Organizations in every industry are working to foster an environment of diversity, inclusion, equity (often referred to as DEI). People expect more transparency today and want to understand how the entities they interact with impact them, their community and the world at large.
They want to know they’re heard when they make suggestions or express concerns, and that their opinion is valued. They also want to feel included and to experience interaction and collaboration with an organization. They’re no longer satisfied engaging with a faceless monolithic entity. Your communications need to reflect this, whether you’re targeting employees or showing public-facing communications to customers, visitors or students.
Communications technologies like websites, apps, messengers, social media, and digital signage enable widespread dissemination of a huge variety of messages and media. But your communications don’t have to be a traditional push system. You can and should be using technology to spur feedback, conversation and participation. To do that, you have to present an open and inclusive voice to your audience.
There are four main areas where communications professionals can focus their efforts: culture, education, trust and respect.
We often talk of campus culture or corporate culture. This is a combination of the overall goal of the particular organization, the things the organization values, the specific practices in place to further and cultivate those values, and the overall story the organization tells the world about this more abstracted element of what we might even call a personality. Most importantly, it’s people. Wherever there are people, there is culture. It’s the shared attitudes, values and goals of all the people involved in a particular institution. It’s also the way those things are shared and expressed.
The word culture comes from the same root as the word “cultivate”. One way to do that is to embrace some of the concepts in Human-Centered Design. Everything you communicate should have people in mind. And this means people as they are, not as you would like them to be. Look at things from different perspectives, and interpret your communications from within different contexts. That’s what inclusion is all about.
When using imagery like pictures and video, include women as well as men, and people of various ethnicities. Focus especially on ethnicities that are in your target audience. People of Thai background will appreciate seeing Thai people more than other groups will. Also include different ages (again, pay attention to the ages of your audience). It’s about making things relevant to the specific people you want to reach.
It’s more than images, though. The language you use, even the color palettes in your communications – everything has an impact. How can you tell which colors or fonts will somehow resonate with your audience? Ask them. A couple of short surveys or quizzes every month will help you keep track of who’s seeing your communications and what they value.
What’s important to them? Think about donating to charities or arts organizations that your audience cares about. If you receive donations, tout those generous patrons. And go ahead and make a bit of a splash about your efforts. Which causes you support says a lot about your culture, so let people know what you’re doing. And make it easy for individuals to support your efforts with their own donations.
Be sure to create a system for people to suggest topics and causes they find important. If the idea for donating to a local food drive came from your audience, you know for certain that it’s important to someone out there.
Communications are pretty much either educating or reinforcing. Either you are pushing out new information or reminding people of previous information. Note the word “educating” though – not dictating, not ordering about. If you need people to do something a certain way or by a certain time, then tell them why.
If possible, give a little history or other context. Dispel myths, misconceptions and misinformation. Offer a chance for feedback. Encourage people to share what they’ve learned. Remember that your audience members have bigger lives than just their interactions with your organization; they live out in the larger world and will bring what they experience into their school, their workplace and the places they visit. And that’s a two-way street. What you teach them or how you encourage them to think while inside your facility is something that they’ll take home with them.
Humans are innately curious, so add a few salient details whenever possible. If you’re promoting a Shakespeare play, for example, put up a little background or some interesting trivia about it. If you’re advertising that you gave to a carbon neutrality non-profit, toss in a couple of surprising and interesting statistics about energy use in your area. Even little tidbits of trivia, apropos of nothing in particular, will probably grab a lot of people’s attention.
Include some sort of call to action to your communications that allows people to respond back or learn more about the topic. You’ve piqued their interest with your quote or short list of stats, now make it easy for them to go further in-depth if they want to. By making your communications interactive and participative, you’re making them more inclusive.
Shore Up Trust
Today, people trust transparency. When an organization seems to be hiding something, then suspicions arise. Be transparent in your communications, and in all of your practices. Accuracy and timeliness also go a long way towards building confidence. This includes not just what you say, but how you say it. That means proofreading, and having an agreed-upon house style for spelling, punctuation and even word choice that all content creators agree upon. Because once you get people to want your communications, you’ll need to be consistent. If you make a mistake, just put up a correction. It’s not weakness to admit it when you make an error.
Some topics may have multiple viewpoints among your audience members, so try and include as many of them as possible. If your target audience only sees one side of an issue, and it’s not their side, they’ll start to lose interested in what you’re telling them – and not only for that one topic. You’ll be just written off.
And be sure to audit your systems and technologies from time to time. There may be inherent biases there that were not obvious at first.
This naturally follows from making inclusion part of your culture and building trust with your audience. However, you can go further by encouraging respect in others. Some organizations even have value statements they can shar, and these often include some points about how to treat others. Respect can be what you tolerate, but also what you do not. Profanity, sexism, ageism, ableism – these are all divisive and destructive to a culture.
This is especially true in educational settings. Even in K-12 environments, children have been asked what kinds of messages they’d like to see in school, and they often say they want motivational messages, positivity quotes and messages against bullying and so on. And if the kids want it, so do their parents. Those same children grow up and go to college, and then into the workforce, and their core values will affect how they interpret communications at each step of the way.
When touting causes you find important (or your audience does), make sure to encourage respect for that cause. It’s one thing to simply promote that you gave a certain amount of money to help endangered species, but it’s so much more valuable to remind people why this is an important topic. Knowledge and respect create more respect.
Inclusion Equals Engagement
Incorporating these four goals into your communications can help ensure that your messages and media are inclusive, and that they engage your audience and encourage dialogue. But remember, you have to live it. No matter whether someone on your team is creating, sharing or just moderating your communications, people on the front line interacting with your audience need to not just be informed on the company values and culture, they need to have internalized it.
That’s not to say that your team should be given a script to memorize and regurgitate. Everyone is a little different, and each person in the communications chain likely has something to contribute. They’ll also have their own ideas on how to achieve your overall goals. Building in some flexibility for people to explore divergent paths towards the same goals will give people the freedom to do things in a way that best uses their specific skill sets. This is as true HR professionals and social media managers and as it is for administrators and student groups.
Remember that your culture is made by people. All of your teams, all of your communications and everyone in your audience coming together with a shared goal can create not only the appearance of an inclusive culture, but the expression of it.