The case for the communications role in the social services sector

October 5, 2007

I’m not sure what it’s like in the rest of Canada, or North America for that matter, but the number of social services organizations that employ or even contract with a communications professional where I live is small. I think that needs to change.

I was a child welfare social worker before beginning my career as a communications professional. Like many others in the PR/communications field, I “fell” into the job.

The child protection agency I worked for had a new CEO who did not have a background in child welfare and did not relish the prospect of dealing with the 10-12 media calls the agency received in any given month. He created the position of “communications officer” primarily to deal with media requests. Initially, “dealing with the media” appeared to be the primary function of the position.

Ready for a change after close to a decade of intervening with families in acute crisis, I applied and got the position. I had no communications training. Those doing the hiring thought that someone with deep knowledge of the child welfare sector was better suited than someone with a communications background. Fortunately for the agency, I went back to school to get a certificate in communications/public relations.

The position was not overwhelmingly accepted within the organization. It took a couple of years for the staff and even some of the managers at the agency to comprehend my role. By the time I left four years later I think most people appreciated the value of having someone doing this job. The position had expanded considerably by then and included internal communications, community relations, agency marketing and developing client feedback mechanisms. Interestingly, as these other roles developed, the media calls about agency-related issues went down.

A decade later, child welfare and related organizations in Manitoba are now just beginning to recognize that the communications role is an important one. Still, most don’t have a communications professional on staff or even engage someone on a contract basis. Communications tasks most often fall to the executive director or CEO but most are too busy with operational issues. Their education and experience is also most often in direct service so communications and marketing is foreign territory to them.

Most social service organizations are under funded so dedicating a portion of the budget to hire a communications person is often seen as an extravagant use of funds. Also, public relations and other communications functions are seen as more appropriate to the corporate world. For example, the notion of creating a brand image for an agency that provides foster care or works with youth on the street seems to diminish, for some, their “altruistic” vocation. “We’re not selling anything,” they say, “we’re just here to work with the kids.”

But in a sector that struggles to provide the kind of services that are genuinely helpful to clients in the face of diminishing government funding, the communications function is vital.

These organizations need to be able to clearly articulate what they do, that they are effective and why they are effective in order to remain viable. The many and competing demands on governments for funding means that more rigorous standards are applied when they evaluate funding applications. Agencies turning to private donors or community foundations quickly realize that fund development requires “marketing” the value of their services using similar tactics found in the corporate world.

An effective internal communications strategy has numerous benefits as well that social services in the non-profit sector shouldn’t ignore. Staff morale, retention and quality of work (huge issues in this sector) are all positively affected when organizations focus attention on the way they communicate within the organization.

I’m looking forward to exploring these benefits as well as some of the issues associated with the communications role in the social services/non-profit arena in future posts.

I’d also like to hear from you. What do you think some of the challenges are for public relations within the social services sector? Send me a comment.

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