BASW and SWU event for World Social Work Month: Social Work Future

BASW hosted and SWU chaired the panel discussion on March 28 that explored media and public perceptions of social work, impact, and change

The Social Work Future: Media and public perceptions of social work, impact and change online event was an opportunity for Social Workers to reflect at the end of the World Social Work Month (WSWM) celebrations and engage in a vibrant discussion exploring this topic.

SWU General Secretary John McGowan was pleased to chair the event and the panel included BASW CEO Dr Ruth Allen, PSW Editor Shahid Naqvi, and Campaign Collective founding member Simon Francis. MSc Social Work Student, Freelance Journalist and BASW Student Ambassador Georgiana Ndlovu was a panel member as well but was regretfully unable to join the discussion due to a technical issue.

2022-03-28 social work futures basw panel discussion

John put three questions to the panel over the course of the event and their responses, as well as many insightful comments in the chat section from attendees, are available to read in this recapitulation.

As an overview, what needs to be done to raise the media profile and public understanding of Social Workers?

Ruth Allen began the conversation, agreeing that this is a priority area for BASW and SWU.  She noted that this issue effects how Social Workers feel about ourselves and said, “We can and must use our agency to shape new narratives in public understandings and reject that we have to be the victim of other people’s stories about us. Mainstream coverage is getting better. We need more platforms to tell stories of what we do to different audiences and friendly outlets to make sure we’re not just talking to ourselves. A large barrier is having to persuade employers that it’s OK for social workers to talk to the media, especially local authorities.”

She added, “We need to be more open and talk about the challenges and success of our profession. Social media is important in getting out the narrative of who we are and there are some great communities on there where people in and outside the profession can have conversations.”

Shahid Naqvi said, “It’s time to break through that narrative and take control of it – during the pandemic it was Social Workers who were doing the hard work not the bankers, etc.” His suggestion of a membership card was met with enthusiasm and he elaborated that perhaps, as a way to help reclaim the narrative, there could be a card to explain to people the complexities of what Social Workers do.

An attendee remarked in the chat section that HCPC used to issue a card and expressed the desire for Social Work England to do this as well. An independent social worker commented that a card demonstrating registration along with additional information would be very useful.

Ruth emphasised that telling our own stories about social work is key – clearly explaining what we do and its value and working with our allies, especially people with lived experience of social work. Showing that social work is a varied profession with multiple specialisms is very important.

Shahid also put forward the idea of an award for good social work reporting. When asked if there were any awards like this that already existed, it was noted that there are social work awards across the UK and BASW’s Amazing Social Workers recognition throughout WSWM has been very successful, but these awards don’t tend to have a profile outside the trade press and there is nothing yet to award the media on good reporting.

In the chat section National Organiser & Union Contact Manager Carol Reid commented that, “SWU consulted with the writers of Sorry we Missed You which was a good opportunity to enlighten the media and I also agree with Ruth’s comments regarding interaction with communities and advocating for ourselves.”

Deb Solomon who chairs the BASW professionals with neurodiversity Special Interest Group said in the chat that since the SIG has started out “there has been a huge amount of support from the public, being able to be different, be real and make our professional identity reflect our traits has really been supported.”

Austerity Action Chair Angi Naylor added in the chat section that there is currently a great opportunity for social work students to have their say with the SWU Assignment World Social Work Day Student Essay competition that asks: “Considering the current negative TV and general media portrayals of social workers what action can be taken to change this?”

Can you tell us more about the guidance for journalists quoting on social work that you’ve been working on and why this is important?

Simon Francis discussed this aspect of his work with the SWU Campaign Fund, saying, “Social Workers have been named in the media leading to difficult situations for those Social Workers which have sometimes cause them both direct and indirect harm. We are working with press regulator IMPRESS and have just drafted the code which is out for consultation.

“Journalists need to think about: accuracy of reporting and the role of Social Workers in any cases, consider the risk of harm that their reporting may cause, respecting the right to privacy of Social Workers like nurses/doctors/police officers, and that generally speaking Social Workers are not spokespeople – they can speak about their personal experiences, but they are not spokespeople for their employers.” He concluded by saying, “The media needs to keep in mind that the only person to blame for committing a crime is the person who committed the crime. Let us know if you have any examples of how social work was badly reported on, or examples of where the journalists got it right.”

Ruth replied, “I think the setting of standards and encouraging of good practices is absolutely the way to go. BASW has raised specific incidences of breach of practice but that hasn’t led to specific change. It’s a strengths-based approach.” Ruth emphasised that, in the name of transparency and accountability, we can’t be too afraid of negative press. “If we’re more visible and reported on, I think we have to be confident as a profession and not let it undermine us.”

Simon noted that, “The reality is that we won’t always be working with journalists who ‘get it’ and often times reporting will be done by people who have just finished working on other very different stories. The code is a quick guide for people to quickly familiarise themselves with what to do and not to do when reporting on social work.”

Shahid said, “I’ve always felt there’s a real similarity in the two professions of social work and journalism in that they’re interested in people and their stories – they care about society. It’s been my experience that social workers do care. I think journalists would be open to those discussions if they were explained to them.”

SWU’s Honorary President James Birchall commented in the chat section, “I went from journalism to social work. It was my experience as a journalist that led me to social work.”

A social worker remarked in the chat section, “I think the difficulty with negative press is it can be personal with our profession, names and employer details can be used and can feel very isolating. Other professionals seem to be more protected. As far as I’m aware, we are still one of the few professions that the individual can be held accountable for something that could be an institutional/resource fault and punished for it.”

Ruth replied to this comment, saying, “Junior Social Workers are in a very exposed position with no one except a Trade Union Representative to stand for them in a complex system. Accountability is through regulatory procedures. I don’t think other professions are immune to this, but I think social work isn’t understood in the round as other professions are so individuals are vilified and it washes over the profession as a whole. I think there’s a role for regulators to work on this.”

If Social Workers do go on about what they’ve achieved, is there a possibility that people will react negatively?

Ruth said, “We have to engage in it and tell people what we do, and show the evidence about the impacts and differences we make. The voice of lived experience is important – getting feedback from people who have used social work services is critical.”

Angi Naylor agreed in the comments, adding “the voices of lived experience who are now social workers should be heard.”

Former BASW International Committee Chair David N. Jones remarked in the chat, “Really great that BASW has been working globally to promote the value of social work with growing influence at the United Nations and Council of Europe. See for example the broad coalition support for the People’s Summit in June.”

Deb Solomon asked in the chat, “How can we get our campaigns out into the media – is there a worry that there is still stigma – for example neurodiversity? We did a study over on twitter and 80% of respondents said they would choose a social worker who had lived experience if they could, and would appreciate openness about our diversity.”

Simon replied, saying, “The #FoodIsCare campaign is an example of a Social Workers channelling their experience on the ground. There is a real case for Social Workers to campaign on issues. You can read more on the more on the Food Is Care campaign here: https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/b/social-workers-warn-families-cant-afford-to-feed-their-children

SWU Communications, Policy, and Engagement Officer Shawn Major mentioned in the chat section that SWU members are welcome to submit a campaign idea for funding on the SWU Campaign Fund webpage.

Several attendees remarked about the difficulties of quantifying achievements or outcomes in social work. It’s so individual and a social worker’s involvement is multifaceted and complicated, which doesn’t fit within neat statistics or tick boxes. Good social work co-produces with people to help them develop their own changes, which makes it difficult to show what social work has achieved.

Attendees also remarked in the chat that they still regularly encounter the public’s misunderstanding of social work and that some people mistakenly and shockingly believe that social workers “get commissions” or “have a quota of how many children we put up for adoption or to get children in care”.

Ruth said, “As we’re moving towards strengths-based personalised social work – the narrative around making personalized support real needs to be developed in a tangible way. How do you make it understandable to someone who needs help and not use jargon? Improving public understanding and reducing stigma goes hand in hand with enabling public help at an earlier stage.”

Simon concluded the discussion, saying “The media is really interested in talking to those with lived experience, for example those experiencing fuel poverty. When people do take part in the media they generally find it a positive experience – they get their voices heard, and are empowered by sharing their situation. They might be asked difficult interview questions, so how are they best supported to do that? Would Social Workers be the right people to suggest that people share their experiences with the media?”

John thanked the panel and also thanked those in attendance for their excellent comments.

Final comments from the panellists

Ruth: The work that SWU is doing around reporting standards in the media is really important. We need to support good dialogue with media and communities around the great work that social work does. Clarity in the media about what social work does across diverse forms of media.

Shahid: Tangible things are key – the reporting guide is a tangible thing, as is an award certificate for reporting on good reporting on social work in the media and a membership card.

Simon: It is important to get Social Workers commenting on the issues and what they’re doing, especially as they are the experts.