How to Prioritize Diversity and Inclusion in Your Communications(This post was co-authored by Natalia Flores and Gina Luttrell)

Let’s be honest, as communications professionals, we do a lot of talking.

We add a lot of hashtag support.

We might even put our money where our mouth is every so often.

Yet, progress seems to be at a standstill.

Diversity and Inclusion In the Communications Industry

Don’t believe us… press pause…grab your second cup of coffee, put your feet up and read these:

If that’s not enough, I urge you to check out what’s happening in our own communications backyard:

With the recent political changes and social uprisings, communications professionals are once again clambering to increase their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

PRSA has even committed to improving DEI in our profession. 

Once again, this is a start, but it’s not enough.

We can’t seem to get off our hamster wheel.

We know DEI is important to our overall business (especially during a pandemic), but it seems we lack the motivation, or knowledge, to take action.

Agencies, corporations, and organizations need to take a step back and examine DEI at every level. Behind all the buzz surrounding “diversity” there is a wealth of opportunity.

The Diversity and Inclusion Wheel

Let’s play a game. 

For every issue, I’ll present an action you can take and then walk you through them.

A start is to use the Diversity and Inclusion Wheel for PR Practitioners.

A brand can’t claim to develop diverse-centric campaigns when they aren’t implementing the “diversity first” approach to their work.

Simply put, this a breakdown in authenticity. 

Beyond race, ethnicity, gender, age, and abilities, the D/I Wheel provides additional layers and context in better understanding various segments of our community.

By acknowledging and recognizing diverse segments, we can humanize our target audiences and develop meaningful, insightful, and relevant campaigns and messaging.

Lack of Diverse Teams

Before you can even begin to create a diverse campaign, you need to have a diverse team.

Representation is significant.

Look around the room.

Recognize some familiar faces?

Everyone looks like you, perhaps.

What about perspectives? 

Do you have people from different groups with varied perspectives represented?

What about your target audience?

Does your audience have representation and a voice in the room?

With the team that is presently assembled, can you look at the strategy and tactics through different lenses? 

This would be a good time to pull out the D/I Wheel and use it as a guide to help you diversify your team. 

In most cases, you will need to step out of the room, take a step back, and begin this process alongside human resources.

Ensure that your recruitment and hiring process is aligned with a DEI first approach and is actually proactive in seeking a diverse pool of candidates

Don’t have specific expertise in-house?

Then partner with other agencies or consultants that can help you.

Important to note: brands are starting to demand that their PR teams and partners be diverse.

Devoid of Safe Spaces for Staff 

Part of creating a diverse and inclusive environment is advocating for others.

If you see the same people around the table offering the same viewpoints, be the first to raise your hand so the conversation can change.

This may not always be comfortable, but then again, doing what’s right isn’t always comfortable. 

Empathy goes a long way, too.

Put yourself in the shoes of others.

Think: if I was a member of a specific group, how would this [action, word, image] be perceived?

How would this make that person feel?

It’s one thing to focus on diversity, but not focusing on equity and inclusion at the same time is a #fail.

Once you are empathic, being kind and inclusive is easy.

We find that many of today’s PR blunders could have been avoided if different perspectives and voices had been in the room.

Or if they were in the room, they had the opportunity to speak up and be heard.

Not Acknowledging the Importance of Bias In Your Communications

We all have biases.

Whether we want to believe it or not, we do.

The first step is to recognize them, educate ourselves (and our teams), and then make sure that we do NOT include them in our PR recommendations, writing, imagery, or campaigns.

You (and your team) may need in-depth training or courses on this subject.  

Unconscious or conscious, our personal bias affects our work, our relationships with team members and clients, and our campaigns.

Unconscious and Conscious Bias

The University of California, San Francisco defines these areas well:

  1. Conscious bias, also known as explicit bias—prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another usually in a way that’s considered to be unfair 
  2. Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias—social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness

If you don’t exactly know what unconscious bias is, well, the best way to understand it is like this: think about meeting a person for the first time, then when they speak you think, “Hmm, I didn’t expect this person to sound like that.”

That thought? That’s unconscious bias.

We bring those thoughts into every interaction with that person.

Imagine what our unconscious bias is doing to our writing! 

Test Your Unconscious Bias

There is a free online tool from Harvard University called Project Implicit.

The Implicit Association Test measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report.

The IAT may be especially interesting if it shows that you have an implicit attitude that you didn’t know about.

For example, you may believe that women and men should be equally associated with science, but your automatic associations could show that you (like many others) associate men with science more than you associate women with science.  

Inauthentically Connecting With Your Audience

Know your audience.

That’s a must.

Seems simple, right?

Do you have an accurately researched outline of who your audience is versus an assumption of who you want them to be? 

We all know how important research is as the first step. But, don’t just read the latest stats and data. Take it further and really get to know your audience.

Gain insight into their culture, their needs, their preferences…not your assumptions of who you think they are.

Be authentic.

Even the most well-thought-out campaigns can miss the mark. Once you have a strategy, plan, or campaign idea, test it out. Even a small, informal focus group composed of your target audiences can lead to invaluable insight.

You don’t have to spend big bucks on this, but it is key to effectively gauging the perspective of your intended segment. Ensure that different areas of the D/I wheel are represented in your feedback loop.

Missing the Mark on Inclusive Imagery & Language

In communications, words and images help tell our brand’s story. Yet, we continually see campaigns, ads, or promos that lack diversity.

This is when you know D/I was simply not at the forefront of the campaign. 

When choosing images, pull out the D/I Wheel to see which segments are represented in your plan. The sooner you think “diversity first”, the sooner you can rectify your issues. 

Kim Clark, a diversity and inclusion consultant put it best when she said, “Words can hurt or heal, unite or divide, keep or dismantle the status quo.”

We all know how effective words can be. Heck, one word can make or bread a campaign. Be intentional with the words you choose. 

Think about incorporating person-first language in your materials. People first language is an objective way of acknowledging, communicating and reporting on disabilities.

Focus on the person, rather than the disability.

If you’re holding an event and you’re providing information about parking, rather than saying “handicapped parking,” say “accessible parking.”

According to PR exec, Nathalie Santa Maria, APR, we need to shift away from compliance language when sharing human narratives.

Here she shares a few additional tips on communicating accessibility. 

Not Enough Time or Resources for DEI Professional Development

Speaking of people first, put your employees first by offering professional development sessions on diversity, inclusion, and equity.

We found a few free and low-cost options. But in all honesty, just like you develop a budget for your paid media efforts, you should be budgeting for professional development dedicated to improving your DEI in the workplace.

Lead the Way

Take the plunge. Be a leader. 

Diversity and inclusion are important to your consumers, so while your role might not be specifically tied to DEI, it’s important that PR pros know that all their communication efforts surely are.

Prioritizing diversity and inclusion into your strategy helps build the “diversity first” approach. Don’t “throw away your shot” at getting it right the first time. (You’re welcome, Hamilton Fans—a little gift for you!) 

Gina Luttrell

Regina Luttrell, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of public relations and social media at Syracuse University. She also is the Director of the W20 Emerging Insights Lab and serves as the interim director of the Master’s in Public Relations at Syracuse University.

View all posts by Gina Luttrell