What if an Investigative Journalist Calls? Media Relations in Social Work

What if an Investigative Journalist Calls? Media Relations in Social Work Abstract This article aims to investigate to what extent social service organisations (SSOs) conceive news management as a means to promote organisational self-interest as opposed to achieving democratic openness. The study is based on a nationally representative telephone survey with persons responsible for communication or public relations in Swedish SSOs (n=91). Against the background of descriptive statistics, the aim is pursued by qualitative analysis of four open-ended questions. The literature on the relations between social work and media has largely painted a negative picture. This study suggests a different image. The statistical analysis of survey data revealed that respondents were largely satisfied with their relations to journalists. It is concluded that increasingly professionalised news management in SSOs has largely served the function of protecting organisational self-interest, at the expense of democratic openness. This is expressed in how respondents talked in terms of promoting the positive aspects of organisational performance, how they applied a marketing perspective and how the goal of addressing criticism was to deflect it rather than embrace the potential it had for improving performance. This approach is problematic and scholars and practitioners alike need to be more detached from the interests of the social work profession and its organisations. Child protection, media, management, risk, public relations Introduction: between self-interest and democratic openness For years, there has been a strong sense within social service organisations (SSOs) and the social work profession that relations to news media are problematic (Aldridge, 1990, 1994; Ayre, 2001; Thomlison and Whiting Blome, 2012; Lachman and Bernard, 2006). Research into media coverage of social work has found that news reports can be quite negative, and oriented towards scandals in which social workers are portrayed as either ‘bullies’ or ‘wimps’ (Franklin, 1989). Moreover, social workers at the grass-roots level may experience considerable pressure from news media. The nature of their work make SSOs vulnerable targets for journalists. Social workers are faced with difficult decisions where mistakes may have severe consequences. In some situations, it is difficult for SSOs to justify their interventions in public because of confidentiality rules. Furthermore, successful social work achievements are rarely seen as newsworthy enough to reach the front pages, in contrast to, for example, police achievements. The power of media coverage in response to high-profile inquiries into social services can be formidable (Thomlison and Whiting Blome, 2012). As a response to these perceived problems, SSOs—similarly to other types of public-sector organisations—are increasingly adopting professional methods for news management and public relations (Enbom et al., 2014; Wæraas and Maor, 2015; Schillemans, 2012). In her study of media coverage of social work in the UK, Aldridge (1994) discussed social workers’ relations to mass media based on previous debates in trade press. She maintained that social workers held a rather naïve view of the mass media, failing to understand the commercial terms and organisational frameworks that affect the work of journalists. Aldridge concluded that there was a need for media training. Based on their own reflections and stories from practitioners, Reid and Misener (2001) and Franklin and Parton (1991) have considered solutions to some of the alleged problems social workers experience in terms of media reporting. They thus mentioned distributing information ‘off the record’, promoting news stories that show a nuanced image of social work, and systematically maintaining relations with key journalists. More recently, Thomlison and Whiting Blome (2012) have discussed how child-welfare organisations can avoid ‘cycles of blame’ and negative images in the media. Although such authors do acknowledge the value of the media’s critical role, they tend to primarily see negative portrayals and deficiencies in managing media relations as harmful for social work organisations and the reputation of the social work profession. News management can be applied for different reasons. Sjöström and Enbom (2015) have argued that the goals for news management and PR in public-sector organisations differ from private organisations. Public organisations are expected to adhere to ideals about democratic openness, which entail being open about mistakes within the organisation and facilitating for citizens and journalists to critically examine internal practices. At the same time, however, organisations will strive to maintain their position in an organisational field and secure future funding (Scott, 2008). Sjöström and Enbom thus maintained that public-sector organisations—like social services—are forced to strike a balance between the competing interests of democratic openness and organisational self-interest (cf. Fredriksson and Pallas, 2016). In a study of communication practices within a public agency and a ministry, Thorbjornsrud et al. (2014) found a similar pattern in how both communication staff and career bureaucrats experienced a conflict between, on the one hand, providing correct, neutral and comprehensive information and, on the other, communicating according to the needs of political leaders. This article aims to investigate to what extent Swedish SSOs conceive news management as a means to promote organisational self-interest. The analysis is based on interviews gathered from a telephone survey with a nationally representative sample of SSOs. Research overview: news management and perceptions of media content News management has become increasingly professionalised during the last twenty to thirty years, which is also reflected in a growing body of research. A key distinction concerns the application of pro-active and reactive strategies to achieve favourable publicity. Reactive strategies are applied to respond when media have already started to report about a particular event (Benoit, 1997; Coombs, 2007). The main purpose is then to neutralise and counteract negative publicity. In order to achieve such aims, organisations strategically make efforts to speak with one voice, demonstrate openness, show decisiveness and provide correct information. Pro-active strategies include establishing networks with journalists, seeking publicity for positive news and also selectively distributing exclusive information to chosen journalists (Allern, 1997; Enbom, 2009). Another central strategy identified in the literature regards adapting to journalistic news values that make journalists inclined to favour stories that are negative and involve elite actors or people whom the general public can identify with (Allan, 2010; Galtung and Ruge, 1981; Strömbäck, 2008). Furthermore, news media often cover events that contain some kind of drama and allow the construction of ‘David versus Goliath’ scenarios (Altheide and Snow, 1979). Most research on news management and PR has focused on the private sector. There is little empirical research on news management within the public sector, which is particularly true for lower-level and local bureaucracies (Schillemans, 2012). When it comes to social work, there are hardly any such studies (cf. Zugazaga et al., 2006). There is, however, a piece of literature addressing how media portray social services and social work practice that is relevant to the purpose of this article. In a British context, Aldridge (1994) noted that social services normally received very little attention from media. Among others, Zugazaga et al. (2006) have argued that, since the majority of people do not have first-hand experiences of social services, media portrayals are a primary determiner of the public perception of social work. A Swedish survey similarly showed that social workers are among the professional groups that people struggle the most to have an opinion about (Weibull, 2011). Ayre (2001) has suggested that mass media coverage has a concrete impact on the execution of social work practice in England. More precisely, what he calls ‘celebrated child abuse scandals’ have played a crucial role. A recurring theme in this literature regards how social workers are either portrayed as ‘wimps’, unable to forcefully engage in problems, or ‘bullies’, violating civil rights when they interfere to take custody over children (cf. Franklin, 1989). Aldridge (1994) has maintained that the media’s tendency to simplify a complex social reality is particularly problematic in relation to social work. Results from a comparative study by Reid and Misener (2001) indicated that media portrayals were more negative in the UK than the USA. In the UK, 30 per cent of articles were rated clearly negative and only 13 per cent positive, as compared to 13 per cent being negative and 58 per cent positive in the US sample. Investigating media depictions in three Swedish newspapers regarding elderly care, Markström et al. (2011) observed a vast variation in themes, topics and what groups were given voice (service recipients, their relatives, politicians, experts, managers, front line staff, etc.). Although not necessarily negative to services, thirty-two of 144 articles alluded to problems in elderly care. In a study of 1,180 cuttings about child services from five Swedish newspapers, Andersson and Lundström (2007) coded 25 per cent as negative and 38 per cent as positive. They noted that a large number of the articles concerned trivial everyday events that lacked dramatic features. But they also found a minority of articles featuring dramatic child-protection cases similar to what have been described elsewhere in the international literature. Andersson and Lundström (2007) note that the coverage of trivial everyday news may have quite different effects on the public perception of social work than highly featured dramatic cases. It is still an open question how members of the audience merge such different news content into opinions about social work in general. Another strand of research relevant for this article has focused on how the public views social work. Drawing from a survey in Alabama, Kaufman and Raymond (1996) reported that the attitudes towards social workers were overall negative. In a survey of a representative national sample in the USA, LeCroy and Stinson (2004) similarly found that ‘there is undoubtedly room for growth and improvement’ in the public image of social work. Respondents did, for example, prefer psychologists to social workers for most of the problems that were listed in the survey. Nevertheless, the authors concluded that social workers are generally viewed in a favourable light. Most of their respondents seemed to view social work as helpful to some degree in most situations, and 73 per cent agreed to the statement that more social workers were needed. In a Swedish survey of the general public’s confidence in different professional groups, Weibull (2011) identified social workers at the bottom of the list of those employed within the public sector, with only 34 per cent of the public having a positive and 14 per cent a negative attitude. In contrast, health and child-care staff scored 79 per cent and 66 per cent, respectively. Weibull concluded that professional groups whose work mainly involve decision making on the part of an authority (e.g. municipal social workers and employment agency staff) gained less confidence than those that mainly provide services (e.g. librarians and teachers). Another theme that is related to news management and PR concerns social workers’ perceptions of how their profession and the organisations they work within are portrayed in the media. Zugazaga et al. (2006) found that a slight majority of 815 social workers in their explorative study in Florida, USA, perceived themselves to be depicted negatively in both news and entertainment media. Brunnberg (2001) found that both Swedish and English child-protection workers felt that negative media reports contributed to their low professional status, and also affected practices and policies within their organisations. The English social workers believed that the media had a larger impact. Overall, the limited literature on this topic paints a negative picture of the relation between social work and mass media. There is a belief among practitioners that the efforts of social workers and SSOs are misrepresented, although empirical findings about media content are inconclusive. There is concern with how social work representatives successfully manage the media. We note that most authors have been inclined to take a perspective of organisational or professional self-interest, rather than being concerned with the democratic openness of social work organisations. In the concluding section, we will discuss this issue further. Methods and material The present study is based on a nationally representative telephone survey with persons responsible for communication or public relations in Swedish social service organisations. It is part of a larger project that compares social work, schools and the police that includes a broad range of data (case studies, policy documents, interviews) with the aim to investigate the frictions between organisational self-interest and serving the public. A stratified randomised sample of municipal SSOs (N = 100) was gathered in 2013 with a response rate of 91 per cent. The municipalities were stratified on the basis of the categories ‘metropolitan city’ (pop. >200,000; n = 1), ‘middle-sized city’ (pop. >50,000–200,000; n = 11), ‘suburban municipality’ (municipalities in which the majority commutes to work in a metropolitan city; n = 13) and ‘other’ (remaining small municipalities; n = 75). We sought to elicit replies from the person within each organisation that was responsible for news management on an operative level. Depending on the size and organisation in the municipalities, the respondents were either administrative managers for the entire social service organisation (n = 67), other high-rank administrative managers within the municipality (in small municipalities) (n = 14) or a person specifically employed to manage communications (in larger municipalities) (n = 10). Both interviewers (Adam Öhman and Dr. Jesper Enbom) are media scholars without expertise in social work. Respondents were informed that both themselves and their agencies would be kept anonymous in our publications. Our impression is that, despite the risk of a response bias towards presenting themselves as embracing journalistic scrutiny, most respondents were sincere in their replies. The questions were asked with regard to a broad understanding of media, but most of the discussions tended to relate to traditional news media such as daily newspapers, radio and television. We would also expect that the patterns of self-interest that would appear in a profession’s approach to PR and the media in organisations would have a parallel if the unit of analysis would have been profession instead of organisation. The analysis has focused on four open-ended questions in the survey: (i) What (if any) problems do you see in how media depict your organisation? (ii) What (if any) problems do you experience in your organisation’s work related to media? (iii) What are the purposes of media training in your organisation? (iv) How do you think that media relations will change in the next five to ten years (trends, challenges and/or problems)? These questions generally yielded extended responses from the respondents, and their responses were often relevant—at least implicitly—to our aim about promoting self-interest. The coding of the four questions was carried out in two phases. First, we identified concrete categories of manifest content that provided a comprehensive description of the respondents’ answers (Lindlof, 1995). The second part of the analytical process was more interpretive where we actively searched for expressions of organisational self-interest in how respondents talked in relation to three categories derived from the first stage: Promoting the positive, Marketing and Disarming criticism. Promoting the positive involves statements about achieving positive publicity as a goal in itself: news about positive results, investments and successes. It is concerned with the public image of the organisation, enhancing its attractiveness. Marketing relates to activities described in terms of services or products directed towards costumers, and also statements explicitly worded in marketing language (branding, image, advertising, reputation, product, customer). Managing criticism concerns approaches to criticism, how criticism in mass media is harmful to the organisation and also how such criticism can be addressed. To avoid the risk of misrepresenting the respondents’ views when considering these themes, we have also actively searched for contrasting examples that reflect the opposite notion ‘promoting democratic openness’, such as acknowledging the value of criticism, openness to external scrutiny, admitting to problems and engaging in dialogue with the public. Italicisation is used in citations to emphasize analytical points. Analysis To bring context to our detailed analyses, it is necessary to begin with a brief description of municipal SSOs in Sweden. They are responsible for a wide variety of services like social welfare payments, supporting families and persons with drug/alcohol problems, community mental health, elderly care, disability care, but also administrative decision making concerning a variety of matters: suitability to become an adoptive parent, licenses to sell alcohol, etc. Staff with a university degree in social work (3.5 years) would dominate some branches of these organisations (e.g. welfare payments and child support); almost all front line staff have a university degree (3.5 years), while they would be rare outside managerial positions in other branches (e.g. elderly care, disability care). The ultimate responsibility of social services rests upon municipal boards of elected politicians. In addition to making decisions in strategic matters regarding funding and organisation, these boards also make certain administrative decisions about individuals, such as regarding child protection. Although they dominate the field of social work in Sweden, municipal SSOs have become subjected to competition from private operators in recent years, most prominently within elderly and disability care. Moving then to our survey results, we would first like to note that Swedish SSOs in fact exhibit several features that indicate a certain level of sophistication in news management and PR. Seventy-eight per cent of the SSOs had a written policy for communication. Twelve per cent of the organisations had at least one person employed who worked exclusively with media relations. A large proportion of media relations were centralised to management level. Sixty-seven per cent of the SSOs provided media training for their central management, and 49 per cent extended this to mid-level managers. Forty-one per cent of the organisations applied some form of systematic media monitoring. And, quite strikingly in light of our research review, 66 per cent of respondents assessed their relations with journalists as either ‘good’ or ‘excellent,’ while only 1 per cent rated relations as ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’. Against this background, we have delved deeper into the question of whether the professionalised measures to manage media have served organisational self-interest by looking at four open-ended questions. To contextualise the interpretative analysis in the following four sections, Table 1 provides an overview of topics that were raised by the respondents in relation to these questions. Table 1 Topics in response to the four open-ended questions Question  Topic  Problems with media portrayals of services  Negative focus (49%)  Factual errors (39%)  One-sidedness (29%)  Media not interested in social work (2%)  Problems with media relations  Lack of proactivity (39%)  Difficulties in reacting to criticism/crisis (27%)  Staff insecurity (23%)  Secrecy regulation (14%)  Lack of resources (7%)  Insufficient knowledge of how journalists work (7%)  Purposes of and topics in media training  Making staff comfortable with media (29%)  Achieving impact (26%)  How journalists operate (14%)  Improving accuracy in media reporting (12%)  Techniques to respond to criticism (12%)  Promoting transparency in the organisation (8%)  Regulations about public access and/or secrecy (7%)  Roles and responsibilities within the organisation (6%)  The future  Social media (33%)  Home pages (23%)  Increased focus on news management (17%)  Professionalisation of news management (11%)  Decentralisation of news management (6%)  Question  Topic  Problems with media portrayals of services  Negative focus (49%)  Factual errors (39%)  One-sidedness (29%)  Media not interested in social work (2%)  Problems with media relations  Lack of proactivity (39%)  Difficulties in reacting to criticism/crisis (27%)  Staff insecurity (23%)  Secrecy regulation (14%)  Lack of resources (7%)  Insufficient knowledge of how journalists work (7%)  Purposes of and topics in media training  Making staff comfortable with media (29%)  Achieving impact (26%)  How journalists operate (14%)  Improving accuracy in media reporting (12%)  Techniques to respond to criticism (12%)  Promoting transparency in the organisation (8%)  Regulations about public access and/or secrecy (7%)  Roles and responsibilities within the organisation (6%)  The future  Social media (33%)  Home pages (23%)  Increased focus on news management (17%)  Professionalisation of news management (11%)  Decentralisation of news management (6%)  Table 1 Topics in response to the four open-ended questions Question  Topic  Problems with media portrayals of services  Negative focus (49%)  Factual errors (39%)  One-sidedness (29%)  Media not interested in social work (2%)  Problems with media relations  Lack of proactivity (39%)  Difficulties in reacting to criticism/crisis (27%)  Staff insecurity (23%)  Secrecy regulation (14%)  Lack of resources (7%)  Insufficient knowledge of how journalists work (7%)  Purposes of and topics in media training  Making staff comfortable with media (29%)  Achieving impact (26%)  How journalists operate (14%)  Improving accuracy in media reporting (12%)  Techniques to respond to criticism (12%)  Promoting transparency in the organisation (8%)  Regulations about public access and/or secrecy (7%)  Roles and responsibilities within the organisation (6%)  The future  Social media (33%)  Home pages (23%)  Increased focus on news management (17%)  Professionalisation of news management (11%)  Decentralisation of news management (6%)  Question  Topic  Problems with media portrayals of services  Negative focus (49%)  Factual errors (39%)  One-sidedness (29%)  Media not interested in social work (2%)  Problems with media relations  Lack of proactivity (39%)  Difficulties in reacting to criticism/crisis (27%)  Staff insecurity (23%)  Secrecy regulation (14%)  Lack of resources (7%)  Insufficient knowledge of how journalists work (7%)  Purposes of and topics in media training  Making staff comfortable with media (29%)  Achieving impact (26%)  How journalists operate (14%)  Improving accuracy in media reporting (12%)  Techniques to respond to criticism (12%)  Promoting transparency in the organisation (8%)  Regulations about public access and/or secrecy (7%)  Roles and responsibilities within the organisation (6%)  The future  Social media (33%)  Home pages (23%)  Increased focus on news management (17%)  Professionalisation of news management (11%)  Decentralisation of news management (6%)  The final question in the survey related directly to the purpose of this article: ‘Are there occasions when you experience a conflict between protecting the interests of your organisation and providing accurate and sufficient information to the public?’ This question did not stimulate much response from the respondents. To some extent, this is understandable due to the rather abstract nature of the question in the context of a relatively brief interview over the phone. However, we believe that the lack of response also indicates that the potential conflict between organisational self-interest and democratic openness was not an issue that respondents routinely bore in mind. Without explicit reflection from respondents on this question, we have resorted to undertaking a more interpretive analysis of implicit expressions of organisational self-interest and democratic openness in respondents’ answers to other questions. Promoting the positive Overall, achieving positive portrayals appeared to be a self-evident goal to the respondents. This was observed across all four questions under analysis. For example, they often mentioned the ability to convey a favourable depiction of the organisation as a goal for media training. When asked about the future, respondents pointed out that, by using social media, the organisation could demonstrate a willingness to engage in dialogue with citizens. The following citations illustrate various forms of the preoccupation with the objective to come out in a good light: We are under-resourced. We need to work more proactively to control the flow of information and to contract positive news (#22). We are not active enough to convey what’s positive. We need to provide journalists with more material. As it is, the media focus on the negative stuff (#54). The media reporting is negative. Mass media are focusing more on financial cutbacks than on positive aspects of our services (#12). Media exaggerate particular individual cases, and we are limited by secrecy rules. This can lead to a negative image of our work in the public debate (#85).Respondents primarily discussed positive publicity in an implicit context of organisational self-interest. Positive publicity was connected to reputation, image, information control and economic incentives such as attracting customers. Accordingly, the perceived media focus on failures and weaknesses of the SSOs was generally seen as problematic: We want to communicate the information we want to pass on to the public in a way that is preferable to the organization. It is important to have knowledge of news values to be able to manage media crises and avoid ending up in difficult situations (#80).Rarely did the respondents appreciate that media uncovered unknown problems within their organisation, nor that the ensuing public discussion could contribute to the development of better services. Rather, they expressed concern about the potential damage to their organisation. The nature of such damage was rarely touched upon and, if so, only in abstract terms. One concern that was raised by a number of respondents regarded how negative news could lead to a loss in public confidence and trust: Media reporting is often negative, which leads to low public confidence in the organization. Mass media have an underlying agenda that aims to discredit our services. Sensational journalism sells newspapers (#69). We are aiming to gain positive publicity and, in the long run, more trust. When the mass media report on problems and mistakes, our customers get the impression that the municipal services do not work adequately (#160).In quotes like these, the concern about organisational self-interest is quite apparent. Trust was discussed as an end in itself, without reflection on whether it was deserved in the context of what the media reported about. However, there were occasional exceptions where a respondent would touch upon other reasons to strive towards a positive image: We are working to hire a communicator. We are bad at explaining what we actually do. We could do more in order to get a more fair and positive image of our services (#29). This respondent argued that a more positive image would lead to a more accurate and balanced representation of organisational activities. Exceptions like this do not change the overall tendency that a positive image was primarily connected to organisational self-interest. Marketing Concerns about reputation and image lead us towards the next theme. The respondents often used words derived from marketing language: branding, reputation, message, advertising, customers, channels, etc. They further explicitly discussed news management as a means to attract new clients. Many respondents were self-critical and felt that they were not sufficiently pro-active and strategic. The ideal approach and professionalism they strived towards were often associated with marketing practices in the private sector. The organisational self-interest inherent in respondents’ application of marketing language is apparent in excerpts like the following: The competition will become more apparent in the future. Therefore, news management becomes more essential. The image of the organization has become increasingly important, as well as how the customers perceive our services (#52). We need to utilize the mass media in a more active way to put our issues and messages on the agenda (#37). It’s about creating good relations with the media. To know and get a feel for how secrecy rules play out in this context. How we can accentuate positive aspects through the media, to market what’s good in what we’re doing (#9).In a similar vein, respondents often talked about how to communicate a ‘message’: ‘Mass media are focusing on negative aspects. They tell stories in their own way, which makes it difficult to communicate messages through these channels’ (#65). The term ‘message’ was assigned different meanings by respondents. On some occasions, it seemed to refer to customising a specific viewpoint in a given situation. But, quite often, it appeared to signify a set of broader values which applied to the social service organisation or even the municipality as a whole, for example that the municipality had a rich cultural life and a favourable business climate. This also applied to their discussions about branding. These ideas were related to a broad array of recipients: We have to work on a broader scale and monitor what is said about the municipality. This also concerns branding: We have to attract potential clients, co-workers and people who might move into our municipality (#90). Disarming criticism The preoccupation with a positive image is evidenced in how respondents frequently addressed means to manage criticism. Several respondents indicated that their organisations were not sufficiently capable of counteracting critical journalistic inquiries. Another perceived problem concerned criticism from the inside. Respondents looked upon front line staff’s interaction with the media as a risk for their organisation, but sometimes also worried that media scrutiny could cause stress for the staff. Many respondents noted how the mass media often applied an approach of ‘David versus Goliath’, in which the client was portrayed as a powerless victim to the social service machinery. These concerns were epitomised in how several respondents mentioned the risk of being investigated by ‘Mission: Inquiry’, the leading TV show for investigative journalism in Sweden. In fact, respondents often specifically named Janne Josefsson, the famous host of that show: If there is an external crisis, for instance, if ‘Mission: Inquiry’ starts to make inquiries into our organization, then it becomes a problem. If this was the case, one would see weaknesses. For example, that we do not have clear routines. We are pretty weak in crisis situations (#67).Overall, criticism was discussed within an implicit framework of protecting the organisation, as is the case in the following excerpts about the needs for media training: The staff needs to know the importance of not saying things that affects the organization in a negative way. It’s crucial that the staff is familiar with interview techniques, and know how they should act in relation to journalists and their modes of working (#62). We want to improve how we manage the media, for example by providing our managers media training so they are prepared to do interviews, and are able to explain and defend our services. Our staff are learning more about how the media works, for instance in terms of news values (#67).The management of criticism was often related to crises. Some respondents appeared to view media as opponents, or even enemies, in times of crisis: We have to be more prepared when national media cover our stories. In a recent investigation, employees were trapped in difficult situations. We could act in a more structured manner. For example, we could be more deliberate in allocating responsibilities for media relations, and take better control in who should represent the organization in certain questions. Our staff also needs more knowledge in interview techniques and tactics (#42). One important aspect is knowing how to handle the press correctly. Among other things, our staff need to know how to communicate our message in interview situations, how to take command of the situation and tell our story, without falling into traps (#93). There is a risk that staff is too amicable and relate things in confidence to a journalist, who will then publish that information (#78).A particular dilemma concerned how confidentiality regulations constrained the SSOs in their rebuttal of criticism, especially in cases where journalists had been authorised by clients to have full access to records. The quotes above illustrate some of the methods respondents mentioned to better prepare their organisations to manage criticism, which was one of the key functions of media training: One central aim is to bring out information and make an impact in the mass media. Another aim is to manage and correct mass media if and when they question our organization. It is important that we find suitable methods and approaches, and educate the staff regarding these aspects (#67).Against the background that many respondents mentioned factual errors in media reports as a problem, it appears natural that they would want to provide a correct description of events and in that sense correct the media. However, the meaning of ‘correcting’ in the quote above seems to be extended to providing a description that is favourable—it is applied when the organisation is simply questioned. Some respondents stressed the value of training staff to evade critical questions and rather emphasise a message that was preferable for the organisation. The need to be more pro-active in relation to the media was raised by a number of respondents as a means to preclude and mitigate potential criticism: One strategy is to use the mass media to get our message out. Our personnel need to know when to send out press releases and arrange press conferences, they have to know about interview strategies. For example, that it is better to make live statements than to participate in recorded interviews. Prevention is better than cure. For instance, it’s better to publish a press release before a closedown of a nursing home, instead of waiting for media to report on the issue (#160).A few respondents similarly mentioned changing the public’s expectations on its services: In the future, it may be difficult to maintain the same quality in our services, due to the fact that the group of elderly is growing. We have to communicate this and change people’s expectations (#28). In this example, the respondent emphasised the need to adapt expectations to lower standards, rather than embracing a public discussion about the needs of the elderly or how resources should be distributed in society. Counter currents: democratic openness Although there was a general inclination to frame news management in terms of organisational self-interest, we have also detected expressions of democratic openness. At times, respondents used words such as ‘transparency’, ‘honesty’ and ‘dialogue’. In perhaps the most evident example, one respondent argued that the organisation’s communication should be guided by relevance, as opposed to organisational interests: We have to make sure that we provide relevant information — no angle. We have to tell the truth regarding individual cases (#135). This quote is also marked by the absence of marketing terminology. Instead, this respondent chose the word ‘truth’. Allusions to democratic openness often appeared when respondents talked about news management in more abstract terms, such as in relation to media training or the future: One aim is to introduce new managers to the organization, informing them about our news management. It’s highly necessary that they are aware of our foundation, such as being active, honest, open, and accommodating (#41). As in the example above, a number of respondents argued that their organisations needed to become more accessible to the media. In this context, they endorsed willingness to respond to questions from journalists, not to withhold information and to facilitate the accessibility of documents: Currently, there are efforts to promote transparency in our municipality. We will work more actively with media relations and provide newsrooms with information in a more systematic way. For instance, by using our website, press releases, and press conferences. I see that trend already. A lot is happening right now (#97).In relation to the future, some respondents advocated the need to establish more systematic ways to engage in dialogue with citizens, often highlighting the potential in using social media: Most likely, there will be a change in terms of social and digital media. We are launching a new forum on our website, a space where clients and interest groups are able to contact us directly. We will also use Facebook to a greater extent. This work leads to greater openness. Our aim is to be as transparent as possible, to open up for discussion with the public. The authorities in our nation are about to open up, and we intend to follow suite (#50).Note how this respondent talked about ‘citizens’, in contrast to ‘customers’, which we previously associated with marketing. In relation to transparency, certain technical and legal aspects were discussed: Instead of journalists requesting paper documents, they will be able to search digitally. This is more efficient (#32). It’s important that we learn to understand our mission, how we should act in relation to journalists and how to improve our cooperation with mass media. We should know about procedures for disclosing documents (#48).The second of these quotes alludes to the Swedish constitutional principle of access to official documents, which provides citizens with extensive rights to access all documents within municipal and state authorities that are not explicitly declared secret according to special legislation. Thus, this respondent appeared to advocate the need to facilitate for journalists (and, by extension, the public) to access documents about organisational activities. Similarly, a few respondents stressed the importance of teaching staff about the constitutional protection of journalistic sources, and that public authorities are prohibited from making inquiries into press leaks. Respondents rarely acknowledged the value of critical inquiries on the part of the media. Some of their replies indicated that they were more oriented towards providing a correct message, rather than defending the organisation at any cost. We will end with an exceptional excerpt that appears to embrace the idea that media play an important democratic role in making critical inquiries into public organisations such as social services: Journalists have difficulties to distinguish between political leadership and the organization itself. For instance, they ask politicians for details and procedures [that they have little direct knowledge about]. They should be more active and investigate our services more. Mass media scrutiny is beneficial for our organization. They [journalists] accept things to easy right now (#10). Concluding discussion As an introduction to our concluding remarks, we would like to briefly address how they might be transferrable to countries other than Sweden (Tracy, 2010). Professional social work in Sweden is tightly linked to (relatively well-funded) municipal social service organisations. They operate in a climate of ‘soft governance’ and relatively weak external monitoring (Baines, 2004; Bergmark et al., 2015). Only a small proportion of social work is conducted in civil society organisations. As a consequence, the professional status and discussions about the social work profession are closely linked to SSOs. Although we have highlighted marketing and competition in our analysis, Swedish SSOs are less subjected to competition from other service providers than is the case in most other countries in the Global North. Although our empirical findings are specific to municipal SSOs, it appears likely that organisational self-interest would impact on PR in other types of social work organisations, whether profit or non-profit. We would also expect that patterns of self-interest appear in a profession’s approach to PR and the media (Abbott, 1988). Variations in this respect between different types of organisations and professions would be a matter for future studies. Looking at peculiarities in the media landscape, Swedish tabloids are less inclined to polarise and describe events in terms of scandals than in most European countries (Nord, 2007). Since the political accountability for social services rests primarily within local authorities, national media with larger resources for investigative journalism are less likely to target SSOs. This means that the key relations with media for SSOs concern local daily newspapers with limited investigative resources (Ekström et al., 2006). The literature on the relations between social work and mass media has largely painted a negative picture. This study suggests a different image. In quantitative terms, our survey data revealed that respondents were largely satisfied with their relations to journalists. The SSOs were less satisfied than police organisations—that operate under more intense media pressure and therefore have dispersed more resources to news management—and slightly less satisfied than municipal school organisations (Enbom et al., 2014). The negative assessments of media portrayals expressed by our respondents were solicited when we explicitly prompted for problems. Overall, it seems that, despite differences in size and local contexts, Swedish SSOs have developed professional and systematic measures to manage their relations with the media. In response to our stated research aim, we have found that the professionalised news management has largely served the function of protecting the interest of SSOs, at the expense of democratic openness. This is expressed in how respondents talked in terms of promoting the positive aspects of organisational performance, how they applied a marketing perspective and how the goal of addressing criticism was to deflect it rather than embrace the potential it had for improving performance. This conclusion has been reached despite the risk for a response bias that would be expected to go against it, and it is therefore possible that the tendencies towards self-promotion are even more pronounced in reality. Indeed, it is possible to rebut some of our arguments. To a certain extent, the inclination to promote positive media depiction can be legitimised for other reasons than organisational self-interest. For example, it can be seen as a means to mitigate against media portrayals that are incorrect and overly negative. Moreover, positive portrayals can be regarded as an asset in building trust, which is an essential prerequisite for social work practice (Reid and Misener, 2001). However, such concerns are typically not manifest in the interviews, where the achievement of positive media portrayals merely appear as a goal in itself. Similarly, while it is not inherently problematic to worry about criticism, the overall impression is that respondents’ primary concern were with protecting the organisation, rather than making distinctions between negatives that were justified and those who were not. We do not have data to explain why organisational egoism emerged as a priority. However, it appears likely that it can partly be attributed to a general inclination in organisations to develop self-interest (Michels, 1915; Vandenabeele, 2007). It also appears compatible with the current growth of new public management in the public sector (Heffernan, 2006). It is possible that tendencies to protect organisational—or professional—self-interest would be even more pronounced in social work organisations that are more subjected to competition and ‘hard’ monitoring than the Swedish agencies we have investigated. The approaches of those responsible for media relations in SSOs that we have investigated resemble those of authors in the scholarly literature. As alluded to in the literature overview, social work scholars have largely looked upon media relations as problematic. Typically, positive media portrayals and positive attitudes of the public have been regarded as self-evident goals, with little reflection on the fairness of media stories or the value of critical investigations. We contend that this approach is problematic and that scholars and practitioners alike need to be more detached from the interests of the social work profession and the organisations it represents. The reluctance to appreciate criticism is particularly disturbing when it is found within a field of practice that does involve considerable aspects of social control, and a profession with substantive powers over disadvantaged and vulnerable groups (Sakamoto and Pitner, 2005). Media attention to ‘child abuse scandals’ could be seen as an opportunity to engage in a broader public discussion of the ethical and professional challenges inherent in child protection, where lack of resources may prevent optimal interventions and outcomes are often difficult to evaluate (Cashmore et al., 2006; Doyle, 2007; Vinnerljung et al., 2007). Funding This research has been funded by the Swedish Research Council (Project name: Between organizational self-interest and serving the public–news management challenges in social services, the police and schools; Grant No. B0217201). References Abbott A. 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(ed.), Västsvensk vardag [Everyday Life in Western Sweden ], Göteborg, Göteborgs universitet: SOM-institutet. Zugazaga C. B., Surette R. B., Mendez M., Otto C. W. ( 2006) ‘Social worker perceptions of the portrayal of the professions in the news and entertainment media: An exploratory study’, Journal of Social Work Education , 42( 3), pp. 621– 36. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The British Journal of Social Work Oxford University Press

What if an Investigative Journalist Calls? Media Relations in Social Work

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Oxford University Press
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© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved.
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0045-3102
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1468-263X
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Abstract

Abstract This article aims to investigate to what extent social service organisations (SSOs) conceive news management as a means to promote organisational self-interest as opposed to achieving democratic openness. The study is based on a nationally representative telephone survey with persons responsible for communication or public relations in Swedish SSOs (n=91). Against the background of descriptive statistics, the aim is pursued by qualitative analysis of four open-ended questions. The literature on the relations between social work and media has largely painted a negative picture. This study suggests a different image. The statistical analysis of survey data revealed that respondents were largely satisfied with their relations to journalists. It is concluded that increasingly professionalised news management in SSOs has largely served the function of protecting organisational self-interest, at the expense of democratic openness. This is expressed in how respondents talked in terms of promoting the positive aspects of organisational performance, how they applied a marketing perspective and how the goal of addressing criticism was to deflect it rather than embrace the potential it had for improving performance. This approach is problematic and scholars and practitioners alike need to be more detached from the interests of the social work profession and its organisations. Child protection, media, management, risk, public relations Introduction: between self-interest and democratic openness For years, there has been a strong sense within social service organisations (SSOs) and the social work profession that relations to news media are problematic (Aldridge, 1990, 1994; Ayre, 2001; Thomlison and Whiting Blome, 2012; Lachman and Bernard, 2006). Research into media coverage of social work has found that news reports can be quite negative, and oriented towards scandals in which social workers are portrayed as either ‘bullies’ or ‘wimps’ (Franklin, 1989). Moreover, social workers at the grass-roots level may experience considerable pressure from news media. The nature of their work make SSOs vulnerable targets for journalists. Social workers are faced with difficult decisions where mistakes may have severe consequences. In some situations, it is difficult for SSOs to justify their interventions in public because of confidentiality rules. Furthermore, successful social work achievements are rarely seen as newsworthy enough to reach the front pages, in contrast to, for example, police achievements. The power of media coverage in response to high-profile inquiries into social services can be formidable (Thomlison and Whiting Blome, 2012). As a response to these perceived problems, SSOs—similarly to other types of public-sector organisations—are increasingly adopting professional methods for news management and public relations (Enbom et al., 2014; Wæraas and Maor, 2015; Schillemans, 2012). In her study of media coverage of social work in the UK, Aldridge (1994) discussed social workers’ relations to mass media based on previous debates in trade press. She maintained that social workers held a rather naïve view of the mass media, failing to understand the commercial terms and organisational frameworks that affect the work of journalists. Aldridge concluded that there was a need for media training. Based on their own reflections and stories from practitioners, Reid and Misener (2001) and Franklin and Parton (1991) have considered solutions to some of the alleged problems social workers experience in terms of media reporting. They thus mentioned distributing information ‘off the record’, promoting news stories that show a nuanced image of social work, and systematically maintaining relations with key journalists. More recently, Thomlison and Whiting Blome (2012) have discussed how child-welfare organisations can avoid ‘cycles of blame’ and negative images in the media. Although such authors do acknowledge the value of the media’s critical role, they tend to primarily see negative portrayals and deficiencies in managing media relations as harmful for social work organisations and the reputation of the social work profession. News management can be applied for different reasons. Sjöström and Enbom (2015) have argued that the goals for news management and PR in public-sector organisations differ from private organisations. Public organisations are expected to adhere to ideals about democratic openness, which entail being open about mistakes within the organisation and facilitating for citizens and journalists to critically examine internal practices. At the same time, however, organisations will strive to maintain their position in an organisational field and secure future funding (Scott, 2008). Sjöström and Enbom thus maintained that public-sector organisations—like social services—are forced to strike a balance between the competing interests of democratic openness and organisational self-interest (cf. Fredriksson and Pallas, 2016). In a study of communication practices within a public agency and a ministry, Thorbjornsrud et al. (2014) found a similar pattern in how both communication staff and career bureaucrats experienced a conflict between, on the one hand, providing correct, neutral and comprehensive information and, on the other, communicating according to the needs of political leaders. This article aims to investigate to what extent Swedish SSOs conceive news management as a means to promote organisational self-interest. The analysis is based on interviews gathered from a telephone survey with a nationally representative sample of SSOs. Research overview: news management and perceptions of media content News management has become increasingly professionalised during the last twenty to thirty years, which is also reflected in a growing body of research. A key distinction concerns the application of pro-active and reactive strategies to achieve favourable publicity. Reactive strategies are applied to respond when media have already started to report about a particular event (Benoit, 1997; Coombs, 2007). The main purpose is then to neutralise and counteract negative publicity. In order to achieve such aims, organisations strategically make efforts to speak with one voice, demonstrate openness, show decisiveness and provide correct information. Pro-active strategies include establishing networks with journalists, seeking publicity for positive news and also selectively distributing exclusive information to chosen journalists (Allern, 1997; Enbom, 2009). Another central strategy identified in the literature regards adapting to journalistic news values that make journalists inclined to favour stories that are negative and involve elite actors or people whom the general public can identify with (Allan, 2010; Galtung and Ruge, 1981; Strömbäck, 2008). Furthermore, news media often cover events that contain some kind of drama and allow the construction of ‘David versus Goliath’ scenarios (Altheide and Snow, 1979). Most research on news management and PR has focused on the private sector. There is little empirical research on news management within the public sector, which is particularly true for lower-level and local bureaucracies (Schillemans, 2012). When it comes to social work, there are hardly any such studies (cf. Zugazaga et al., 2006). There is, however, a piece of literature addressing how media portray social services and social work practice that is relevant to the purpose of this article. In a British context, Aldridge (1994) noted that social services normally received very little attention from media. Among others, Zugazaga et al. (2006) have argued that, since the majority of people do not have first-hand experiences of social services, media portrayals are a primary determiner of the public perception of social work. A Swedish survey similarly showed that social workers are among the professional groups that people struggle the most to have an opinion about (Weibull, 2011). Ayre (2001) has suggested that mass media coverage has a concrete impact on the execution of social work practice in England. More precisely, what he calls ‘celebrated child abuse scandals’ have played a crucial role. A recurring theme in this literature regards how social workers are either portrayed as ‘wimps’, unable to forcefully engage in problems, or ‘bullies’, violating civil rights when they interfere to take custody over children (cf. Franklin, 1989). Aldridge (1994) has maintained that the media’s tendency to simplify a complex social reality is particularly problematic in relation to social work. Results from a comparative study by Reid and Misener (2001) indicated that media portrayals were more negative in the UK than the USA. In the UK, 30 per cent of articles were rated clearly negative and only 13 per cent positive, as compared to 13 per cent being negative and 58 per cent positive in the US sample. Investigating media depictions in three Swedish newspapers regarding elderly care, Markström et al. (2011) observed a vast variation in themes, topics and what groups were given voice (service recipients, their relatives, politicians, experts, managers, front line staff, etc.). Although not necessarily negative to services, thirty-two of 144 articles alluded to problems in elderly care. In a study of 1,180 cuttings about child services from five Swedish newspapers, Andersson and Lundström (2007) coded 25 per cent as negative and 38 per cent as positive. They noted that a large number of the articles concerned trivial everyday events that lacked dramatic features. But they also found a minority of articles featuring dramatic child-protection cases similar to what have been described elsewhere in the international literature. Andersson and Lundström (2007) note that the coverage of trivial everyday news may have quite different effects on the public perception of social work than highly featured dramatic cases. It is still an open question how members of the audience merge such different news content into opinions about social work in general. Another strand of research relevant for this article has focused on how the public views social work. Drawing from a survey in Alabama, Kaufman and Raymond (1996) reported that the attitudes towards social workers were overall negative. In a survey of a representative national sample in the USA, LeCroy and Stinson (2004) similarly found that ‘there is undoubtedly room for growth and improvement’ in the public image of social work. Respondents did, for example, prefer psychologists to social workers for most of the problems that were listed in the survey. Nevertheless, the authors concluded that social workers are generally viewed in a favourable light. Most of their respondents seemed to view social work as helpful to some degree in most situations, and 73 per cent agreed to the statement that more social workers were needed. In a Swedish survey of the general public’s confidence in different professional groups, Weibull (2011) identified social workers at the bottom of the list of those employed within the public sector, with only 34 per cent of the public having a positive and 14 per cent a negative attitude. In contrast, health and child-care staff scored 79 per cent and 66 per cent, respectively. Weibull concluded that professional groups whose work mainly involve decision making on the part of an authority (e.g. municipal social workers and employment agency staff) gained less confidence than those that mainly provide services (e.g. librarians and teachers). Another theme that is related to news management and PR concerns social workers’ perceptions of how their profession and the organisations they work within are portrayed in the media. Zugazaga et al. (2006) found that a slight majority of 815 social workers in their explorative study in Florida, USA, perceived themselves to be depicted negatively in both news and entertainment media. Brunnberg (2001) found that both Swedish and English child-protection workers felt that negative media reports contributed to their low professional status, and also affected practices and policies within their organisations. The English social workers believed that the media had a larger impact. Overall, the limited literature on this topic paints a negative picture of the relation between social work and mass media. There is a belief among practitioners that the efforts of social workers and SSOs are misrepresented, although empirical findings about media content are inconclusive. There is concern with how social work representatives successfully manage the media. We note that most authors have been inclined to take a perspective of organisational or professional self-interest, rather than being concerned with the democratic openness of social work organisations. In the concluding section, we will discuss this issue further. Methods and material The present study is based on a nationally representative telephone survey with persons responsible for communication or public relations in Swedish social service organisations. It is part of a larger project that compares social work, schools and the police that includes a broad range of data (case studies, policy documents, interviews) with the aim to investigate the frictions between organisational self-interest and serving the public. A stratified randomised sample of municipal SSOs (N = 100) was gathered in 2013 with a response rate of 91 per cent. The municipalities were stratified on the basis of the categories ‘metropolitan city’ (pop. >200,000; n = 1), ‘middle-sized city’ (pop. >50,000–200,000; n = 11), ‘suburban municipality’ (municipalities in which the majority commutes to work in a metropolitan city; n = 13) and ‘other’ (remaining small municipalities; n = 75). We sought to elicit replies from the person within each organisation that was responsible for news management on an operative level. Depending on the size and organisation in the municipalities, the respondents were either administrative managers for the entire social service organisation (n = 67), other high-rank administrative managers within the municipality (in small municipalities) (n = 14) or a person specifically employed to manage communications (in larger municipalities) (n = 10). Both interviewers (Adam Öhman and Dr. Jesper Enbom) are media scholars without expertise in social work. Respondents were informed that both themselves and their agencies would be kept anonymous in our publications. Our impression is that, despite the risk of a response bias towards presenting themselves as embracing journalistic scrutiny, most respondents were sincere in their replies. The questions were asked with regard to a broad understanding of media, but most of the discussions tended to relate to traditional news media such as daily newspapers, radio and television. We would also expect that the patterns of self-interest that would appear in a profession’s approach to PR and the media in organisations would have a parallel if the unit of analysis would have been profession instead of organisation. The analysis has focused on four open-ended questions in the survey: (i) What (if any) problems do you see in how media depict your organisation? (ii) What (if any) problems do you experience in your organisation’s work related to media? (iii) What are the purposes of media training in your organisation? (iv) How do you think that media relations will change in the next five to ten years (trends, challenges and/or problems)? These questions generally yielded extended responses from the respondents, and their responses were often relevant—at least implicitly—to our aim about promoting self-interest. The coding of the four questions was carried out in two phases. First, we identified concrete categories of manifest content that provided a comprehensive description of the respondents’ answers (Lindlof, 1995). The second part of the analytical process was more interpretive where we actively searched for expressions of organisational self-interest in how respondents talked in relation to three categories derived from the first stage: Promoting the positive, Marketing and Disarming criticism. Promoting the positive involves statements about achieving positive publicity as a goal in itself: news about positive results, investments and successes. It is concerned with the public image of the organisation, enhancing its attractiveness. Marketing relates to activities described in terms of services or products directed towards costumers, and also statements explicitly worded in marketing language (branding, image, advertising, reputation, product, customer). Managing criticism concerns approaches to criticism, how criticism in mass media is harmful to the organisation and also how such criticism can be addressed. To avoid the risk of misrepresenting the respondents’ views when considering these themes, we have also actively searched for contrasting examples that reflect the opposite notion ‘promoting democratic openness’, such as acknowledging the value of criticism, openness to external scrutiny, admitting to problems and engaging in dialogue with the public. Italicisation is used in citations to emphasize analytical points. Analysis To bring context to our detailed analyses, it is necessary to begin with a brief description of municipal SSOs in Sweden. They are responsible for a wide variety of services like social welfare payments, supporting families and persons with drug/alcohol problems, community mental health, elderly care, disability care, but also administrative decision making concerning a variety of matters: suitability to become an adoptive parent, licenses to sell alcohol, etc. Staff with a university degree in social work (3.5 years) would dominate some branches of these organisations (e.g. welfare payments and child support); almost all front line staff have a university degree (3.5 years), while they would be rare outside managerial positions in other branches (e.g. elderly care, disability care). The ultimate responsibility of social services rests upon municipal boards of elected politicians. In addition to making decisions in strategic matters regarding funding and organisation, these boards also make certain administrative decisions about individuals, such as regarding child protection. Although they dominate the field of social work in Sweden, municipal SSOs have become subjected to competition from private operators in recent years, most prominently within elderly and disability care. Moving then to our survey results, we would first like to note that Swedish SSOs in fact exhibit several features that indicate a certain level of sophistication in news management and PR. Seventy-eight per cent of the SSOs had a written policy for communication. Twelve per cent of the organisations had at least one person employed who worked exclusively with media relations. A large proportion of media relations were centralised to management level. Sixty-seven per cent of the SSOs provided media training for their central management, and 49 per cent extended this to mid-level managers. Forty-one per cent of the organisations applied some form of systematic media monitoring. And, quite strikingly in light of our research review, 66 per cent of respondents assessed their relations with journalists as either ‘good’ or ‘excellent,’ while only 1 per cent rated relations as ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’. Against this background, we have delved deeper into the question of whether the professionalised measures to manage media have served organisational self-interest by looking at four open-ended questions. To contextualise the interpretative analysis in the following four sections, Table 1 provides an overview of topics that were raised by the respondents in relation to these questions. Table 1 Topics in response to the four open-ended questions Question  Topic  Problems with media portrayals of services  Negative focus (49%)  Factual errors (39%)  One-sidedness (29%)  Media not interested in social work (2%)  Problems with media relations  Lack of proactivity (39%)  Difficulties in reacting to criticism/crisis (27%)  Staff insecurity (23%)  Secrecy regulation (14%)  Lack of resources (7%)  Insufficient knowledge of how journalists work (7%)  Purposes of and topics in media training  Making staff comfortable with media (29%)  Achieving impact (26%)  How journalists operate (14%)  Improving accuracy in media reporting (12%)  Techniques to respond to criticism (12%)  Promoting transparency in the organisation (8%)  Regulations about public access and/or secrecy (7%)  Roles and responsibilities within the organisation (6%)  The future  Social media (33%)  Home pages (23%)  Increased focus on news management (17%)  Professionalisation of news management (11%)  Decentralisation of news management (6%)  Question  Topic  Problems with media portrayals of services  Negative focus (49%)  Factual errors (39%)  One-sidedness (29%)  Media not interested in social work (2%)  Problems with media relations  Lack of proactivity (39%)  Difficulties in reacting to criticism/crisis (27%)  Staff insecurity (23%)  Secrecy regulation (14%)  Lack of resources (7%)  Insufficient knowledge of how journalists work (7%)  Purposes of and topics in media training  Making staff comfortable with media (29%)  Achieving impact (26%)  How journalists operate (14%)  Improving accuracy in media reporting (12%)  Techniques to respond to criticism (12%)  Promoting transparency in the organisation (8%)  Regulations about public access and/or secrecy (7%)  Roles and responsibilities within the organisation (6%)  The future  Social media (33%)  Home pages (23%)  Increased focus on news management (17%)  Professionalisation of news management (11%)  Decentralisation of news management (6%)  Table 1 Topics in response to the four open-ended questions Question  Topic  Problems with media portrayals of services  Negative focus (49%)  Factual errors (39%)  One-sidedness (29%)  Media not interested in social work (2%)  Problems with media relations  Lack of proactivity (39%)  Difficulties in reacting to criticism/crisis (27%)  Staff insecurity (23%)  Secrecy regulation (14%)  Lack of resources (7%)  Insufficient knowledge of how journalists work (7%)  Purposes of and topics in media training  Making staff comfortable with media (29%)  Achieving impact (26%)  How journalists operate (14%)  Improving accuracy in media reporting (12%)  Techniques to respond to criticism (12%)  Promoting transparency in the organisation (8%)  Regulations about public access and/or secrecy (7%)  Roles and responsibilities within the organisation (6%)  The future  Social media (33%)  Home pages (23%)  Increased focus on news management (17%)  Professionalisation of news management (11%)  Decentralisation of news management (6%)  Question  Topic  Problems with media portrayals of services  Negative focus (49%)  Factual errors (39%)  One-sidedness (29%)  Media not interested in social work (2%)  Problems with media relations  Lack of proactivity (39%)  Difficulties in reacting to criticism/crisis (27%)  Staff insecurity (23%)  Secrecy regulation (14%)  Lack of resources (7%)  Insufficient knowledge of how journalists work (7%)  Purposes of and topics in media training  Making staff comfortable with media (29%)  Achieving impact (26%)  How journalists operate (14%)  Improving accuracy in media reporting (12%)  Techniques to respond to criticism (12%)  Promoting transparency in the organisation (8%)  Regulations about public access and/or secrecy (7%)  Roles and responsibilities within the organisation (6%)  The future  Social media (33%)  Home pages (23%)  Increased focus on news management (17%)  Professionalisation of news management (11%)  Decentralisation of news management (6%)  The final question in the survey related directly to the purpose of this article: ‘Are there occasions when you experience a conflict between protecting the interests of your organisation and providing accurate and sufficient information to the public?’ This question did not stimulate much response from the respondents. To some extent, this is understandable due to the rather abstract nature of the question in the context of a relatively brief interview over the phone. However, we believe that the lack of response also indicates that the potential conflict between organisational self-interest and democratic openness was not an issue that respondents routinely bore in mind. Without explicit reflection from respondents on this question, we have resorted to undertaking a more interpretive analysis of implicit expressions of organisational self-interest and democratic openness in respondents’ answers to other questions. Promoting the positive Overall, achieving positive portrayals appeared to be a self-evident goal to the respondents. This was observed across all four questions under analysis. For example, they often mentioned the ability to convey a favourable depiction of the organisation as a goal for media training. When asked about the future, respondents pointed out that, by using social media, the organisation could demonstrate a willingness to engage in dialogue with citizens. The following citations illustrate various forms of the preoccupation with the objective to come out in a good light: We are under-resourced. We need to work more proactively to control the flow of information and to contract positive news (#22). We are not active enough to convey what’s positive. We need to provide journalists with more material. As it is, the media focus on the negative stuff (#54). The media reporting is negative. Mass media are focusing more on financial cutbacks than on positive aspects of our services (#12). Media exaggerate particular individual cases, and we are limited by secrecy rules. This can lead to a negative image of our work in the public debate (#85).Respondents primarily discussed positive publicity in an implicit context of organisational self-interest. Positive publicity was connected to reputation, image, information control and economic incentives such as attracting customers. Accordingly, the perceived media focus on failures and weaknesses of the SSOs was generally seen as problematic: We want to communicate the information we want to pass on to the public in a way that is preferable to the organization. It is important to have knowledge of news values to be able to manage media crises and avoid ending up in difficult situations (#80).Rarely did the respondents appreciate that media uncovered unknown problems within their organisation, nor that the ensuing public discussion could contribute to the development of better services. Rather, they expressed concern about the potential damage to their organisation. The nature of such damage was rarely touched upon and, if so, only in abstract terms. One concern that was raised by a number of respondents regarded how negative news could lead to a loss in public confidence and trust: Media reporting is often negative, which leads to low public confidence in the organization. Mass media have an underlying agenda that aims to discredit our services. Sensational journalism sells newspapers (#69). We are aiming to gain positive publicity and, in the long run, more trust. When the mass media report on problems and mistakes, our customers get the impression that the municipal services do not work adequately (#160).In quotes like these, the concern about organisational self-interest is quite apparent. Trust was discussed as an end in itself, without reflection on whether it was deserved in the context of what the media reported about. However, there were occasional exceptions where a respondent would touch upon other reasons to strive towards a positive image: We are working to hire a communicator. We are bad at explaining what we actually do. We could do more in order to get a more fair and positive image of our services (#29). This respondent argued that a more positive image would lead to a more accurate and balanced representation of organisational activities. Exceptions like this do not change the overall tendency that a positive image was primarily connected to organisational self-interest. Marketing Concerns about reputation and image lead us towards the next theme. The respondents often used words derived from marketing language: branding, reputation, message, advertising, customers, channels, etc. They further explicitly discussed news management as a means to attract new clients. Many respondents were self-critical and felt that they were not sufficiently pro-active and strategic. The ideal approach and professionalism they strived towards were often associated with marketing practices in the private sector. The organisational self-interest inherent in respondents’ application of marketing language is apparent in excerpts like the following: The competition will become more apparent in the future. Therefore, news management becomes more essential. The image of the organization has become increasingly important, as well as how the customers perceive our services (#52). We need to utilize the mass media in a more active way to put our issues and messages on the agenda (#37). It’s about creating good relations with the media. To know and get a feel for how secrecy rules play out in this context. How we can accentuate positive aspects through the media, to market what’s good in what we’re doing (#9).In a similar vein, respondents often talked about how to communicate a ‘message’: ‘Mass media are focusing on negative aspects. They tell stories in their own way, which makes it difficult to communicate messages through these channels’ (#65). The term ‘message’ was assigned different meanings by respondents. On some occasions, it seemed to refer to customising a specific viewpoint in a given situation. But, quite often, it appeared to signify a set of broader values which applied to the social service organisation or even the municipality as a whole, for example that the municipality had a rich cultural life and a favourable business climate. This also applied to their discussions about branding. These ideas were related to a broad array of recipients: We have to work on a broader scale and monitor what is said about the municipality. This also concerns branding: We have to attract potential clients, co-workers and people who might move into our municipality (#90). Disarming criticism The preoccupation with a positive image is evidenced in how respondents frequently addressed means to manage criticism. Several respondents indicated that their organisations were not sufficiently capable of counteracting critical journalistic inquiries. Another perceived problem concerned criticism from the inside. Respondents looked upon front line staff’s interaction with the media as a risk for their organisation, but sometimes also worried that media scrutiny could cause stress for the staff. Many respondents noted how the mass media often applied an approach of ‘David versus Goliath’, in which the client was portrayed as a powerless victim to the social service machinery. These concerns were epitomised in how several respondents mentioned the risk of being investigated by ‘Mission: Inquiry’, the leading TV show for investigative journalism in Sweden. In fact, respondents often specifically named Janne Josefsson, the famous host of that show: If there is an external crisis, for instance, if ‘Mission: Inquiry’ starts to make inquiries into our organization, then it becomes a problem. If this was the case, one would see weaknesses. For example, that we do not have clear routines. We are pretty weak in crisis situations (#67).Overall, criticism was discussed within an implicit framework of protecting the organisation, as is the case in the following excerpts about the needs for media training: The staff needs to know the importance of not saying things that affects the organization in a negative way. It’s crucial that the staff is familiar with interview techniques, and know how they should act in relation to journalists and their modes of working (#62). We want to improve how we manage the media, for example by providing our managers media training so they are prepared to do interviews, and are able to explain and defend our services. Our staff are learning more about how the media works, for instance in terms of news values (#67).The management of criticism was often related to crises. Some respondents appeared to view media as opponents, or even enemies, in times of crisis: We have to be more prepared when national media cover our stories. In a recent investigation, employees were trapped in difficult situations. We could act in a more structured manner. For example, we could be more deliberate in allocating responsibilities for media relations, and take better control in who should represent the organization in certain questions. Our staff also needs more knowledge in interview techniques and tactics (#42). One important aspect is knowing how to handle the press correctly. Among other things, our staff need to know how to communicate our message in interview situations, how to take command of the situation and tell our story, without falling into traps (#93). There is a risk that staff is too amicable and relate things in confidence to a journalist, who will then publish that information (#78).A particular dilemma concerned how confidentiality regulations constrained the SSOs in their rebuttal of criticism, especially in cases where journalists had been authorised by clients to have full access to records. The quotes above illustrate some of the methods respondents mentioned to better prepare their organisations to manage criticism, which was one of the key functions of media training: One central aim is to bring out information and make an impact in the mass media. Another aim is to manage and correct mass media if and when they question our organization. It is important that we find suitable methods and approaches, and educate the staff regarding these aspects (#67).Against the background that many respondents mentioned factual errors in media reports as a problem, it appears natural that they would want to provide a correct description of events and in that sense correct the media. However, the meaning of ‘correcting’ in the quote above seems to be extended to providing a description that is favourable—it is applied when the organisation is simply questioned. Some respondents stressed the value of training staff to evade critical questions and rather emphasise a message that was preferable for the organisation. The need to be more pro-active in relation to the media was raised by a number of respondents as a means to preclude and mitigate potential criticism: One strategy is to use the mass media to get our message out. Our personnel need to know when to send out press releases and arrange press conferences, they have to know about interview strategies. For example, that it is better to make live statements than to participate in recorded interviews. Prevention is better than cure. For instance, it’s better to publish a press release before a closedown of a nursing home, instead of waiting for media to report on the issue (#160).A few respondents similarly mentioned changing the public’s expectations on its services: In the future, it may be difficult to maintain the same quality in our services, due to the fact that the group of elderly is growing. We have to communicate this and change people’s expectations (#28). In this example, the respondent emphasised the need to adapt expectations to lower standards, rather than embracing a public discussion about the needs of the elderly or how resources should be distributed in society. Counter currents: democratic openness Although there was a general inclination to frame news management in terms of organisational self-interest, we have also detected expressions of democratic openness. At times, respondents used words such as ‘transparency’, ‘honesty’ and ‘dialogue’. In perhaps the most evident example, one respondent argued that the organisation’s communication should be guided by relevance, as opposed to organisational interests: We have to make sure that we provide relevant information — no angle. We have to tell the truth regarding individual cases (#135). This quote is also marked by the absence of marketing terminology. Instead, this respondent chose the word ‘truth’. Allusions to democratic openness often appeared when respondents talked about news management in more abstract terms, such as in relation to media training or the future: One aim is to introduce new managers to the organization, informing them about our news management. It’s highly necessary that they are aware of our foundation, such as being active, honest, open, and accommodating (#41). As in the example above, a number of respondents argued that their organisations needed to become more accessible to the media. In this context, they endorsed willingness to respond to questions from journalists, not to withhold information and to facilitate the accessibility of documents: Currently, there are efforts to promote transparency in our municipality. We will work more actively with media relations and provide newsrooms with information in a more systematic way. For instance, by using our website, press releases, and press conferences. I see that trend already. A lot is happening right now (#97).In relation to the future, some respondents advocated the need to establish more systematic ways to engage in dialogue with citizens, often highlighting the potential in using social media: Most likely, there will be a change in terms of social and digital media. We are launching a new forum on our website, a space where clients and interest groups are able to contact us directly. We will also use Facebook to a greater extent. This work leads to greater openness. Our aim is to be as transparent as possible, to open up for discussion with the public. The authorities in our nation are about to open up, and we intend to follow suite (#50).Note how this respondent talked about ‘citizens’, in contrast to ‘customers’, which we previously associated with marketing. In relation to transparency, certain technical and legal aspects were discussed: Instead of journalists requesting paper documents, they will be able to search digitally. This is more efficient (#32). It’s important that we learn to understand our mission, how we should act in relation to journalists and how to improve our cooperation with mass media. We should know about procedures for disclosing documents (#48).The second of these quotes alludes to the Swedish constitutional principle of access to official documents, which provides citizens with extensive rights to access all documents within municipal and state authorities that are not explicitly declared secret according to special legislation. Thus, this respondent appeared to advocate the need to facilitate for journalists (and, by extension, the public) to access documents about organisational activities. Similarly, a few respondents stressed the importance of teaching staff about the constitutional protection of journalistic sources, and that public authorities are prohibited from making inquiries into press leaks. Respondents rarely acknowledged the value of critical inquiries on the part of the media. Some of their replies indicated that they were more oriented towards providing a correct message, rather than defending the organisation at any cost. We will end with an exceptional excerpt that appears to embrace the idea that media play an important democratic role in making critical inquiries into public organisations such as social services: Journalists have difficulties to distinguish between political leadership and the organization itself. For instance, they ask politicians for details and procedures [that they have little direct knowledge about]. They should be more active and investigate our services more. Mass media scrutiny is beneficial for our organization. They [journalists] accept things to easy right now (#10). Concluding discussion As an introduction to our concluding remarks, we would like to briefly address how they might be transferrable to countries other than Sweden (Tracy, 2010). Professional social work in Sweden is tightly linked to (relatively well-funded) municipal social service organisations. They operate in a climate of ‘soft governance’ and relatively weak external monitoring (Baines, 2004; Bergmark et al., 2015). Only a small proportion of social work is conducted in civil society organisations. As a consequence, the professional status and discussions about the social work profession are closely linked to SSOs. Although we have highlighted marketing and competition in our analysis, Swedish SSOs are less subjected to competition from other service providers than is the case in most other countries in the Global North. Although our empirical findings are specific to municipal SSOs, it appears likely that organisational self-interest would impact on PR in other types of social work organisations, whether profit or non-profit. We would also expect that patterns of self-interest appear in a profession’s approach to PR and the media (Abbott, 1988). Variations in this respect between different types of organisations and professions would be a matter for future studies. Looking at peculiarities in the media landscape, Swedish tabloids are less inclined to polarise and describe events in terms of scandals than in most European countries (Nord, 2007). Since the political accountability for social services rests primarily within local authorities, national media with larger resources for investigative journalism are less likely to target SSOs. This means that the key relations with media for SSOs concern local daily newspapers with limited investigative resources (Ekström et al., 2006). The literature on the relations between social work and mass media has largely painted a negative picture. This study suggests a different image. In quantitative terms, our survey data revealed that respondents were largely satisfied with their relations to journalists. The SSOs were less satisfied than police organisations—that operate under more intense media pressure and therefore have dispersed more resources to news management—and slightly less satisfied than municipal school organisations (Enbom et al., 2014). The negative assessments of media portrayals expressed by our respondents were solicited when we explicitly prompted for problems. Overall, it seems that, despite differences in size and local contexts, Swedish SSOs have developed professional and systematic measures to manage their relations with the media. In response to our stated research aim, we have found that the professionalised news management has largely served the function of protecting the interest of SSOs, at the expense of democratic openness. This is expressed in how respondents talked in terms of promoting the positive aspects of organisational performance, how they applied a marketing perspective and how the goal of addressing criticism was to deflect it rather than embrace the potential it had for improving performance. This conclusion has been reached despite the risk for a response bias that would be expected to go against it, and it is therefore possible that the tendencies towards self-promotion are even more pronounced in reality. Indeed, it is possible to rebut some of our arguments. To a certain extent, the inclination to promote positive media depiction can be legitimised for other reasons than organisational self-interest. For example, it can be seen as a means to mitigate against media portrayals that are incorrect and overly negative. Moreover, positive portrayals can be regarded as an asset in building trust, which is an essential prerequisite for social work practice (Reid and Misener, 2001). However, such concerns are typically not manifest in the interviews, where the achievement of positive media portrayals merely appear as a goal in itself. Similarly, while it is not inherently problematic to worry about criticism, the overall impression is that respondents’ primary concern were with protecting the organisation, rather than making distinctions between negatives that were justified and those who were not. We do not have data to explain why organisational egoism emerged as a priority. However, it appears likely that it can partly be attributed to a general inclination in organisations to develop self-interest (Michels, 1915; Vandenabeele, 2007). It also appears compatible with the current growth of new public management in the public sector (Heffernan, 2006). It is possible that tendencies to protect organisational—or professional—self-interest would be even more pronounced in social work organisations that are more subjected to competition and ‘hard’ monitoring than the Swedish agencies we have investigated. The approaches of those responsible for media relations in SSOs that we have investigated resemble those of authors in the scholarly literature. As alluded to in the literature overview, social work scholars have largely looked upon media relations as problematic. Typically, positive media portrayals and positive attitudes of the public have been regarded as self-evident goals, with little reflection on the fairness of media stories or the value of critical investigations. We contend that this approach is problematic and that scholars and practitioners alike need to be more detached from the interests of the social work profession and the organisations it represents. 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The British Journal of Social WorkOxford University Press

Published: Jan 6, 2018

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