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All through human history and across different cultures, some of the most persistent stories concern the triumph of the under-dog; David against Goliath (one of the most popular tales of both the Bible and the Qur’an), the 300 Spartans facing the might of Xerxes’ army at Thermopylae, through to the  Seven Samurai and Magnificent Seven defending their villages from warlords and bandits.

Probation trusts see themselves pretty much as underdogs at the moment, needing to defend themselves against much larger, more powerful foes. No-one knows to what extent the work of the probation service will be put out to tender, but the first competition for community payback is underway and there are plans to outsource “approved premises”, as probation hostels are known, and domestic violence work. The joint Ministry of Justice/NOMS review of the probation service promised (but unlikely to be delivered) before the end of the year should clarify how much of the service’s current operations may be opened up to private and voluntary sector competition.

Probation trusts will need to defend themselves against some pretty big beasts with multi-national private organisations, such as Serco, Sodexo, and G4S, circling and a number of large voluntary organisations also taking a keen interest. Indeed, in the recently published transcript of the “Administering justice by results” Roundtable discussion hosted by @reformthinktank, a senior manager from the @weareHomeGroup praised the Government’s approach to payment by results, stating that the MoJ had a great opportunity to be a “real market-maker”.

Probation trusts are not used to operating in a competitive environment, and are suffering from one key challenge in particular – most members of the public, and indeed many of their own stakeholders, are not clear what the probation service actually does, nor how effective it is at tackling re-offending and protecting the public.

In order to defend their area of operation, probation trusts need to build confidence in their work among their key stakeholders and the public at large. They do not have the marketing and PR resources of the giant corporations but there may be an opportunity to develop their own slingshot. The strategic use of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn can get the stories of probation’s successful work out to a much larger audience.

Like the humble slingshot, social media is a small, inexpensive weapon which can be utilised most effectively by those who are nimble and quick on their feet.

The Philistines laughed as David made his way out from the Israeli army to face their champion, Goliath; all they saw was an under-sized shepherd boy ranged against a man-mountain. Like many of the mighty throughout history; they failed to appreciate the challenge he presented; they overlooked his faith in his God, the ready supply of missiles lying at his feet and the fact that his work as a shepherd had given him the opportunity to become a crackshot with his sling, driving off wolves from his flock.

As probation trusts look to defend their areas of work, they too have hidden qualities. They have faith in their ability to protect the public and reduce re-offending, evidenced in hundreds of schemes and interventions across the country. They have literally thousands of pieces of ammunition in the countless tales of individual redemption,  the human interest stories on which both online and traditional media thrive.

What lets probation trusts down at the moment is the quality of their slingshots. The NOMS central IT contract prevents them from accessing most online resources. Probation trusts can access very few sites on the Internet either from their computers or the BlackBerry phones their managers use for secure e-mail. Any web page with a link to a Facebook page is immediately off limits. Most trusts have only one standalone computer that is able to access the Internet, normally situated on the Communications/PR officer’s desk. This lack of online access makes the jobs of many probation managers so difficult that an increasing number are “choosing” to invest in their own tablets or laptops to circumvent the problem.

The latest problem for long-suffering probation trusts is that those who have migrated to the new National Data Centre can no longer access PDF files – essentially all policy, practice and research on the Internet.

Because their slingshots are no good, most probation trusts have not had the chance to practice their social media skills. There are only 31 Tweeters representing a dozen probation trusts on my twitter list. Trusts have been forced for so long to conduct their communications internally via their intranets, that many are not aware of the potential of social media which has been so comprehensively embraced by their colleagues in the police service and by private and voluntary sector organisations generally.

Probation trusts urgently need to increase general knowledge of their work and how effective it is if they wish to defend their traditional areas of operation. Of course, the future will bring a different way of working with private and voluntary sector partners, but a probation trust that is well understood and respected by its local stakeholders and communities will always have a central part to play in the criminal justice system.

I think that social media will be key to helping probation trusts to build public confidence. But probation trusts need two things to happen for them to be able to use social media effectively:

  1. NOMS to change the central IT contract or cut probation trusts loose to make their own arrangements and
  2. Good quality training on a strategic approach to the use of social media.
Effective social media work is evolving all the time and best practice requires a strategic approach which focuses on targeting key stakeholders and getting the probation service’s message out to a much wider audience. Many Trusts have highly skilled communications and PR staff who work hard at getting stories in the local press where they are seen or listened to by small numbers of people. By developing an online audience, these messages can reach many thousands more with only a small, if precise, investment of time and effort. There are also a number of online strategies and techniques which make it relatively cheap and easy to measure the impact of these messages and any rise in public confidence.


For details of the social media consultancy, advice and training work that Russell provides to a number of probation trusts and voluntary sector organisations, click here.


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