Friday, October 24, 2008

Public stories, private lives

The Walkley Magazine
October  2008


Moving from journalism into public relations in the welfare sector, has put me on the other side of stories and more aware of a minefield of ethical and privacy issues.

I owe a debt to those advocates who moved mountains, and fast, to find people with personal stories who made my copy come to life.

I can now appreciate the minefields those people have to navigate. Now I’m the one fielding calls from impatient reporters wanting a case study when a deadline is looming.



In the digital age where it seems everyone is seeking their 15 megabytes of fame, where everyone wants to participate and be recognised now, it’s easy to forget that there are ethical and privacy issues that can and should determine the way someone tells their story.

Anglicare is an organisation that helps people who are often disenfranchised, angry or depressed because systems and people have let them down. While telling a client’s story may be good for the public’s understanding and build the client’s confidence, one must ensure a vulnerable person is not left feeling more vulnerable by the interview process and the publication of a story.

Those we assist are often so grateful for the service we offer that they often feel obligated to speak to the media. They worry that their assistance will stop if they don’t talk to reporters. Non-profit organisations need to navigate those issues and ensure clients are not under additional pressure to perform for the cameras. My job is to ensure they know that there are no strings attached.

The thing about public affairs is that you have to have a double brain. One on hand my journo brain tells me ‘all publicity is good publicity’, that journalists do have a social conscience and that the client will have a new and positive experience that should validate his or her story.

Telling that story may result in boosting the person’s human dignity, and could even improve her situation. It could also bolster the credibility of an agency that works to improve systems for social justice. But my more cautious PR brain is concerned for the long term welfare of the client. That part of me worries about what could go wrong.

Clients or service users are often dealing with multiple issues including family breakdown, domestic violence and cases before the courts. The PR part of my brain thinks about who’s reading the newspaper, watching the box or listening to the radio. Will the message reach key audiences, be they government funders and decision makers or will the story reach the wrong audience; litigants and people able to identify and shame the client?

On the other hand, I am conscious of the reporter’s world. That means meeting reporters’ deadlines, not your own. But what is a reporter’s deadline compared with say, a client’s long wait for public housing or mental health counselling. Perspective is everything.

I had an unusual request from a local reporter to spend a week in one of the agency’s youth refuges. The reporter wanted to be a ‘fly on the wall’ for a documentary-style feature. My journo brain could instantly see the potential benefits, but my colleagues quickly pulled the brakes on the idea.

The refuge is government funded. What are the ethics of a reporter sleeping in a publicly funded bed, given there are few vacancies for young people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

My organisation has a duty of care to clients, staff and the reporter. Could the journalist escalate an already volatile situation involving a distressed person arriving off the street late at night? Can a young person in emergency accommodation (who may already feel outside of their comfort zone) give consent to an interview or have the capacity to answer questions, even if asked gently? A young person fleeing violence at home may also fret about being identified by family and friends and his community.

The dilemma is heightened when the person is under the age of 18. Young people may have less discretion; be unable to appreciate the long term implications of talking to the media and being photographed.

While media outlets consider new regulatory and practical issues around privacy in the digital age, public relations and advocacy workers are having to consider fundamental tests to protect society’s most isolated and vulnerable.

Ahead of Mother’s Day this year a regional newspaper sought a case study of a foster carer. It was a good opportunity to showcase the valuable role of carers at a time of critical national shortage. The agency offered a case study but staff stressed with the reporter the importance of not identifying the child, especially in a country town where residents are more likely to know each other.

The photograph taken focussed on the carer, a smiling grandparent of seven children. The foster child was also in the image but with her back to us. Nonetheless, the birth parents, living in the same region, recognised their child in the story and contacted the agency because they were distressed by it. The article and photograph raised multiple issues for them, namely that they are ‘bad’ parents with a child portrayed as having come a long way with ‘good’ parents.

The lesson is that, try as we might to be cautious and responsible, welfare agencies can’t always please everyone.