The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 sparked international outrage. Likewise, social injustices against Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others, as well as a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, has moved the topic of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to the forefront for corporations. For many, this has served as the tipping point to publicly denounce systemic racism. Yet, communicating DEI policies and initiatives to stakeholders can be complicated to navigate.
More than a year later, corporations have had varying levels of success affecting change— and a skeptical media landscape has held them accountable. Hastily published statements in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests amounted to overpromising what could be accomplished to combat the inequities in their respective industries. Many were unable to address the biases within their companies over the past 12 months, rendering their 2020 statements performative rather than effective.
A Starting Point for Effective Messaging
Even if they are well intentioned, promises that don’t live up to expectations have the potential to generate a ripple effect of negative consequences for a company’s culture and brand image. A well-thought-out communications plan relies on both the toolkit and strategic skills of PR professionals to define and convey the company’s commitment to making DEI real. Effective communications of a DEI position, platform, and specific initiatives requires three key steps:
- Take a focused approach. Companies should work to understand the dimensions of DEI that key audiences prioritize in their industry. Rather than issuing broad policies of what a company thinks it should be saying, it is critical to identify problem areas within the industry that are important to clients, employees, the local community, and financial stakeholders. This focused lens will pave the way toward SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely) action steps and reforms. In response to the murder of George Floyd, a number of companies posted content on the history of racism, when their audience really wanted to know how they would address biased hiring practices and how to move toward a more inclusive “new normal” as offices reopen. This shows how relevant inclusive communication in the workplace is. Audiences quickly disregarded their responses, as they lacked specific and achievable goals.
- Be transparent. Being open about a corporation’s current DEI data and policies is becoming an imperative. This information needs to be organized into a digestible format and incorporated into the larger narrative of a company’s story. Transparency into how underrepresented groups have been included in hiring, especially for senior-level positions, also helps a company show their progress over time.
- Consider media training. There are numerous examples of how even one incident where a poor choice of words that has been used by leadership can do irreparable damage to the corporate reputation and the perceived legitimacy of a DEI initiative. Communications professionals should be used to conduct spokesperson training, so executives know how to effectively communicate policies, initiatives, and results both internally and to the media.
Align Internal and External Communications
It is important for organizations to devise both internal and external communications strategies, as successful implementation of DEI policies requires an alignment on all fronts, especially when it comes to inclusive communication in the workplace.
The way a corporation communicates its DEI policies to employees has a direct impact on employee engagement. Additionally, a clear understanding of DEI expectations helps to create a strong company culture and climate. Gathering employee input and feedback on these policies is an important part of the process when communicating diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
One way to achieve that is by communicating in a way that invites feedback, such as by hosting informal focus groups or anonymous discussion forums that encourage an open dialogue and Q&A.
Since May of 2020, we have seen the full spectrum of success and failure when it comes to externally communicating a company’s stance on racism and its DEI policies. That has created some important lessons learned for others to follow.
Common elements of success stories include:
- Developing clear messaging that evolves over time, providing regular updates to stakeholders on the progress being made.
- Portraying well-researched summaries of the issues they prioritize and why they are important to their respective industry.
- Reacting to DEI-related news and events promptly, and not performatively. They express their views in a respectful way that doesn’t oversell their dedication to a specific cause.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, failures are quick to draw backlash from the media and the broader community. Things to avoid when crafting inclusive communication strategies in the workplace include:
- Don’t develop and communicate grandiose policies that are irrelevant to your industry or are larger than you can feasibly address. This is where SMART goals and clear communication make all the difference.
- Don’t center yourself or your company in the story. DEI policies should be communicated as part of the larger narrative of a company’s story, and any background information on social causes should be objective and relevant. Companies should not share unsupported opinions or sweeping claims about DEI topics outside of their expertise.
- Don’t release rushed, off-the-cuff statements. While timeliness is important, the media can tell when a corporation issues a statement without refining its internal policies. This often leads to unnecessary missteps and miscommunications. For that reason, a DEI strategy needs to be defined separate from, and not in response to, external events.
Finding a Path to a More Equitable Future
Social injustices are shining a spotlight on the pervasive problem of inequality in the workplace. Research shows a disparity that exists at all levels of corporate America from new hires to the C-suite and board room. According to data from human resources consulting company Mercer, 64% of workers in entry level positions are white, and the disparity in top executive ranks is even more pronounced with 85% of positions held by white people. In addition, both women and underrepresented groups continue to earn less than their white male colleagues, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Growing attention to the social aspect of ESG policies is putting more pressure on companies to address DEI issues.
True change will require some heavy lifting, and it won’t occur overnight. Instituting a fully functioning DEI program takes time and is built on learning along the way, rather than trying to do too much too soon. Companies should have short-, medium-, and long-term goals, backed by internal supports that push diversity, inclusion, and equity in the workplace. Carefully executed communications and PR marketing strategies, with intentional messaging can then help propel a company forward in their DEI journey toward a more equitable future for the workforce. The past year has shown us the importance of communicating DEI policies toward the right industry audiences, rather than simply attempting to “say the right thing” toward a broad group. An important starting point in finding a way forward is to dedicate more resources to preparing the corporation, especially senior executives, on how to engage in DEI dialogues.