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News management challenges in social services, the police and schools.

Research project

Public sector organizations are becoming increasingly attentive to how they are perceived by the public. The preoccupation with "reputational risks" may cause organizations to be overly defensive and to neglect their primary tasks. Moreover, there is a tension between organizational self-interest and embracing external scrutiny and critique. The aim of this project is to compare news management in three types of public sector organizations in Sweden: social services, the police and schools. These organizations represent different aspects of news management challenges within the public sector. Research questions: 1) How are relations with media organized? 2) What strategies are applied in relation to media? 3) To what extent do intra-organizational interests take precedence over embracing external scrutiny? 4) To what extent do news management concerns affect ordinary activities and performance within the organization? For each type of organization, three empirical studies are conducted. The first provides an overall description of the local/regional organization of news management. The second study provides an in-depth analysis of concrete news management activities on a day-to-day basis. The third study analyzes reactive aspects of news management by following cases where organizations have been subjected to intense media scrutiny. This project would be the first that compares the application of news management in different fields of the public sector.

Project overview

Project period:

2015-09-28 2016-12-31


The Swedish Research Council, 2012-2014: SEK 4,158,000

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Social Work, Faculty of Social Sciences

Research area

Social work, Sociology

Project description

In recent years, organizations within the public sector have become increasingly attentive to how they are perceived by the public. Partly, this has to do with the concerns about risk that is characteristic of late modern society. In both private and public sectors, the management of various types of risk is becoming more important (Power, 2007). Rothstein et al (2006) have argued that this development has led to an overemphasis on institutional risks – harm to the image of the organization – while societal risks (e.g. failure in organizational performance) have become less important. Power et al (2009) warn that the preoccupation with external auditing and “reputational risk” cause organizations to be overly defensive and attuned to formal procedure, which prevents them from creatively finding new solutions to their first order tasks. Another development that changes the approach to the public is the growth of market solutions within the public sector. This shifts organizational focus towards competition, branding and marketing.

In this context of “audit society” and competition, public sector organizations need to consider how their activities are portrayed in mass media. Hence, professional news management – activities intended to promote positive and prevent negative publicity – play an increasingly important role in the public sector (Larsson, 2005). News management originates from the private sector, where the rationale has been to maximize profit, market value and the interest of the organization (corporation) (Ewen, 1996; Wernick, 1991). For organizations under democratic authority, the ultimate goals are different. The interest of the organization can be defined in terms of creating legitimacy to secure future funding. But there are also democratic and humanitarian values at stake that transcend organizational self-interest. As a result, the goals for news management become different in public as compared to private organizations. In the former, the challenges are about promoting the goals that are set by the citizens and to convey how these are met with in a manner that does not hide problems or obstructs the public’s possibilities to critically observe performance.

Conditions for media relations vary between different types of public sector organizations. This project compares news management activities within three public sector fields: social services, the police and schools. These organizations represent different aspects of news management challenges within the public sector. For example, social service organizations have been subjected to intense media scrutiny in individual cases and media relations are affected by far-reaching secrecy rules. Media are crucial to the police when they want to reach out to the community to solicit help in on-going crime investigations. Today, public schools in Sweden are faced with the competition from private schools which is why promotion on a market becomes essential.
Purpose and aims
The aim of this project is to compare news management in three types of public sector organizations in Sweden – social services, the police and schools.

For each type of organization, the following questions are asked:
1. How are relations with media organized?
2. What strategies are applied in relation to media?
3. To what extent do intra-organizational interests take precedence over embracing external scrutiny?
4. To what extent do news management concerns affect ordinary activities and performance within the organization?

Within this project, we will limit data about the school system to upper secondary school, where the competitive aspects are most salient.
Survey of the field
By and large, news management research has been concerned with the private sector. The challenge in shifting research interests to the public sector is to capture the professionalization of news management in that context, to understand the impact of market mechanisms and to assess to what extent news management leads to concealing real problems.

Generally speaking, news management has become increasingly professionalized during the last couple of decades. In the literature, a number of proactive and reactive strategies have been identified that are applied to achieve favorable publicity. With regards to reactive strategies, Coombs (2007) has analyzed how organizations are designed to cope with crises and describes stages in the crisis communication process: preparation, recognition, response and post-crisis. In the response phase the organization needs to react quickly when faced with critique, act consistently and speak with one voice. It is further crucial to demonstrate openness, i.e. accessibility and willingness to provide correct information. Benoit (1997) has similarly identified five key strategies for crisis communication: denial, evasion of responsibility, reducing the offensiveness of an event, corrective action and mortification. Important proactive strategies are establishing networks among journalists, distributing exclusive information to selected journalists and systematic media training (Allern, 1997; Enbom, 2009). Another strategy is to adapt to the criteria media apply to assess whether a certain event is newsworthy. The potential for a personal angle is one such criterion, and journalists also tend to choose events that occur nearby, that has dramatic features and where it is possible to apply a perspective of “David versus Goliath” (Altheide & Snow, 1979; Galtung & Ruge, 1981). Mass media apply specific techniques to build news stories that catch the attention of the audience, e.g. simplification, personalization, polarization, intensification, visualization, and stereotypification (Strömbäck, 2008). When creating news stories, journalists often draw from a repertoire of stereotypical characters originating from traditional folktales, such as heroes and villains, when they portray participants of news events (Hartz & Steger, 2010).

The research on the relationship between police organizations and the media is quite extensive in a British and an American context. Generelly, these studies indicate that the police is in a relatively good position to promote favourable images of police work (cf. Crandon & Dunne, 1997; Lovell, 2001; Mawby, 1999). This situation stems from the massive media interest in crime, which creates co-dependency between journalists and the police, where the former need to secure access to police officials (Chermak & Weiss, 2005). For the police organizations the professionalization of news management is important to maintain organizational legitimacy (cf. Mawby, 2002). In a number of case studies, Schlesinger and Tumber (1994) have investigated news management among the police and courts. In the context of crime, they identify institutional circumstances that come into play: the interest of media for spectacular crime and how the police risks to be affected by political battles about law and order. They also note how the police monitor media content to be able to respond to critique quickly and also actively attempts to establish networks among journalists. In his study of police-media relations, Mawby (1999) points out that because police work is carried out in public, there is greater risk for mistakes to be observed by others. Crandon and Dunne (1997) have noted how British police apply the language of tabloid papers in press releases and also how they exhibit efficiency by organizing mass arrests on a specific day.

Contrary to the police, no empirical research has been carried out to investigate news management in school or social service organizations. Within the school sector, the development towards market orientation, privatization and managerialism has put issues of measurement of performance and accountability in a new context. Such reforms have placed an increased stress on performance in school (Tolofari, 2005). In recent years, this job has become more visible for the public since it has become more common that results of national tests are made public in newspapers as school league tables both nationally and within municipalities (Lundahl, 2005). Furthermore, the introduction of market principles in education has also made schools more accountable to parents and other community stakeholders. Public schools that exhibit poor performance rates now run the risk of losing pupils to competitors. Based on such premises, it might be argued that impression management strategies – i.e. creating an appealing image to consumers on the educational market – become an important dimension of the management of educational organizations (Symes, 1998). News management is part of such endeavors.

Even if there are no empirical studies of news management within social service organizations, a few of scholars and practitioners have published insights about the topic. Drawing on anecdotes from practitioners, Reid and Misener (1991), as well as Franklin and Parton (1990), discuss possible news management strategies applied to social work: networking with key journalists, the distribution of information “off the record”, initiating feature stories that provide a more nuanced picture of social work practice and arranging seminars for journalists. In the context of her research about news reports on social work in Great Britain, Aldridge (1990) has discussed social workers’ relations to mass media. She highlights two themes: experiences of being exposed to media coverage and ideas about how the social work profession can find more functional approaches to media relations. She contends that social workers in general are naïve in relation to the media; that they are unable to distinguish between different kinds of media and understand the commercial conditions and other organizational frames under which journalists operate. Aldridge (1990) suggests building relations with particularly local journalists and proactively promoting positive news stories and concludes that there is a need for educating social workers about the ways in which journalists work and the organizational context of the media.

The project proposed here aims to explore if and how established methods for news management have been incorporated in Swedish public sector organizations and how they have been adapted to their specific organizational contexts while embracing the democratic value of persistent scrutiny from media.

Project description

Theoretical framework
A given public sector organization is part of a larger system, which means that it cannot be studied separate from that context. We draw on institutionalist theories that stress how organizations are always dependent on their environment to continue to exist (Scott, 2008). Human service organizations like social services and the school are perceived as particularly dependent on their environment. This means that credibility and legitimacy are particularly vital to secure future societal, political, and financial support (Hasenfeld, 2010). In other words, they are particularly vulnerable to “reputational risk”.

The expectations of accountability are high on public sector organization – the citizenship as “principal” has a legitimate right to hold the public sector “agent” accountable and demand that the latter openly displays and explains its actions (Lewin, 2007). The accountability of the agent is often seen as one of the most important means to avoid corruption within public administration. According to Gregory (2003) the demands for accountability are higher when the agent has a monopoly in its domain, but also when the agent has a high level of discretion in decision-making. Given its advantage of information, the agent is able to act strategically to present itself as credible and thereby secure further legitimacy. In this context, Kearns (2003) makes a distinction between reactive and proactive strategies, where the first is about reacting swiftly and concisely faced with critique, whereas the second concerns influencing the agenda of public debate in issues that are relevant for the organization. With regards to so-called street-level bureaucracies with high discretion in decision-making for professionals, the expectations on accountability are not limited to the political leadership, but transcends to professional groups and management (Hupe & Hill, 2007).

When it comes to news management, we have identified three types of institutional conditions that are particularly vital for public sector organizations:
1) Organizational conditions
2) Conditions related to information control
3) Conditions related to the nature of tasks and activities

Even if such conditions vary between different areas within an organization – e.g. within social services between branches responsible for supporting families and individuals with financial or other social problems (“Individ- och familjeomsorg”) and branches responsible for the delivery of social care and housing for the elderly and disabled – our ambition is to discuss general patterns. In the following, we will discuss conjectures about differences in institutional conditions between the three types of organizations the project studies

One organizational condition is the relation between administrative management and political leadership. Here, Swedish social service organizations stand out in the way in which the executive responsibility lies under a political body – the municipal social welfare board. This means that many formal decisions about individual cases – e.g. regarding adoption, licensing restaurants to serve alcohol and coercive intervention in child protection or drug/alcohol abuse cases – are made directly by lay politicians. On the other side of the spectrum, the police operates under limited direct influence from politics, whereas schools are governed by a political board on municipal level that largely makes strategic decisions about budget, organization and policies. Another organizational condition is the extent to which an organization is subjected to competition from other service providers. In this respect, especially the upper secondary school sector has become a market for competition between public and private schools. Private competition is considerable in some parts of social services, e.g. within social care and housing for the elderly. There is less competition within the domains of the police.

With regards to conditions about information control, public sector organizations are obliged to abiding to secrecy rules. However, such rules seem to carry more consequences in social services, where there is a strong secrecy culture. Secrecy rules also prevent public organizations to fully explain the rationale for actions in individual cases, something that appears most problematic for social services. Public sector organization are also affected by the broad constitutional right for public officials to forward information to journalists (meddelarfrihet) and the constitutional right for journalists as well as the general public in Sweden to access any public documents that are not specifically classified as secret (offentlighetsprincipen). Such rules, together with labor laws that strongly protect employees from being acquitted, create a fertile potential for whistle-blowing, i.e. for employees to call out about ill-doings within the organization (Hedin, Månsson, & Tikkanen, 2008). A third condition related to information control is the visibility of organizational action. The extreme here is the police, who often operates under direct observation from the public. The secrecy culture of social services implies little visibility for outsiders, while schools are slightly more open for outside observation, particularly from parents. The recent development of social media will change information control conditions further.

Among conditions related to the nature of work, our three organizational fields are somewhat different in complexity and perception of goals. Evaluating goals appears relatively straightforward in individual cases in policing, although it is possible to discuss how to increase efficiency on an organizational level. In social work, it is often more difficult to identify what the problem is, which also means that the evaluation of interventions becomes more ambiguous. In the school sector, grades are a universally accepted, although somewhat contested, means to evaluate students’ progress and indirectly the performance of individual teachers and schools. Another way in which the nature of work influences news management is the newsworthiness of a field. Police work has obvious dramatic qualities and therefore has a high appeal for the media. In a few individual cases, the same can be true for social services. The main news appeal for the school is its broad impact on many citizens (pupils and parents).

Although they share many institutional traits as public sector organizations, social services, the police and schools also operate under different institutional conditions that affect news management. Comparing the three will potentially enhance our understanding of different approaches to news management within the public sector and the further effects on ordinary activities and performance.
Methodological considerations
The aim of the project is addressed through three empirical studies that compare different aspects of news management among social services, the police and schools. The first study provides an overall description of the local/regional organization of news management. The second study provides an in-depth analysis of concrete news management activities on a day-to-day basis. The third study analyzes reactive aspects of news management by following cases where organizations have been subjected to intense media scrutiny. The ambition is to achieve comparable samples even though sampling procedures between fields are different due to variations in organizational patterns.

Study 1: Overall patterns in the organization of news management
Survey with questions on an organizational level: communication policies, responsibilities and routines for media relations, media monitoring, contacts with journalists, press conferences, etc. Surveys are completed by the person responsible for communication/public relations at each organization, alternatively the head of administration.
Social services: A stratified randomized sample of municipal social service organizations (n=100) (cf. Bergmark & Lundström, 2005).
Police: All regional police districts in Sweden are included (N=21).
School: A stratified randomized sample of municipal upper secondary school administrations (gymnasieförvaltningar) (n=100). Same municipalities as in the social service sample.

Study 2: News management in everyday practice
For each organizational field, data are collected from the same two venues: a municipality from a metropolitan area and one medium-sized municipality (about 100.000 inhabitants). Preliminary contacts have been established at one venue. For each venue, three types of data are collected.
a) Interviews with key informants (in each venue, about 8-10 interviews for each of our three organization types). Head of administration, head of communications, directors of main branches, chairman and vice chairman of political board and a couple of journalists. These interviews are structured and questions are similar to those in the survey, but focusing on news management strategies and probing to gain deeper understanding of the rationale behind actions.
b) Focus group interviews with staff (in each venue, two groups with 6-8 interviewees for each organization type). One focus group involves staff with field- and client-oriented duties (e.g. social workers/police officers/teachers), the other focus group involves staff with managing duties. Strategic sample of staff from different intra-organizational branches within each focus group. Discussions about examples from participants’ own experiences or, if necessary, hypothetical examples introduced by the interviewer.
c) Communication/information policies. Within each local/regional organization and, when relevant, policies on higher administrative levels.

Study 3: Crisis and reactive news management
One case from each organization type that has caught intensive media coverage will be followed retrospectively. Cases are selected among all Swedish organizations within each field. The cases will be selected based on similarities in intensity of media coverage and similarity in the type of problems under discussion (e.g. neglect to intervene to protect individuals).
a) Interviews with key participants (about 10 per case). Head of administrations, head of communications, chairman and vice chairman of the political boards, practitioners involved in the case (e.g. social workers/police officers/teachers) and journalists who have covered the events. Questions about actions, reasoning and feelings during the events and also perceptions of being subjected to media scrutiny.
b) Documents and case records about the case within each organization, as well as relevant policy documents.

Analysis of data
Both quantitative data from study 1 and qualitative data from studies 2 and 3 are analyzed with similar concepts: relations with media, proactive/reactive media strategies, organizational interest/embracing outside scrutiny, effects on ordinary activities and performance. Results are interpreted in light of the three types of institutional conditions (organizational, information control and the nature of tasks and activities).

Study 1: descriptive statistical analysis of the survey, comparing organizational fields.
Study 2 (a): thematic content analysis, focus on policy and strategy, contrastive comparisons between groups of interviewees.
Study 2 (b): thematic content analysis, focus on practice, contrastive comparisons between organizational fields and types of duties.
Study 2 (c): used as background to provide context for interviews.
Study 3 (a): thematic content analysis, contrastive comparisons between groups of interviewees.
Study 3 (b): used as background to provide context for interviews.

Ethical considerations
Informed consent and anonymity is applied in the project. Study 3 requires particular care with regards to citizens (e.g. social welfare recipients/crime victims/pupils) who might have been exploited in the media and whose identity might be known to many outsiders. We will ask such persons for written permission to access case files and allowing professionals to talk about their case. We will also refrain from publishing sensitive information that could be traced to such individuals. An application for ethical assessment will be submitted to the regional ethical review board.

Study 1: Data collection completed.
Study 2: Selection of venues and establishing persmission, data collection initiated.
Study 3: Search for cases begins.

Study 1: Statistical analysis completed, article completed.
Study 2: Data collection completed, analysis initiated.
Study 3: Data collection initiated.

Study 2: Interpretation and writing articles.
Study 3: Completion of data collection, analysis and writing articles.
Preliminary results
We have scanned articles in trade journals such as Socionomen to form a preliminary impression of perspectives on media relations within the profession of social work and also studied documentation from a project about “achieving a more complete picture in media” within the social service organization in Göteborg. In addition, we have interviewed the head of communication of one large social service organization and one police officer with broad experience. These preliminary investigations indicate that there is a development towards more sophisticated strategies with regards to media relations. Although the primary concern seems to be to protect the “brand” of the organization or profession, professionals appear aware of the value of embracing scrutiny from media and the public’s right to information.

Budget and part of project cost

Salaries and staff
Stefan Sjöström is associate professor in social work and previously senior lecturer in media and communication studies. He is director of the project and will be active in planning, analysis and writing. Jesper Enbom is senior lecturer in strategic communication within media and communication studies. He will be active in all parts of the project, including data collection (interviews). Cia Lehikoinen is a PhD student in media and communication studies and will conduct the main part of data collection relating to schools (funded by Umeå University). Staffan Johansson is associate professor in social work specializing in management and organization in welfare organizations. His primary role lies in theory development and writing. Joakim Isaksson is senior lecturer in social work specializing in the school sector and contributes with his expertise within that field. Erik Borglund is senior lecturer in archival and information science and has long experience from police work.

The budget contains standard items for a research project (costs for conferences, data collection, language editing, etc.). The research assistant will not be able to carry out all transcriptions, which is why we need external help for that task.

Part of project cost
In addition to the engagement of researchers who are funded directly through the project, Jesper Enbom and Stefan Sjöström will allot an additional ten percent of their time to this project (kompetensutvecklingstid). Cia Lehikoinen will conduct data collection and analysis regarding school-related data with funding from Umeå University – she will contribute with about 6 work-months per year to the project. The additional contribution of Umeå university is estimated to about 747.000:- over three years.

Other grants
Stefan Sjöström is currently directing three projects that have no immediate relevance for this proposal. Proposals similar to this one are pending decisions from FAS and RJ. We have submitted an application in response the Swedish Research Council’s “Democracy and public administration” call with a similar theoretical approach as in this proposal, in which analysis is limited to the social services field. We also intend to respond to the Educational science call by submitting a proposal regarding news management in the school sector.

The project addresses an emerging key issue regarding the relation between public organizations and the citizens, namely the increasing concerns about reputational risk. Our contribution is to analyze how three types of public sector organization respond to such concerns in their news management work. The issues at stake relate to the risk that organizational self-interest takes precedence over the duty to embrace external scrutiny and also have negative effects on ordinary activities and performance. Findings about the organizations selected in this project are relevant for other public sector organizations such as health care, the military, state authorities, etc. Ultimately, these issues are fundamental to understanding the functioning of a modern welfare state.


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Latest update: 2018-07-03