Thursday, 11 August 2011

How We Keep Publicity Safe

Last week, Missing People posted a missing person alert on Twitter (@missingpeople) for a young boy who had gone missing, and an amazing 2,753 people clicked through to his appeal on our website. That afternoon he was found. This is one of many wonderful success stories, and highlights how useful new social media is to us as a charity to expand our search and get the message out there.

The charity is occasionally asked by members of the public to spread the word about a missing person who we haven’t been asked to search for either by police or family. While we would like to lend our immediate help, sometimes the complexities of the issue and our responsibility to the missing person and their family mean we can not always sound the alarm as quickly or as widely as we’d like. We’ve had recent incidents where members of the public have been upset by the charity not re-Tweeting a missing person appeal until we had vetted its legitimacy. We always need to make sure that publicity is the right thing to do, and this time delay may frustrate some. I would like to take this chance to shed light on the reasons.

Here at Missing People, our walls are covered with posters of the people we are helping to find. The charity’s mission is to offer a lifeline to missing people and their families left behind, and publicity plays a big part in that. We usually produce both a poster and a website appeal for a missing person on the same day the police or family asks us to help. We work quickly to get publicity out because we know that public awareness helps. It helps to find people who are missing. It helps make people safe. It gives hope to the family that something is being done; that someone cares.  Without members of the public reacting to the publicity that we do and caring enough to make an effort, it wouldn’t work.

The charity has more than 7,500 followers on Twitter, and receive over 34,000 hits on our website every month. We have over 2,000 thousand places in the UK where we can distribute posters. Despite our haste to get publicity out there, we are always careful that publicity is the right thing to do. The power of publicity is great but unwieldy, and that means you must be very thoughtful as to how and when you use it. We know more than anyone the importance of reacting quickly, but it is imperative that we secure agreement from parents and families before sharing their loved ones’ details. We must also check that the police are OK that we do publicity on every single case.

Sometimes there are reasons why doing publicity would be wrong and worse, publicity may put already vulnerable people at more risk. Think of someone with a mental health problem, panicked to see a Tweet about themselves in their local community; put off from seeking help for fear of being ‘found’. Think of someone fleeing years of domestic violence, seeing a newspaper appeal for themselves and feeling driven ‘underground’. Harder to reach. Harder to find. Think of the mum, trying to protect an elderly grandma from the news that her granddaughter has disappeared. And occasionally, think of less well-intentioned requests for publicity; someone calling our Helplines seeking to track down a person who owes them money or a daughter who has fled from a forced marriage and is fearful for her safety.

These are the reasons we always check with the police and family members that it’s OK to proceed with publicity.

The issue of ‘missing people’ is a complex one, and we must approach the issue of publicity with all those nuances in mind. We aim that if someone saw publicity of themselves they’d feel able to contact us in confidence for help. We consider how they would feel – reading about themselves. We also consider how hard it could be for someone who has been missing to then ‘walk back into their life’, knowing that publicity about them has been distributed throughout the local area or been featured in the national media. We don’t want to make it any harder.

We are incredibly grateful to people who have “Joined the Search” by downloading our posters, or re-Tweeting our appeals, and as an organisation we have a responsibility to make sure that the information we share is accurate. It’s imperative that the public trusts what we say and that means we publish only what we know to be true, not what we believe to be true. We need to make sure that any publicity; posters, media appeals, tweets, will help someone to safety. Trust in Missing People is dependent on getting this right.

By Helen Morrell
Services Manager, Family Support

1 comment:

  1. Excellent perspective on the missing issue and informative. Thanks for all you do. Valerie.


Someone is reported missing every 90 seconds in the UK. The Missing Blog aims to give a voice to all those affected by this issue.

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