Language matters. Whether you are speaking at an event, writing a blog or posting a photo caption on Facebook, every word counts. What you say and how you say it reflects not just you as an individual, but your company’s views, values and workplace culture.
With the rise of social media and rapidly changing cultural and social norms, everything shared by individuals and brands is subject to scrutiny. A simple tweet may significantly impact your reputation and the reputation of the organization you represent. In many instances, this reputational damage cannot be reversed and may cost you sales and partnerships down the road.
The need for inclusive communications
For communication to be effective, it needs to convey a level of understanding and respect to its audience. Inclusive language acknowledges diversity, demonstrates respect and promotes equitable opportunities for everyone. Inclusive language should not demean, insult or exclude people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, disability, religion, age, or immigration or veteran status.
Now, more than ever, PR and marketing professionals need to ensure communication is culturally relevant to a wide range of diverse audiences.
Encouraging a more inclusive environment
The following guidelines can help frame your communication choices and push you to take a more inclusive approach to writing and speaking:
- Hire with equity, diversity and inclusion in mind. People from different backgrounds will approach problems differently. Improving diversity and inclusion is perhaps the most important step organizations can take to foster an innovative workforce. Ensure that your recruiting, training and policies are designed to demonstrate your commitment to diversity and inclusion.
- Train your team and your executives. Don’t assume that they have the same understanding that you do. Develop and deliver formal trainings to ensure that they understand your organization’s expectations and style guide. Don’t be afraid to educate your peers, or even your leadership team, on these principles.
- Don’t make assumptions. Research your audience and engage with them in ways that are authentic and not intrusive.
- Male-gendered words have traditionally dominated career language, with terms like “chairman of the board,” “policeman,” “fireman” and “councilman.” Shift toward gender-neutral terms like “board chair,” “police officer,” “firefighter,” and “council member.”
- Know what is going on in the world. Be culturally aware of what is happening around you — from mainstream news to what is happening on a grassroots level in your neighborhood.
- Consult with appropriate members of underrepresented populations when developing communications related to their communities.
- Look for authentic ways to include, portray, and integrate diverse populations into stories and communications.
- Audit your current materials to make sure that they are aligned with your organization’s values.
Consider word choice carefully
Words can hold powerful meaning and influence over the way we perceive certain situations or entire groups of people. Be cognizant of how your word choice expresses your position of privilege or labels other groups in ways that may be harmful.
For example, take the word “vulnerable,” which has long been used in public health practice to refer to populations that may have an increased risk of certain diseases or poorer health. When describing a population as vulnerable, it implies a weakness or inherent lack of power. It suggests that group has no agency of its own and is simply susceptible to outside forces.
Words can hold powerful meaning and influence over the way we perceive certain situations or entire groups of people.
Without discussing the factors that make a population more likely to experience poor health (e.g., lack of access to health care or nutritious foods), the word “vulnerable” becomes a code term, allowing people to come to conclusions about the people in those communities based on their own prejudices. The same goes for “marginalized,” “high-risk” and “underprivileged.”
Using inclusive language is easier when you have a clear understanding of what you want to say and who you want to say it to. When we communicate without intent, it can sometimes lead to vague or codified word choices that have loaded meanings and potentially negative connotations. Consider the use of the word “empower.” Many leaders or organizations say that they “empower” people or communities, but that implies those people don’t have power of their own and that it must be bestowed upon them by someone who has it. Instead, think about your actions and how you help particular groups. Do you teach, offer resources or work with them to solve a particular problem? Say that instead.
Inspire your audience and aspire for equity
As communicators, we seek to inspire our audiences. We cannot accomplish that goal without first understanding who we are speaking to, and second, demonstrating respect to the various audiences we serve.
Inclusive writing principles encourage writers to think globally and understand that language is fluid. Inclusion is an aspiration that evolves and is reflective of the cultural norms of the present day. Terms used 20 years ago or even five years ago may not be correct today.
When mistakes happen – and they will – correct them. Depending on the situation, consider a formal apology. Instead of trying to be politically correct or seeing diversity and inclusion as a checkbox, embrace equity as a mindset. Focus on learning and stimulating conversations about equity, diversity and inclusion in your organization and in your work as a whole.