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Perceptions And The Media:

Just tell us how to deal with those reporters
and everything will be fine. You know who those reporters are. They are those
people who are always negative, are misinformed, do not understand, and never
get it right anyway. They take one or two isolated incidents and blow them
totally out of proportion. Their only goal is to sell more newspapers.

Of course, were you to listen to those
reporters, you might hear a different perspective. Just tell us how to deal
with those child protection people and everything will be fine. You know who
those child protection people are. They are those people who are always hiding
behind confidentiality, have nothing more helpful to say than, “No
comment,” and are covering up their mistakes and incompetence. They are
only interested in putting in their time, collecting their paychecks, and
covering their behinds. The public needs to know just how its tax dollars are
being wasted.

If you believe this fairly characterizes the
reporters you work with in your community, you have a huge public relations
opportunity. Your challenge is to get your reporters to relate to you and your
agency more positively, to be sure they are always well-informed, to help them
understand, and to make it easy for them to get it right.

If this fairly characterizes how you and your
agency are perceived by the reporters you work with in your community, you have
still another public relations opportunity. Your challenge is to help them
understand that, although the privacy rights of your clients are important and
must be respected, there is information you can share and are many areas you
can openly discuss. You do have a responsibility to inform the public and you
take that responsibility seriously. The reporters and the public need to know
that although you are not perfect, you seldom make significant mistakes. Agency
staff, foster parents, and volunteers are well-trained and competent. The
people associated with the agency are sincerely committed to the safety,
permanence, and well-being of each child for whom they are responsible.

In most communities, the truth lies somewhere
between the extremes. Child protection people are not completely comfortable
with and trusting of reporters, and the reporters remain at least somewhat
skeptical when dealing with the child protection people. Nonetheless, there is
a significant level of mutual trust and good will. When the media arena expands
to include a statewide or national perspective, though, the levels of mutual
trust and good will so carefully cultivated at the community level are no
longer possible.

Community level trust and good will are built
on ongoing relationships, direct experience, and the need to work with each
other tomorrow. At the state and national levels, there usually are no ongoing
relationships and probably no relationships at all. The reporters and child
protection people have no direct experience with each other and will never work
with each other. Also, the issues are quite different.

At the community level, the story is
typically about a specific case or situation. At other times, it may be about
the perspective of an individual or advocacy group that is critical of the
agency. Even in those cases, though, the criticism is ordinarily limited to
specific, local points or issues. At the state and national levels, alternatively,
the criticism is most always broad and sweeping. Further, the critics are
usually legislators, high-level state or federal officials, or others several
steps removed from the local community and the local child protection agency.

At first, it may seem that state and national
stories are too far removed from you and your agency to warrant much attention.
Unfortunately, they are not. Wire services and the electronic media can and do
pick up these stories and people in your community are well aware of them. Even
though the stories may not be specifically about your agency or foster
families, the stories are usually so broad and inclusive that many if not most
people in your community assume that they do, at least to some extent, apply to
your agency, your staff, and your foster parents. Through this very human
process of generalization, the state or national story becomes local, whether
it is true in your community or not.

Consider each of the following headlines. If
it is a state level story, assume that it is referring to your state. Your
local reporter calls you and tells you that the story came over the wire. She
then reads the headline to you and asks you to comment.

For each headline, develop a one sentence
response. That will be the quote from you that the reporter uses in her story.
The lead for the reporter’s story about the first headline might be:

senior official in The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services says,
“The system is broken,” referring to Ohio‘s child protection system. Patti-Jo
Burtnett, Spokesperson for Lorain County Children Services, disagrees…”

System is Broken.  

There is
a Statewide Crisis in Foster Care

Calls for Sweeping Child Welfare Reforms   

Parents Poorly Trained and Financially Motivated  

Welfare Workers Overwhelmed and Under-qualified    

Not Protecting Country’s Most Vulnerable Children

To Investigate Failure of Child Protection System

Workers Take Children, Parents’ Rights Ignored

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