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American Public Human Services Association
American Public Human Services Association


Public child welfare is frequently an unknown quantity to the general public, or, at worst, painted only by high profile cases that reflect but a small part of a larger, more complicated picture. In all agencies, large or small, the dedicated communications function (Communications), whether lodged in a part of one person’s work or centered in a full public affairs office, needs to connect strategically the mission, vision and values of the public child welfare agency and the operations of that agency as reflected in its model of practice. The communications strategy shines a light on that work and makes it understandable, placing public child welfare within the context of a larger human services system. It also positions the agency to become more open and accessible as it establishes, whenever possible, effective two-way communicative channels with those it serves and with its stakeholders. Absent such a clearly articulated, agency-initiated communications strategy, others define the public child welfare agency. In a public agency with solid leadership and a clear vision, an effective communications strategy portrays a confident, reasoned and purposeful agency, secure in its mission, explicit in its operations and ethically working within the legal boundaries of a larger child and family serving system. This attracts both public and private investment that in turn optimizes services to children, youth and families.

A secondary, but important role for Communications is in keeping the agency message in front of the workforce, providing assistance in keeping workers, managers, directors and frontline staff “on message” in the way the agency deals with its stakeholders and most especially with those it serves. Internally, Communications must not become the shield to hide bad practice, but more the mirror that reflects that practice so that it can be examined and continuously improved. This function is intrinsically tied to the research and practice model domains and, as above, is highly dependent on and complementary to, the leadership qualities of the executive and the competencies of the workforce. Communications reinforces the values and mission of the agency throughout the workforce. It fosters an environment where staff input is actively solicited and opinions regarding ways to improve agency performance are encouraged. This attracts talent to the agency and supports staff retention that, in turn, improves service delivery.

This Guidance Provides Answers to These and Other Questions:

  • Why creating a "master" strategic communications plan is important for a public child welfare organization?
  • How to develop a strategic communications plan?
  • Why and how to develop a "single issue" communications plan?
  • Why and how to develop a "crisis" communications plan?
  • Why and how to develop a “disaster” communications plan?
  • What are the venues, tools and approaches that will enhance the agency’s communications?
  • What strategies are used to reach specific audiences?
  • How do embed communications in an agency?
  • How to craft a message and when and how to communicate that message?

Why Is This Critical Area Important to the Field of Public Child Welfare?

Externally, Communications is a tool to receive public feedback and to respond to inquiries and crises, but also a proactive, continuously evolving effort to mold and inform the public view of the agency. It mobilizes public support and defines the work of the agency as a necessary and essential function in society. Among the ways this is achieved:
  • Proactive communication builds support for public child welfare work among various audiences, including youth and families, the general public and policy makers. This positively influences public opinion of the agency and affects public policy decisions made about the agency.
  • Effective communication educates the public and other stakeholders about the roles, responsibilities, values and legal boundaries of public child welfare. This promotes public confidence in the field as a whole and in work of the agency, increasing both attention to the messages from the agency and increasing the willingness of the general public to invest in the agency and refer to it for help. It also increases the appropriateness of referrals made to the agency.
  • Communications informs the media and the public during crises, in high profile cases and other situations that become newsworthy. Rather than hiding behind a privacy shield, effective management of these crises is displayed through a ready plan for dealing with the emergency, providing an authoritative and respected voice for explaining what has or is happening and sharing legally permissible information to demonstrate transparency in order to promote confidence.
  • Communication supports the leadership of the public child welfare agency in promoting and reporting on strategic goals. This may support the continuity of leadership in public child welfare agencies, or sustain program vision and goals during times of transition.
  • As part of the agency’s strategic plan, Communications assumes direct responsibilities for the agency’ public relations and public awareness efforts. These campaigns may focus on prevention strategies (e.g., safe sleeping tips with infants, child abuse prevention efforts) or recruitment strategies (e.g., for foster care and adoptive parents).
  • Where contracted services are used, Communications is also a vehicle for providing context for service providers so that they stay aligned with agency mission and principles and can respond, nimbly, to changing service needs and requirements. Communications can also enhance two-way communications flow between the public agency and service providers, resulting in strengthened relationships and better outcomes for those served.
Internally, Communications can be an important adjunct in aligning the disparate work of the agency under the umbrella of the mission, vision and values. This is especially true where overarching values need to be reinforced (e.g., achieving similar outcomes for all children, regardless of culture, race or ethnicity). In addition, program areas and discrete support functions may not always see areas of common interest. Communications is one vehicle for defining common ground and creating alignment.
  • Communications builds morale among those who work in public child welfare. Effective two-way communications strategies keep staff involved and aware of progress the agency is making toward achieving outcomes. This promotes greater engagement in those outcomes and strengthens connections between line staff and leadership.
  • Expected and sustained communication positions the agency to better respond to and proactively influence staff opinion about public child welfare. This, in turn, affects staff interaction with clients and may affect public and stakeholder opinion of the public agency.

How Will Outcomes Be Achieved For and With Children, Youth and Families?

  • The public will be better informed and educated about the needs of children and families, the agency will gain community support, therefore providing better services to children, youth and families.
  • Effective communication will increase staff morale and improve the quality of work.
  • Communication can even engage the community on an emotional level, clarifying the limits of public authority and responsibility. The community can recognize a range of supportive actions (e.g., donations, volunteer work, etc.) that extend the reach of the agency and enhance community safety and the well-being of children, youth and families in the community. Effective communication leads to less child abuse and greater permanency and stability for children.
  • Effective communication will help build public support and increase resources for children, youth and families:
    • Parents, youth and children learn there are resources when they are in trouble.
    • Community members learn to recognize the signs of both abuse and neglect and become more accountable for reporting it. They will recognize the signs of it and know how to seek help.
    • More people step forward to become volunteers, mentors and foster and adoptive parents, providing a safe place for children and youth.

Karen Blumen, Deputy Director for the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, and Larry Brown, a former Child Welfare Director of New York and currently a consultant, shares a dialogue on the creation of the Communications Guidance.