Telling a different story to win public support for reform and investment in social care

by Neil Crowther for #socialcarefuture

One of the first posts we published on the #socialcarefuture blog advocated that we sought to change the way that social care was communicated by advocates, talked about in the media and politics and understood by the public.   That post gained considerable interest and with the support of Dimensions, the Voluntary Organisations Disability Group and CVT we were able to commission seminal research into media discourse and public thinking on social care, which was presented and discussed at an event on June 4. Below we talk about that work and what might come next.

Public thinking is increasingly recognised as a major enabler or inhibitor to progressive change, bringing the question of how to reach and influence public thinking centre-stage in campaigns for policy and legislative reform. Most notably in recent times, successful campaigns in the UK, Ireland and Australia for Equal Marriage have succeeded at least in part by consciously reframing the debate in terms of love, commitment and family, rather than the ‘civil rights’ of gay people. Organisations including the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Crisis are among others that are now employing reframing at the heart of their strategies for legislative reform and social change, striving to change the way the public hears stories of poverty and homelessness respectively.  Abigail Scott Paul from JRF spoke about their work at our event on 4 June and  Julia Unwin, previously Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and presently Chair of the Independent Review into the Future of Civil Society, who kindly chaired our event on 4 June, writes here about her journey from framing sceptic to framing advocate.

Efforts by successive governments to reform how social care functions and the means by which it is funded have been continually thwarted by unsupportive public thinking, itself shaped by media and political framing. At a time of the worst cuts in living memory, changes in policy concerning payment of the living wage and the disproportionate effects of this on social care, it’s quite understandable that the language of crisis is used by organisations desperate to persuade government to put money in. However, research in other fields has found such ‘crisis messaging’ can encourage fatalistic thinking, an impediment to securing and maintaining public support for change. The intended impact of such messaging to secure public thinking that ‘something must be done’ can very quickly deliver the unintended impact of the public thinking ‘nothing can be done.’

In the research commissioned for #socialcarefuture, media discourse concerning social care was shown to focus primarily on the perceived ‘crisis’ of ‘spiralling’ ‘costs’ associated with rising demand from an ageing society.  The meeting of these costs is often presented as a threat to people’s security, especially their home and their ability to pass on wealth to their children and grandchildren, captured in phrases such as the ‘death tax.’ The failure to do so is presented as a crisis for the NHS, in particular through so called ‘bed blocking.’ Working age disabled people were largely invisible in the discourse, save under the broad category of ‘vulnerable people.’ Words such as independence or personalisation did not appear at all. Among over 5500 print media articles reviewed, social care was connected to disabled people and employment on only five occasions.   Reflecting media discourse, a series of on-the-street interviews with members of the public conducted by the Frameworks Institute found people conceived of social care in highly paternalistic terms, there to ‘look after vulnerable people who can’t look after themselves’, with no reference to social care supporting people to be in control of their own lives or to contribute to their communities. Most mentioned its ‘cost’, with some suggesting it was a potentially insurmountable problem and others describing it as a ‘broken’ system. More positively, this latter research did find that people felt such support to be something that was a marker of a decent society and of our mutual obligations to one another, suggesting that there are moral foundations on which to build a new narrative.

Tamsyn Hyatt from the Frameworks Institute blogs for us about their research into public thinking on social care here

Karen Kinloch, Elena Semino and Paul Baker from the Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science, and Department of Linguistics and English Language, Lancaster University blog for us about their research into the way social care is discussed in the print media here.

Crucially, where campaigns to end poverty or homelessness, or to promote more receptive attitudes to migration, for example, have had to face down hostile opposition narratives, a great deal of the media, political and public narrative surrounding social care appears to correspond strongly with the messages being disseminated by its advocates – in particular that social care is in a state of crisis. That is to say, the sector already has considerable control over the narrative, but the narrative may not be serving the long-term interests of the sector or those who require care and support now and in the future.   Changing the narrative may be a complex challenge, but there appears to be a fairly open goal to do so right now if the sector wishes to because it controls much of what the media says and the public consequently thinks about social care.   Alex Fox, Chief Executive of Shared Lives Plus, Vice Chair of Think Local, Act Personal and Chair of the Joint VCSE Review writes here about why he believes its time to change the story of social care.

The research carried out so far has helped confirm how the story is presently being told and how it is influencing public thinking. Telling a different story requires further audience research, messaging development, testing and implementation. The goal of any such project will be to equip advocates for change with an empirically-tested narrative and set of message to use when talking about ‘social care’ that are demonstrably able to foster productive public thinking and to command public support for change in alignment with the goals of the sector, in particular to ensure sufficient resources are committed to deliver adequate levels of personalised, integrated and community-based support for participation and wellbeing.   A project proposal, setting out in detail the steps involved can be found here: repositioning-the-social-care-debate-e28093-project-proposal1

If you are interested in being involved and/or supporting such a project don’t hesitate to get in touch via

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  1. How true that the language of crisis leads to fatalistic thinking. I happened to see 24 Hours in A&E last night. 2 nurses treating an 85 year old man are shown saying to each other “it’s good that we can help him. What are we going to do when we are old and the NHS is no longer here for us?” The narrative needs to be about what support enables people to do


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