In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: What DCF is good at: spin

A few dead kids aside, 2013 has been a winning year for the Florida Department of Children and Families. DCF walked away with this year’s coveted “Award of Distinction” from the Tallahassee chapter of the Florida Public Relations Association.

Whatever critics say about Florida’s child welfare agency, there’s no denying that paramount skill: DCF knows how to spin.

When it comes to extracting children from dangerous environments, well, that hasn’t gone so well lately.

But that’s exactly why DCF maintains a small army of communications directors, along with a communications manager, a public information officer, a media relations specialist, a press secretary, a social media specialist, a chief marketing officer, a couple of web geeks and a video guy. So when some newspaper like the Miami Herald becomes all obsessed over a spurt of bad publicity, like four child deaths in the last two months, DCF can remind Floridians that most children looked after by DCF, in fact, survive the experience.

When the Herald published a critical editorial on July 2, DCF’s communication director (one of them anyway) flashed back with a rebuttal published July 5, complaining about “baseless assertions.”

In the world of PR, things are always looking up. The flack insisted DCF is “committed to transforming the child welfare system and putting new, proven investigative techniques in place that will keep more children safe.” Meanwhile the agency’s tweeter-in-chief tells us, “#DCF trains 5,000+ staffers under new system that emphasizes safety and consistency.”

Obviously DCF’s image had been in need of refurbishing. Agency failures led to the infamous killings of five-year-old Rilya Wilson a dozen years ago, and 10-year-old Nubia Barahona in 2011, along with storms of public criticism.

But now there’s a notable agency success to report. The Florida PR association’s Capital Chapter voted to give DCF the “Image Award of Distinction and Judges’ Award” for an entry celebrating a masterful public relations effort: last year’s “rebranding” effort. FPRA noted, “The rebranding included a logo, website, social media and media relations to promote a family-friendly brand.”

The agency also picked up an “image award” for an annual review that celebrated, among other endeavors, DCF’s “successes” in child welfare.

Admittedly, the new “brand” has been a bit tarnished lately. Since May, DCF investigators failed to remove four children — two from Miami-Dade County — from dangerous and ultimately fatal circumstances. Their deaths were gruesome. All came after DCF investigators had prior warnings that these kids faced danger.

Last week, the Herald’s Carol Marbin Miller (an award winner herself, though for journalism, not PR) reported that the child protection investigator who decided that one of these kids, Bryan Osceola, was not at risk, had never been properly certified for the job — a legal requirement.

Five-month-old Bryan died after his mother left him in the car. The uncertified investigator had overlooked an incident in February, when the mother had passed out at the wheel with little Bryan in the car.

Sounds like another PR challenge for DCF. Might be time for a new logo.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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