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How To Choose Your Words For Multicultural PR

Zorina Akhund

Zorina Akhund

After months of civil unrest and racial injustice, organizations have realized it’s imperative they understand and promote the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion to support a multicultural wave of communications. While there isn’t a universal template for rolling out a successful DEI program to your company,  you can begin your journey by understanding the value of DEI.

Public relations has undergone dramatic changes and practitioners have realized not only to advocate for diversity within their own organization, but to also be mindful of the products and messages that they or their clients produce and actively work to disengage biases, stereotypes and misconceptions from dialogue.

To gain insight around multicultural PR and the new language being used when talking about DEI, The PR Club brought together four professionals for a webinar to share their experiences and recommendations to help PR practitioners communicate with stakeholders.

Panelists included:

  • Dia D. Harris, Diversity Equality & Inclusion Consultant
  • Whitney Scott, CMO, Kampgrounds of America, Inc.
  • Brandon Thomas, VP, Technology & Healthcare & General Manager, PAN Communications
  • Moderator: Angela Hayes, SVP of Diversity and Inclusion at Brodeur Partners

Angela Hayes (AH): Tell me about a time when the language you were using related to DEI helped shape and impact a business objective.

Dia D. Harris (DH): We used to host a “standing meeting” but we had to take a step back and ask ourselves, is this phrase exclusive? Now we have a daily “control” meeting. We no longer use the words “blacklisted” or “whiteboard” because words have meaning. This past year has challenged companies to make sure they are meticulous about what words they use and that language will not exclude certain demographics.

Brandon Thomas(BT): Last summer, many clients wanted to put out a public statement or rethink their strategy during the BLM movement. The most important thing was they were staying authentic to their brand while doing so. We were being careful to use language that addressed the topics at hand while staying authentic to the brand and company.

Whitney Scott (WS): Language sets culture, and culture is everchanging. As practitioners we have an accountability to constantly make sure language is changing along with culture and have those difficult conversations. These conversations never start positively, but for any culture to move forward, conflict is necessary. We need to work together to establish an understanding. Out of these conversations comes awareness.

AH: As a practitioner and DEI consultant, what is your role in shaping culture and advising your clients and to be proactive and enter these conversations?  

BT: Trust your gut instinct in terms of what you’re seeing in your agency and culture in communications as it relates to language. Part of this is education. There is a willingness and interest in how an individual can have a better understanding of words that can be triggering or insensitive. So being aware of your surroundings, asking questions and being open to feedback, conversations, and dialogue is key.

WS: I really stress that organizations look at this from a macro-level across programs, divisions, and work. This can start with an audit to help you see where you are as an organization before setting metrics. Keeping organizations on track is important because they can be accountable towards their initiatives.

DH: The data has to include the voice of customer or client which means that as a DEI practitioner, I have to check in with all employees and hear their voices as well. Change has to happen internally. Clients need to be part of the change and organizations need to see it from start to finish.

AH: What is your top piece of advice for someone new to the role of DEI that would help them be successful in delivering messages?

BT: Listening to your employees and hearing their experiences. Listen to those most impacted on how the change is going to move throughout your company.

WS: Addressing the needs of the customers and supporting franchises, having those hard conversations and understanding opinions to come up with resolutions and solutions that supports the greater good is important. If you’re not making it a point to have those conversations, know that they are happening in the background.

AH: How can you identify when those background discussions are happening and pull them to the forefront?

WS: If they are happening in the background it could be because the organization has not set up “safe spaces” for those conversations to take place. There needs to be a sense of trust and working with those people and C-Suites to help create a place for those conversations to happen in a productive way.

BT: If you are aware those conversations are happening, you are likely in a role where you can be that bridge to help understand which conversations need to be brought to the forefront.

DH: If you hear those conversations, you have to understand their impact. Will those conversations be impactful to a larger audience, and if so then they should be surfaced? But you have to be able to set the stage for certain conversations. You have to be transparent with your company and employees.