D&I is an important subject for our clients and rightly so. No matter how good your communications approach, you can’t simply window dress when it comes to D&I. We wanted to take a closer look at how best to communicate it – from how you can craft your narrative to how you keep it all going. Of course, your business needs a clear policy and strategy for D&I in the first place, otherwise you’ll be found out, but how to build that strategy is for another time. Here, we’re going to examine how to communicate D&I through six perspectives, which we hope will give you a fresh view at communicating in a way that’s distinctive and honest.
There are a couple of points to bear in mind. Firstly, the term D&I is tricky. Do we use D&I, or equality or belonging, or something else? We aren’t going to debate the terminology – we feel D&I is a term that works well and that’s what we’ll use.
Secondly, clients often ask us to create a D&I ‘brand’ but we believe D&I should be a golden thread running through all communications – a sustained commitment. We’re occasionally asked if we can develop a D&I campaign. Yes, we can, but unless it’s specific and works within your broader D&I strategy then a campaign alone misses the point.
It’s important not to build your messaging purely around D&I issues themselves. It needs to be built around what characterises your point of view and approach. What makes it special to you? It shouldn’t be used as an exploitative point of difference either – if you commit to D&I then you’re committing to a sea change that is bigger than you and that should come across.
Looking at the best examples, powerful narratives focus on different perspectives, and they aren’t just about inclusion but are about elevating people– if you let people grow then so does your business. They don’t necessarily reference D&I directly but talk about uniting around difference, including everyone, the power of people connected, the benefits of openness, and D&I as a bridge to creative ideas. They connect their D&I narrative with their core business and value proposition. There’s the global sportswear brand that talks about standing up to be counted and how sport is an equaliser. There’s the online image sharing and curation platform that talks of an approach around tailoring and individuality. And there’s the global consulting firm that sees D&I unleashing creativity, innovation and all things that equal business success.
Remember though, it’s not just the strapline. These examples weave their D&I message across communications and also tackle key D&I issues head on. They acknowledge they don’t always get it right. They’re honest about their D&I journey. They show how they track progress, whether that’s leadership make-up statistics, local partnerships, or recognising nuance in different markets. They demonstrate an unwavering commitment, using their voice to speak out in the context of a strong, organisation-wide belief system. With issues such as Black Lives Matter, this wasn’t just about having an opinion, but demonstrating a workable action list that can truly make a difference.
All too often, people talk about D&I in terms of strands – ethnicity, gender, LGBTQ+, etc. We believe we should talk about all kinds of difference. Strands will often omit certain groups, for example those who are neurodiverse, or dealing with ageism. We should think about intersectionality too because people’s responses will differ depending on where they are in the world. We think we should leapfrog the debate entirely and talk in altogether richer terms, embracing the idiosyncrasies in all of us.
We talked previously about setting your D&I narrative in the context of your core business. One of the big tech giants talks about how it has revolutionised and personalised tech since its inception. Their core message is about innovating and creating products that empower people, bringing people together to do amazing things, evolving and learning from each other’s experiences. They frame D&I in these terms too and it really resonates – the fact they’re all different is their greatest strength because it enables them to create the best products for everyone. Difference is not only celebrated but is essential for company success. One of the major social media platforms doesn’t have a D&I section on their site because D&I is a theme running through everything they do. We might advise against this, but here it’s so clear that we believe it works. It’s about embracing individuality, being open-minded in your ideas, and each employee’s development path because that equals success – the individual’s progress as well as the collective.
Ultimately, D&I is about being flexible, and your communications should reflect this flexibility too.
How do you manage your D&I networks and capture your successes? In managing the different elements, each perform their own communications role. There’s a hierarchy. Your ownable narrative needs to be front and centre. This is then supported by the networks and successes you communicate.
Clients often tell us that they don’t get credit for success. Tough. This isn’t about patting ourselves on the back. You’ll get more credit if you’re cohesive, using the same sign-off and visual look and feel for each strand or network you’re focusing on. You can’t do everything at once, but you can voice your support of every strand even if you’ve not got a fully-fledged policy for all of them.
Once you’ve got your overarching D&I narrative, drill down deeper to show what you’re doing around different strands. Ensure language is inclusive and link it back to your overall culture and activities. The companies who do this well don’t just focus on race and ethnicity, but also on strands such as neurodiversity and different generations in the workplace. Many companies now have D&I networks which act as proof points. Publish your networks’ successes and show how they support your narrative. The best examples go further, linking the success of their networks to wider issues such as wellbeing, employee development, brand values and behaviours. Networks can be contentious in communication terms – they don’t necessarily need their own visual identities, but if you feel they need one, this should be as cohesive as possible. They can simply have a name. Cohesion can come through use of colour and a set of clear and descriptive names, giving each their own character but still keeping them part of a greater whole.
It’s interesting that there are so many visual cliches still being used when it comes to D&I, even from companies who are visually sophisticated. The rainbow is top of our naughty list. We find it frustrating because although it’s colourful, its meaning is very specific. Yet it now gets used everywhere to represent D&I, not just for LGBTQ+. The association gives it a narrow focus as it’s only really representing one part of a vast landscape, and only communicates diversity and not inclusion. It’s often used in a childlike way, painted across imagery, and this doesn’t give right impression.
D&I is about people and so you need to show them. We know this can be challenging, but when talking about D&I it’s important to show your organisation’s authentic, human side. Good examples have an ownable imagery style that fits with the brand. Film is also effective. By showing your people as they really are, your D&I commitment is played out honestly in core communications.
There are caveats. We know stock imagery can be cost-effective and, particularly during the pandemic, may be the only imagery you’ve had access to. However, stay away from clichés to avoid seeming tokenistic – the circle of hands of different skin colours is particularly over-used. Again, think authenticity. Abstract imagery can be helpful, but forget the multi-coloured mountain sunset or the crystal-clear flowing river if your offices are in the middle of the city or an industrial area. Not least because there may be others using similar (or even the same) images in a similar way. Remember illustration and typography too – people forget these can provide a really distinctive style.
There’s no one way of doing things – it depends on your organisation, your brand and what you’re trying to communicate. The companies doing well have a rich mix, showing an authentic, human side with natural-looking people imagery, an ownable treatment and a peppering of suitable abstract imagery, all overlaid with your message which ultimately will be what people remember.
How do you communicate D&I if you’re not quite where you want to be? This is about the journey and not the destination. D&I is an ever-changing landscape where priorities are shifting, and if you wait until you think you’ve nailed it then you’ll never get started. You’ve just got to get started.
Be ambitious. Bold statements and hashtags that show where you’re headed but acknowledge you’re not there yet are powerful because they’re honest yet humble. They show commitment and progress. Back them up by demonstrating what you’re doing – it’s not just about words. We’re not saying it must be a manifesto. A short list of action-points, with targets, will show you’re serious. Similarly, stories of individuals within your organisation will give credibility.
Data is an obvious way to track progress but how and what do you share? Data may not show what you want it to, and you might worry that others are doing better. You might imagine that many big organisations are really diverse, but data suggests this isn’t always the case. They may not even have moved much in the last few years which shows how hard it can be. But they put the facts out there, admit they need to do more and they’re all the more credible for it. Remember that D&I shouldn’t be about competitive advantage – it’s bigger than your business alone and for some strands, such as race and ethnicity, the analysis of statistics will vary between countries. When it comes to data, transparency is key for progress. There are a couple of formats we think you should be wary of, such as telling your D&I story in a timeline. It’s interesting to see the time and length of commitment, but it’s not future-focused. People now want to know what you’re going to do next. Similarly, pictograms can visually represent your approach, but can undermine your message, so make sure these feel right.
The best examples show a mix and demonstrate understanding of cultural nuance. By mixing data with statements, imagery, stories and facts, we believe this is far more powerful than the individual elements. It also provides ideal content for social media, the perfect channel to share your journey.
Finally, how do you keep everything relevant? The question to always ask is, “What do we want people to do when they’re looking at our communications?”
We looked at several companies who have a clear call to action in their communications. They’re unafraid to champion their stance and they’re engaging others to join them. They do this effectively by showing varied activities and initiatives, often taking it month by month so content is regularly updated. This gives a cumulative effect on D&I pages and social media channels. When you click through on individual articles or stories there’s then further unpacking so audiences can learn more. Even if these companies aren’t doing lots on every strand, they add information constantly, giving layers of richness with perspectives – don’t be afraid to take a view – resources, data, partnerships and pivotal moments. Communications should feel digestible and accessible, with bitesize content simply expressed so it’s easily understood. You can’t know everything, so curating third-party content we think is a great idea too. Don’t be afraid to voice thoughts people might feel uncomfortable with – as long as it resonates with how your organisation thinks and acts then putting it out there is the best thing you can do.
You should also make it easy for people to be supportive. Quick wins include ready-made social posts which allow audiences to easily show support and create shared content that has brand consistency. Instagram is excellent for building community and many companies now have a separate ’life at our company’ account. As a more informal platform, Instagram is perfect for demonstrating commitment and what you’re doing. The examples we like pepper imagery with statements and short films which are usually self-generated by employees. These don’t have to be long – we’ve seen films only a few seconds each – but they’re highly effective in promoting voices and stories. Indeed, social media enables you to push different kinds of content into different areas, almost like mini campaigns, but more timeless and encompassing. And while merchandise may not be right for every company, having something tangible gives people a common, unifying cause, which is inherent to what D&I is about.
D&I has never mattered more. Communicating it in the right way has become more important than ever too. A strong narrative is key – get this right and communicating your D&I commitment elsewhere will follow more easily. Be honest. No-one has nailed D&I yet, so don’t worry if you’re not there either – acknowledging this is part of the process. Frame D&I strategy in the core context of your business and it’ll be achievable and credible. Know when to give different strands and networks their own place to shine. Avoid visual cliches and realise that D&I is a journey to be shared, with all of us travelling the same road. We need to support and learn from each other. Finally, keep your D&I activity visible in your communications and keep it relevant to what you’re doing as an organisation.
Consider these recommendations, and hopefully we’ll reach our destination on our D&I journeys that little bit quicker.
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