When you’re in the business of communicating, what you say matters. A lot. And the language you use can say much more about who you are and what you care about than the actual message itself. Words and phrases have nuances; they have histories. And they can suggest a subtext that you may not intend.
Word choices in emails, releases, statements, digital content, speeches, reports and presentations can either further where your organization stands on the diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) spectrum or sabotage it. And even if you issue public statements supporting social justice movements or decrying injustices experienced by specific identity communities, today’s audiences are savvy at reading between the lines.
Our words should be used to open doors for dialogue and not serve as confusing obstacles for audiences to sift through for true meaning. Since employees are the best channels for communicating an organization’s voice, you need to ensure that they are communicating inclusively and consistently to prevent placing word barriers between your organization and your audience. For example:
- Capitalizing Black when talking about the Black community or Black leaders communicates that an organization values the racial identity and history of Black Americans, especially your own Black employees.
- Using United States instead of America in messaging acknowledges that there are other Americas beyond the United States, such as Latin America and South America, and challenges perceptions that the United States is the only America that counts.
- Eliminating gender-identifying language and embracing gender neutrality in our communications allows individuals of differing gender identities and expressions to feel included and represented.
How do you integrate more inclusive language into your organization? How do you communicate the importance of taking action on inclusive language internally with employees and create an ongoing effort to educate and gain employee acceptance? Here are some suggestions for starting this process.
- Create a DE&I style guide. Determine the DE&I-related language choices that your organization wants to integrate in your messaging and content and develop a DE&I style guide to share with employees. Outline language references related to a range of identity communities, such as race/ethnicity, gender identity, sexual identity, age, etc., based on glossaries and style guides developed by organizations representing those identity communities. Provide examples of how these word choices should be used in sentences. If your organization has an existing style guide, then add a new section or updated entries related to this language guidance.
- Seek expert counsel and review. Identify reviewers from employee resource groups internally and/or external partners or experts who are from or familiar with the identity communities highlighted in your style guide. Invite their feedback and discussion on language choices to ensure authenticity and validation for the guide entries. In the style guide, reference the methodology for the creation of the guide and feature the names of contributors and reviewers to be transparent about the process.
- Train team members on the DE&I style guide. Your style guide will only be as effective as it is understood and championed by employees. The more staff members who are educated on how to write and speak inclusively about identity communities, the more inclusive language will become a part of work culture and external communications. Using the DEI style guide as a foundation, provide training opportunities in small group settings and larger staff meetings to share the inclusive language rationale and guidance for the organization.
- Audit messaging and trainings periodically. Following the staff training, conduct message audits every quarter or every few months to identify the effectiveness of both the style guide and staff training. Then, determine areas for improvement within either.
- Be open and transparent with audiences. Once your organization has a language plan, share your intentions and new language tools externally with your audiences. Blog about it. Talk about it on podcasts. If it’s in line with your mission, values and voice, then use it as teachable moments on social media to deepen understanding of ways staff, clients, partners and supporters can make their language more inclusive.
Identifying and adopting inclusive language is a critical step in an organization’s DE&I journey. Formally outlining, providing training and sharing your organization’s work on inclusive language will demonstrate to staff — and external audiences — that your organization is committed to understanding the power of words and how to use them to bring people into important conversations.
PRSA member Crystal Borde is a vice president and the diversity, equity and inclusion practice lead at Vanguard Communications in Washington, D.C. She is a member of PRSA-NCC’s DEI Committee.[Illustration credit: Shutterstock]
Please develop a guide for members to use as a template. I’m happy to help. Thanks.
Crystal, I cannot agree with you more. With an ever growing socially conscious world, we must keep in mind to always uphold and allow for our operations and organizations to allow for inclusivity in everything that we do. As a public relations major, this is the reality in our field that we face every day. Public relations practitioners should always be aware of how certain words and phrases might have an affect on people, whether it be purposely or accidental. One miscommunication error can lead to an array of nightmares and further problems. This error can possibly even lead towards a situation that requires a crisis management plan of action and strategy. I appreciated how you highlighted the fact that even the certain ways in which we capitalize specific words or titles can inadvertently hurt certain peoples and communities. As a discipline of communications, public relations must keep up to date with appropriate and inclusive language in all of our works. Fantastic article, thank you.