the reporter for calling. Remember that you did not do him a favor by answering his questions. Rather, he gave you an opportunity to communicate with the public and he did not have to do that. Also, make sure to let him know that it is fine for him to call you back if he has additional questions. Naturally, if he does call back, start the process over again. Write down his new questions and tell him you will get back with him before his deadline.

    When the story is published, clip it and attach it to your notes related to the specific call. Over time, you will develop a media library, including questions, answers, and stories showing how your responses were reported. This gives you a good source of data for quality review and an opportunity to improve the consistency and focus of your future contacts with the same or other reporters.

    Now, suppose that a reporter calls you and wants to know if you are involved with a particular family. In reading the police report to you, the reporter relates that police received a complaint from a neighbor. The neighbor indicated that three young children were running about unkempt and unsupervised. Upon arriving and entering the apartment, police encountered a pungent smell. Subsequently, the parents were arrested for drug possession and child endangering. In the report, police say they are referring the matter to child protective services.

    Below are some typical questions a reporter might ask about this situation. Consider what your responses might be, keeping in mind that one-sentence responses are best. That way, the reporter will be more likely to fully quote what you say instead of picking-and-choosing from what you say.

    • The first question the reporter asks is, 'Are you involved with the family?'

    • The reporter reads to you the part of the police record where the officer writes that he referred the incident to your agency. The reporter asks for confirmation.

    • The reporter asks if your agency has had previous involvement with this family.

    • The reporter asks you how the children are doing.

    • The reporter asks you if the agency will remove the children from the home.

    • The reporter asks you if, in your experience, this type of situation is unusual. (Keep in mind that the parents have been charged but not convicted.)

    • The reporter asks you what will happen to the children if the parents are convicted.

  • By Gary A. Crow, Patti-Jo Burtnett March 23, 2017