When you need to flip the public’s perception of your services

By Stephanie Perkowski

March 1, 2021

Strategic communication is the active ingredient in changing hearts and minds. (comzeal/Adobe)

How do you change long-standing negative public perceptions of your services? Child welfare jurisdictions across the US are trying to answer precisely this question.

Since 2018, funding has moved away from mandatory interventions that separate children from their families, and toward prevention and support services designed to keep families together.

Many of the new services are voluntary, which means building trust with the public has become paramount. Government agencies and local non-profits need to convince the public that they’re “not your grandmother’s child welfare system”.

But this can’t be done simply by shifting the narrative. The narrative must be different to the extent that the public actually experiences services differently.

Whether you lead a team, program, organisation or public agency, you will need internal communication strategies that can support change management and speed up cultural change. In my work as a public sector consultant specialising in implementation and system transformation, strategic communication is the active ingredient in changing hearts and minds.  Here are three strategies you can use

1. Equip communications champions to amplify your message

Announcements of major changes are carefully crafted and delivered by experienced leadership. What happens next however is just as critical.

When an organisation makes changes, staff can be hesitant to speak about them. Your team may feel they don’t know enough about what’s happening, and may be anxious about receiving a question they can’t answer. Some may presume that they are not qualified to talk about the changes afoot, or may think it is someone else’s job to do so.

Identify a group of communications champions — managers and team leaders are a great place to start — and equip them to talk about the changes and give progress updates. Create talking points and presentations for them, and ensure that they have opportunities to take ownership and build confidence in their ability to amplify the message.

2. Don’t shy away from emotionally-charged topics

The greatest fear of many child welfare professionals is that a child has been harmed and that they could have prevented it.

Where strong emotions are involved —  especially fear of the unknown — communication is key. You don’t have to have all the answers, but you do have to communicate something. Silence allows fear and anxiety to grow.

Instead, give clear guidance on how to communicate about emotionally-charged topics well, and model that communication at multiple levels of leadership. You want to be as transparent with people as possible and anticipate their anxieties, so that you can address them in full. Whenever you swerve or don’t acknowledge a hot-button issue, you abdicate your role in the conversation. This leaves plenty of room for people to jump to conclusions or fill in missing information with their own assumptions. Their assumptions are on you more than you might realise.

During the first three months of the pandemic, for example, reports of child maltreatment were 40 to 60% lower than during the same period the previous year. There was anxiety, both internally and externally, about whether child abuse and neglect was going unnoticed because children were not in school. Child welfare systems rely on mandated reporters, such as healthcare professionals, law enforcement, and educators, to report suspected abuse and neglect. When social distancing came into effect, hotline calls decreased, and many assumed a decrease in calls meant otherwise witnessed cases of abuse and neglect were going unreported.

In response to the concerns about hotline calls, many child welfare jurisdictions looked at their data and equipped their teams to be as transparent as possible with messages. One such message ran as follows:

“A drop in hotline calls does not necessarily mean that there is an increase in child abuse or neglect while children are home with their families. Only 15% of reports to CPS by schools are substantiated by child welfare agencies. This is not to say no abuse is taking place in those situations, but the overwhelming majority of cases (61%) which come to the attention of child welfare, are due to neglect, which is often related to poverty. Here are some examples of how our shift towards prevention is working to address allegations of neglect related to poverty…”

By equipping staff inside the organisation with a response to questions they’re likely to be asked, they’ll be prepared to participate in the conversation in ways that support the overall change effort.

3. Make it a mantra or a metaphor to help it stick

Changing a system requires everyone to adopt new ways of behaving and thinking. In child welfare, the shift toward voluntary prevention programmes requires staff at all levels, and especially front line staff, to adopt a less investigatory posture. Often, this posture is informed by implicit bias or leftover from a previous role, where determining whether someone was telling the truth was part of the job. Here though, the situation calls for a different approach.

The families they are serving are engaging with the programmes because they want support, not because they have done anything wrong. For staff with years of experience in the prior system, it can be hard to make the mindset shift.

This is where mantras and metaphors become a powerful tool. Repetition, analogies, and story arcs all help people remember new narratives. They can give members of your team the words to encourage themselves and each other to communicate the required changes.

For example, OhioKAN, a new programme offering families referrals to the programmes and services they want and need, embedded the mantra ‘We believe families’ into their onboarding and team culture. Whenever someone asks “What do you do if you think a family is lying to you?” Everyone knows the response: ‘We believe families.’

Ultimately, change takes time in any organisation and industry. Supporting external communication with complementary internal communication strategies is a powerful lever for change. They enable you and your team to not only send your external message, but to fast-track and make sense of the cultural shifts that need to happen for it to make that change a lasting reality.

This article is curated from Apolitical.


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