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An Interview with Annie Hudson Director of Children and Young People's Services at Bristol Council

SWSCmedia:  What made you decide to do this programme with BBC?

Annie Hudson:  We were approached by the BBC in autumn 2009 about doing a follow-up to ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ – a similar documentary by the same team that broadcast in 2004.  A lot had changed since then with the Baby P case and Munroe review and we were the preferred choice for the BBC as we had a track record of working with them through providing access. Given our previous experience I was confident the programmes would accurately illustrate the complexity and demands of social work sensitively.

SWSCmedia:  What were the obstacles and challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

Annie Hudson:  The main challenges for the local authority was to ensure that having a documentary crew with our teams would not be too distracting and that appropriate consents were in place.  All of the social workers involved say the documentary team worked alongside them without getting in the way and after a while they rarely noticed they were there.  The BBC managed consents and they worked closely with our legal team where proceedings were ongoing.

We also knew we would be inspected by Ofsted at some stage while the cameras were in, so we had even negotiated permission for the camera crew to have some access to the inspection, and our reading of the report.  In the end, they did not use this footage as the coverage of the live cases was a priority. 

SWSCmedia:  What are the main barriers for Local Authorities’ in engaging with media and how can Local Authorities overcome these barriers?

Annie Hudson:  It is really difficult to present media stories on child protection as most press would not have the time or resources to seek consents from clients to get the full story with names.  Also, there are contradictory views about what makes a success story involving social workers – this could be both keeping a family together at a time of crisis or removing a child  from a dangerous situation.  Apart from the documentary our usual media activity around children’s social work either focuses on fostering and adoption recruitment, outcomes of external inspections or new trials or pilot projects.  For all of these we would try social workers who are content to be named and photographed for local media as well as appropriate service users clients who could be kept anonymous.

Around the publicity for the documentary we managed to take journalists from The Times and Radio Times out with social workers as part of one of their regular days.  It took a lot of preparation work and we had agreement with both journalists that we would be able to check copy before publication to ensure client identities were protected and that photography would be blurred.

SWSCmedia:  How can Local Authorities improve/enhance their engagement with media, including social media?

Annie Hudson:  I think it helps to be minded to use any service-wide initiatives as new opportunities to engage with media.  We have found that using inspection reports, new pilots,  research or new statistics have been a good way in to placing a story and encouraging local media to look at our services.  Providing quick access to case studies is always appreciated.  Social media is becoming more important for us and certainly the documentary has provoked masses of online chat in various forums for monitoring and comment when necessary.

SWSCmedia:  What are the points that a Local Authority must consider and be aware of, in engaging with media and social media?

Annie Hudson:  I would recommend working closely with your communications department as well as staff and key partners, such as the police and health. Keep them informed of new projects, reports, research and objectives coming up, with plenty of notice. They can take on the considerations around timing, spokespeople, third-party endorsement and pitching stories that will fit with current agendas – both for the media and the rest of the local authority.

For a documentary there is a lot of extra council resource that needs to be on board to make the partnership work – especially at the beginning and end of the process.  Social workers who had been involved with the documentary found themselves in demand to do interviews and blogs around transmission.  This has all required considerable capacity and resources particularly around the time of  transmission. 

SWSCmedia:  It is not the first time that Bristol Council has formed a partnership with BBC to create a documentary programme around social work. What makes Bristol different in engaging with media?

Annie Hudson:  I’m not sure that we are very different but we were well-placed to work with them as we had previous experience with the same team.  The building of effective working relationships, where risks and issues can be honestly discussed has been paramount.

SWSCmedia:  Do you allow your staff to engage in social media? and do you have specific guidelines for social media participation for your staff?

Annie Hudson:  All our employees are provided with guidance about media engagement.  We do not expect staff to use social media in a professional capacity without permission from manager and our communications team.

SWSCmedia:  How involved were you in this programme and the project? 

Annie Hudson:  I was very involved at the beginning and towards the end of the project but was also obviously regularly briefed as filming progressed; this included regular meetings with the BBC team.  I was filmed undertaking some of my work, for example at council budget meetings, staff meetings and  and receiving our ofsted report but none of this was needed for the final films.  One of my key roles was championing why we were involved with colleagues and partners as well as ensuring that all necessary safeguards and protocols were in place.  On a practical level this included approving the agreement with the BBC, engaging with our partner organisations such as the NHS, police and the courts, viewing all the films during the final editing process for comment and doing media to promote and explain the programmes near transmission.

SWSCmedia:  There has been an overwhelmingly positive commentary from the public. Specifically, while on air many took to twitter to praise the programme. Did you expect such a positive feedback?

Annie Hudson:  It has been very encouraging and exceeded our expectations.  While we cannot yet evaluate the public impact, we know viewing figures were very high and the series has attracted very considerable media attention, which has been largely positive.  We have received many responses from viewers (via emails, twitter, blogs etc.) that many viewers were left with a  better appreciation of, and considerable admiration for social workers.  There has also been a palpable sense of public shock at the tough realities of some children’s lives.   It is also encouraging to hear that some would-be social workers have been spurred to apply for training. 

SWSCmedia:  How can social work as a profession engage with the media in order to bring about greater understanding of its’ role and raise the profile of social work and social workers? 

Annie Hudson:  I don’t think that there are any quick fixes to raise the profile of social work but councils could do more to remind managers of regular opportunities that might make good stories.  This might be a successful recruitment round, a local response to a national report with local statistics or a new pilot project that has gained funding.  I think the key is to keep a steady flow of information and engagement so that media know just where to go if something breaks for comment.

SWSCmedia:  How can social work and social workers use social media to enhance awareness and understanding of their role and profession?

Annie Hudson:  Apart from the documentary we’ve tried using our twitter feed during adoption or fostering recruitment blitzes to make ourselves more available for queries.  As individuals, social workers can always use comment pages linked to media stories about their work to provide their own insight, but I would advise getting clearance to do this first.

SWSCmedia:  BBC spent two years with your social work team how difficult was it for them to identify cases of interest?

Annie Hudson:  It was very challenging, as with each case they had to get a combination of social workers, service users and workers from other agencies to agree to be filmed. The documentary team had to spend a great deal of time developing relationships and building trust with all involved. Other events that go on within families also had an impact – for example the case could not be one where a family member was in criminal court as media exposure could prejudice the outcome of a trial.

SWSCmedia:  Do you think we will see more social work fly on the wall type programmes and documentaries?

Annie Hudson:  It is hard to comment on this but the Protecting our Children series, together with the equally strong and excellent Panorama programme on adoption (filmed in Coventry) may encourage the media and local authorities to think further about how best to capture the work of social care.  I think there is undoubted public interest, but clearly there are many safeguards that must be in place before proceeding. 

SWSCmedia:  Do you think it would help the social work profession to have a reality based programme such as ‘Coppers’ or ‘One born every minute’? and why?

Annie Hudson:  I’m not convinced this would be appropriate for social workers given the very sensitive work they do and that consent for filming with clients is very exceptional to obtain.

SWSCmedia:  Many individuals may feel inspired by the programme and may decide to train to become social workers. What early years career advice would you give to those setting out to become family and children social workers? 

Annie Hudson:  The most important thing is for would be recruits to acquire direct relevant experience of what the work can and does entail.  This can come through a range of activities and there is no doubt that the greater the experience the better.

SWSCmedia:  Do you have any final words, thoughts or piece of advice for local authorities, organisations or practitioners?

Annie Hudson:  I hope our work with the BBC and Open University will encourage more local authorities to think about how they can contribute to opening up the profession to the media and greater public understanding. 

SWSCmedia:  Thank you for taking the time for this interview and to answer our questions. Your engagement, and leadership have been exemplar. We wish you and your team every success with your work.

Annie Hudson is the Director of Children and Young People’s Services @BristolCouncil 

We’re pleased to announce that Annie Hudson will join us on Tuesday at 20:00 GMT / 15:00 ET when we shall explore “Social Work in Media: Protecting Our Children” @SWSCmedia.


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