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According to Oxford Dictionaries, social work is "work carried out by trained personnel with the aim of alleviating the conditions of those people in a community suffering from social deprivation" - a positive definition, if not one to be mistaken for that of a superhero. So why is social work perceived so differently by the general public?

Protecting the reputation of social work has never been more important as social workers face more pressure than ever; demand for services is increasing, caseloads are piling and, in some local authorities, cuts to admin staff have placed greater responsibility on frontline teams. Against these odds, social workers across the country are pulling together to try to improve the lives of vulnerable children, adults and families. And, unsurprisingly, when the profession is criticised as a whole for the failings of a few, it can seem very unfair.

Continuous efforts are being made to improve the reputation of social work through various initiatives, from events, awards ceremonies and national awareness days to support through social media, positive press coverage and realistic portrayals in the media. But has it made a difference?

We find out what those in the profession have to say...

On the impact of high profile serious case reviews

Earlier in the year, Isabelle Trowler, Chief Social Worker for Children, told Sanctuary Social Work News that of the issues social workers have raised with her since her time in post, wanting to be fairly represented in the public eye was a really pressing concern. She empathised; “Social workers do a very hard job in challenging circumstances and to not have that recognised is frustrating for them.

However, while Isabelle went on to express concern that the high number of serious case reviews published may have had something to do with the reputation of social work becoming a greater issue, others feel this attention has helped the public understand the challenging situations social workers deal with. Jill Manthorpe, Professor of Social Work at King's College London, said:"In my opinion, the recent high profile cases of sexual abuse involving children and young people have drawn attention to the difficult work involved in investigating such allegations and supporting people who have been harmed. Similarly, several cases of abuse in care homes have made it possible to think about the positive work of caring professionals in other circumstances.

Zoe Betts, Social Worker and owner of 'iamsocialwork', agrees that there is a greater understanding of the work involved, but believes there is more to be done to promote positive practice. She explained: "I think as the profile of our profession is rising, and there is no doubt that it is, so too is the recognition of the amount of pressure and responsibility that is placed on the work we do and the decisions we need to make. As to whether it has become more balanced, I'm not convinced. Beyond our trade press, I don't believe this has effectively taken hold just yet."

On who or what is standing in the way of fairly representing social work?

While some may argue that the general public are a big part of the problem, this could come down to the assumptions made based on the information they are most commonly faced with. This is something Professor Ray Jones, a former director of social services, believes comes down to the media’s portrayal of social work. He said: "There is a danger that, as social workers, we obsess about our bad press, but if you should glance at The Mail, Sun or Telegraph, all who provide a public service - teachers, police officers and even doctors and nurses - are often denigrated and dismissed. Yet public opinion surveys usually have very high ratings for those providing a public service. It is journalists and politicians who are seen as not to be trusted or respected!"

Refering back to Isabelle's interview in a previous issue, she addressed the generalisation that all local authorities are placing too much pressure on social workers. Her worry was that the profession was generating an image that 'no social worker was able to do the job' because they are so over-pressured and overworked. She advised: "We have to be measured about the messages we are giving about workload, otherwise we are in danger of being the victim of our own publicity."

Encouragingly, the amount of positive media coverage is on the rise. Initiatives such as the Social Worker of the Year Awards, not only recognise and celebrate the achievements of social workers amongst the profession, but generate interest across regional press. A total of 152 press stories were recorded as a result of last year's Social Worker of the Year Awards, reporting on positive practice delivered by those across various fields of the sector and how they have made a difference to their local communities.

Zoe Betts, who is a judge for the Social Worker of the Year Awards, supports the need to feed the media with positive stories but questions the type of story readers pay more attention to. She explained: "We need to take responsibility for pushing positive stories out there, but the reality is I still don't think it's what the public want to read. We need to allow the public perception to shift a little more first and as it does, the way reporting is done will naturally find a better balance."

For Jo Cleary, Board Chair of The College of Social Work (TCSW), it's important for the media to understand the profession in order to redress what audiences are used to and, therefore, what they will expect: "It is the stories from children, young people and anyone who has experienced positive social work support and their testimonies that really helps the media understand what social workers do. But I do think there is the beginning of a change from some parts of the media as they realise that if they keep demonising social workers, no one will want to become one."

She spoke from her experience: "In representing TCSW, I joined a local radio discussion on the anniversary of Daniel Pelka's death and was impressed that, not only had the station interviewed social workers to find out how this little boy's tragic death had affected them, but the presenter also clearly appreciated how much they cared. There was more of an understanding of the complexity of social work. But getting this message out, which is something TCSW works hard to do, is a bit like painting the Fourth Bridge."

On pride and confidence

In a recent Sanctuary Social Work News interview, Lyn Romeo, Chief Social Worker for Adults, expressed the importance of social workers being proud of what they do. She said: "I don't want people to be ashamed to say they are a social worker. It is important that they feel comfortable being positive about what they do."

Professor Ray Jones believes this is beginning to happen and that the recent air time the profession has received could have something to do with it. He explained: "Social workers have become more confident in speaking about what we do. The 2012 BBC2 Bristol Protecting Our Children series, Coventry's TV programme, the News Night features on children in care and Coventry's programme on social work and adoption, along with the recent Greater Manchester programmes on adoption social work, have all brought home to the audience the challenges and the contribution of social work and social workers. Add to this increasing list, the recent TV series on assisting older people and it might be recognised that social work has had quite a lot of positive and informative air time recently. And we have made the comedy corner on Radio Four with Clare in the Community and with Jo Brand on Sky Arts!"

On continuing to protect the profession

As Professor Ray Jones concluded: "Social work is coming out of the closet, and about time too! And with the Social Worker of the Year Awards, championed by Sanctuary, we can rightly give recognition to each other as well as continuing to build an accurate and informed public profile."

Zoe Betts also remained positive: "We'll get there as we convey more about the variety of work we do and how we achieve it. I think the different social services fields are becoming clearer to the public; people don't instantly presume I work in child protection anymore when I tell them I'm a social worker.

For Professor Jill Manthorpe, the reputation of social work is equally important to uphold amongst those relying on services and the agencies that work alongside social workers. "Social work is constructively critical in approach and this, too, seems valued by service users and other professionals," she said.

On collaborating with the media, Jo Cleary concluded: "We have to keep reminding people that social work is about protecting people from harmful situations and empowering them to live healthy and fulfilling lives, and this is sometimes a very hard job. This is why it is important that social workers maintain a dialogue with media to ensure the portrayal of the profession is balanced and fair."

It is clear there is more to be done to improve the public perception of social work and who better to make sure social work is widely understood than the profession itself? While social workers could become complacent with the progress that has been made, there is a risk that if we don't continue to share the realities of the profession, the media and the general public will define it for us.

Let us know your thoughts on the public perception of social work by leaving a comment below. You may also be interested in our survey report on the public perception and media portrayal of social work. 
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