Want to help change the story of social care? Follow these basic rules

There are things that everyone can do to help change the story of social care.  It just requires a bit of thought.  Here are some basic rules to follow.

People that draw on social care as the heroes in their own story

Given social care is all about people, it’s notable how little people that draw on social care lead the story of social care, which tends instead to centre either on the plight of ‘the social care sector’ or on the people who work in it.  Not only is the displacement of people that draw on social care from the story problematic in terms of our commitment to personalised care or independent living, it’s a huge missed opportunity to foster empathy and connection, to command people’s emotions and values and to communicate the relevance of care and support to everyone’s lives. 

A basic story-telling technique can help change this.  All stories broadly include a hero or protagonist, an adventure or mission, a villain or antagonist,  a mentor or sidekick that helps the hero on their way, some degree of peril, and a happy or sad ending.  When you talk or write about social care, or in the images you use, make sure people that draw on social care are always the protagonist, on a mission to live their lives as they choose to, just like everyone else. Be clear who the ‘villain’ is – it might be government for not investing sufficiently, or it might be a council for commissioning bad services, or for withholding power from people to take control of their own lives.  The mentor or sidekick are all those people and organisations working to support people to achieve their mission.  The peril is that people can’t lead the lives they choose to lead like everyone else can.  The ending is not yet known.  Basic rule: stop positioning the ‘social care sector’ or workers as the hero, and accept your status as best supporting actors. 

Be about creating something good, not making something less bad

Martin Luther King never gave a ‘I have a problem’ speech, yet left no one in any doubt about the evil injustice of racial segregation.  If we want to challenge ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ about older people and disabled people and in turn the potential of social care, we also need to start by setting forth an inspiring, compelling vision for the future. Without it, people have little sense of what is at stake.

The dominant story of social care has trained people to have low expectations. As the Director of Ipsos-Mori, Ben Page, recently pointed out, for most people social care is a ‘distress service’ that they only think about in a moment of crisis. Few have any conception of what it is, what it does, how it works or its broader value. Prior to having a need to engage with it most likely see it as something to avoid if they have thought about it at all. Insofar as their perceptions are being shaped it is overwhelmingly negative, through repeated stories of the need to ‘fix our broken social care system’, ‘end the social care crisis’ or ‘shore up social care.’ These messages are all about ameliorating harms, and they bring to mind shovelling water out of a sinking boat, rather than reaching for the stars. 

At the same time, people that have cause to draw on social care now or in the future are often talked about as growing problem, through metaphors such as ‘the demographic timebomb’ or ‘silver Tsunami’ which suggest an unavoidable catastrophe. When we do this we position social care as a threat, not an opportunity and we risk generating fatalism about the potential for change.  Remember: the fact that we get extra time to live our lives is a good thing, we just need to make sure we can all make the most of it.  Hence we all share an interest in investing together to reap the dividends of our longer lives, and to unlock the gifts and talents of everyone in our society to build a better world together.

So always start by painting a picture of the future you want to help to create and invite people to get behind it and the changes needed to get there. This offers a way to challenge complacency and low expectations about what social care can be and do and to offer a more appealing account of the role it plays, which in turn offers a more powerful way to reveal the inadequacy and injustice of our current system.

Sell the brownie, not the recipe

As the communications expert Anat Shenker-Ostorio reminds us, ‘we sell the brownie, not the recipe.’  Again, stop leading your messages with the problems of ‘the sector’ or ‘providers’ or by talking about the policy, model or approach you deliver or espouse. Separate means from ends in your headline story and always start by painting a picture of the lives that people either are or could lead because of great social care.   For example, don’t start your messages by talking about ‘delivering personalised care.’ Talk about people being able to live in the place they call home, with the people and things that they love, in communities where we look out for one another, doing what matters to them – the life that people should anticipate if personalised care has been delivered.

Invoke the right values

This past year has seen the ‘V’ word on steroids.  We will not achieve the future we want to see if social care is talked and thought of as being about ‘looking after vulnerable people that can’t look after themselves.’  Ditto, ‘looking after the elderly’.  Sometimes we might invoke such thinking inadvertently, for example by talking about people who are ‘in social care’ which paints social care as a destination rather than as a vehicle for pursuing a good life.  All of these ways of talking reinforce stereotypes and prejudices about older and disabled people and in turn about what social care is and does.  But we also have to take care in the way we invoke other values.  For example, if we rely only on promoting individual freedom it can lead people to imagine that people require less support. Or if we focus only on community and interdependence it can raise fears of government ‘offloading.’  That’s why #socialcarefuture’s vision is deliberately calibrated to invoke three interdependent values of self-direction (leading the life we want to lead), reciprocity (caring about and supporting one another) and security and belonging (in the place we call home with the people and the things that we love).   

A larger us, not ‘them and us’

Our research has found that unless people have experience of social care, they rarely imagine it having relevance to them, their family or wider community.  In sum, they imagine it to be for ‘other people’ and the language often used – the vulnerable, the elderly, elderly patients, service users – when talking about social care reinforces this over and over again.  We have so much to learn from other successful social movements here.  For example, in the past campaigns for ‘civil rights to same sex partnerships’ failed to hit the mark, because the language othered LGBT+ people and spoke to ideas that few people commonly associate with getting married.  The campaigns were actively reframed as being for ‘Equal Marriage’, the messages centred on love, commitment and family, and the faces of those campaigns included not only people from the LGBT+ community, but their mums, dads, siblings and grandparents, expressing their desire to see their children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters get married.  By creating a sense of a ‘larger us’ these campaigns helped change laws and ensured countless people can now express their love and commitment to one another and to their communities just like everyone else. Could we pull off a similar shift in relation to social care?  Well, we have a template, and it was called ‘Every Australian Counts’.   That’s why our headline vision addresses everyone.

Social care is the solution, not the problem

Most messaging about social care reform positions social care as the problem – ‘fix social care’ ‘social care crisis’ ‘broken social care system’ – not the solution.  The Joseph Rowntree Foundation started out its reframing poverty work focused on social security, but quickly found that by doing so it risked positioning it as the primary problem and through doing so re-enforcing the very narratives that needed to overcome – that the solution was to make social security tougher for people to access.  Instead it focused on ending poverty, framing it as something that ‘holds people back’, explaining how people are drawn into poverty by ‘strong economic currents’ and other factors, and positioning a well designed social security system as part of the solution, offering people the way to stay afloat. 

Doodle by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

This is how #socialcarefuture’s narrative positions social care: when organised well social care helps bring together the relationships and support that people can draw on to lead the life they want to lead. Crucially, this also explains to a largely unfamiliar public what social care does and how it works when working well.

Follow these 6 basic rules and you’ll find yourself telling a better story about social care that can shift thinking and build support for change. Here is some more guidance and our research into how to build public support to transform social care


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