The BBC airs its new three-part drama, Public Enemies, about the relationship between a probation officer and a newly released murderer next Tuesday – Thursday 3- 5 January. It provides a great opportunity for probation trusts to communicate to the general public just exactly what it is the probation service does.
I have written previously about how rarely the probation service is featured in film and TV in stark contrast to the police, prison, and court services, not forgetting the ubiquitous Crime Scene Investigators. This lack of exposure is compounded by the fact that although the probation service is pivotal to the criminal justice system, it is by far the smallest service and spends little on public relations. Indeed, most probation trusts have one person PR departments, with some sharing staff across trust boundaries and two trusts with no outward facing communications staff at all (information from a survey conducted by @gmptprobationPR in Autumn 2011).
Most members of the general public have little or no idea what probation officers do, with the occasional exception of community payback. Now, CP is a key component of the probation service’s work and makes for good PR since it contains elements of both punishment and reparation. A number of probation trusts are becoming increasingly adept at publicising this area of work, especially those who have started to develop their use of social media, albeit in the face of the constraints imposed by their central IT system:
Annually we carry out 275,000 hours of Community Payback in Kent. At national min wage, this is worth 1.5 million pounds to the local area.
— Collette Jarvis (@Col_Jarvis) December 22, 2011
Offenders on Community Payback are working with HMP Preston to deliver a new Community Engagement Centre bit.ly/vHFlPG
— Lancashire Probation (@LancsProbation) December 23, 2011
Public Enemies is written by Tony Marchant, and features the story of 28 year old Eddie (Daniel Mays) who is released from prison after serving ten years for murder. He attempts to settle back into his old community – a community that doesn’t want him. One of the few people he can talk to is his probation officer, Paula (Anna Friel), a woman who’s only recently come back to work after a suspension: one of her offenders murdered again while under her supervision.
The tagline for the final episode is:
“Paula must decide whether she is willing to put everything on the line to help Eddie.”
So, it is not hard to imagine that Ms Friel may not always adhere to national standards nor always make the most professional of judgments.
But, however the drama unfolds, it will raise the profile of the probation service nationally, if only briefly. It presents a real opportunity for probation trusts to counter that most pernicious and long-standing myth about probation officers – that they are soft on crime. There could hardly be a better vehicle to discuss public protection and risk management than the scenario highlighted in Public Enemies – the supervision of a released murderer. Several hundred of the more than 8,000 individuals currently serving life sentences are released every year – and all of them are supervised by the probation service.
In addition to all the usual interviews, phone-in appearances and articles in local papers, Public Enemies provides a real opportunity for those trusts who have started to develop online content to make contact with a new audience and drive them to this content. Although only 13 of 35 probation trusts have a Twitter presence – see here for a list, an increasing number of trusts have set up Facebook pages and developed YouTube content. Recently, the Ministry of Justice launched a very well thought out and designed interactive guide to the probation service which lets interested members of the public play the role of probation officers, interviewing “offenders” and making recommendations to the court.
The beauty of this online content is that it is permanent, lasting much longer than the three days of a mini-series or an interview in the local paper. While prime-time TV series featuring the probation service may come along once a decade, there are hundreds of other media opportunities on which to piggy-back stories of the redemptive power of probation officers – from prison and crime statistics, to party political conferences and speeches, to, remarkably regular, Daily Mail leader articles.
Surrey and Sussex Probation Trust has just redesigned its website to be social media friendly so that not only is it more welcoming and attractive to stakeholders, offenders and members of the public but it makes the sharing of information and articles by Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and e-mail just a click away.
It’s about time that the probation service made it clear that, far from being the public’s enemy, it is their friend and protector.