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Delivering Authenticity in Your Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Messaging

Over the past year, we’ve seen many organizations pledge their commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Staff and external audiences alike have often called out that many of these pledges were simply lip service with no follow-through. This is because DEI messaging is only as valuable as it is authentic. If it’s lip service or checking a box, people can see right through it. 

If you’re communicating openly with your staff and your stakeholders and why DEI matters and how your organization is approaching it, that will be obvious too. Delivering authenticity in your DEI messaging means not just talking the talk, but walking the walk by working to be part of a larger cultural conversation around systemic issues of inequality. 

Before you get started, try to remember that DEI is a learning process, and striving for perfection is not the goal. An honest, authentic effort toward DEI requires constant readjustment and recognition that as we know better, we will do better. Our team tries to regularly remind ourselves to be patient and forgiving in our effort to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in our work and in our messaging. 

Define your terms

Diversity, equity, and inclusion matter because our cultural systems—the opportunities people are given, how they are able to advance in education or a career, how they are perceived in and out of the workplace—are still structured so that it is harder for people of color, women, those with disabilities, and other groups to access opportunities. Cultural issues of privilege and oppression are bigger than your organization. They’re bigger than ours. Whether we are always aware of them or not, we all deal with and react to these systems every day. 

The first step in working toward breaking these systems down involves looking at how these systems may be in play in your organization. You’ll need a small group for this step— this can be either a communications team or a team specifically tasked with addressing DEI. This is a much larger part of a DEI launch effort, but it’s also a messaging exercise. What does DEI mean for your organization? What do you mean when you say “diversity” or “equity” or “inclusion”?  It may seem self-explanatory, but you can’t make the assumption that everyone understands those terms the same way. 

Begin by creating definitions. There is no need to start from scratch—we recommend using the Center for Global Inclusion’s GDEIB among other existing definitions as a starting point. Write down your definitions. Think about why they are relevant to your organization specifically, how you will share them with your staff, and how they will help shape your messaging moving forward. Make sure your leadership team is on the same page and has clear goals around how the DEI effort will impact the organization. 

Create goals

Ideally, DEI should be baked into the organization at every level so that it’s front-of-mind when making any decision, but it’s impossible to develop any messaging around DEI (or anything!) without stated goals. Ask yourselves—your wider team, stakeholders, and leadership:- 

  • What are your priorities? 
  • Why is this important to your organization? 
  • How can you remove barriers to equity within your organization and create better, more equitable systems?  

Goals may be related to staff satisfaction or attracting a more diverse workforce and making sure all staff members feel welcome and valued. They may be around establishing a more varied client base or improving the work done for existing clients by bringing a more nuanced DEI lens to your work. Make sure your leadership team is on the same page and has clear goals around how the DEI effort will impact the organization. 

Start with internal messaging

Organizations often feel a sense of urgency around incorporating DEI into their external communications, and it can be important to share the steps your organization is taking with clients and colleagues. However, the first people who need to fully understand your organization’s commitment to DEI are your staff. If you don’t start there, you are leaving out the people who are impacted the most immediately.

Internal messaging needs to communicate:

  • What DEI means for the organization  You can tell this has been effectively communicated if staff understand and can define your organization’s goals around your DEI efforts.
  • Openness to feedback: You’ll want to know how the staff feels about your DEI efforts. Do they feel included in the process? Have they had an opportunity to participate?  Are varied perspectives being heard and taken into account?
  • Expectations for staff: What does the DEI effort mean for internal stakeholders?  How does it affect them? Are there elements of their behavior or work that will need to change?  
  • Expectations for the organization: What can your staff expect from your organization as a result of the DEI efforts?  How will things change for them in ways that are more fair and equitable? It’s important to answer this question clearly before any external communications begin. 

Talk to external audiences

Prospective employees, and clients or stakeholders who want to work with your organization, will want to know about your DEI efforts, and they’re going to want to know what you are actually doing. This is why honesty and sincerity are key. Words are important, but they must be reinforced by actions. Whether you’re talking to prospective employees, colleagues in your industry, clients, or other stakeholders, your messaging needs to be authentic, specific, and demonstrate an awareness of what is going on in the larger culture and how that may impact your work and your corporate responsibility.

Be authentic

DEI has become something of a buzzword in the corporate landscape, but it can’t just be lip service or checking a box. Any genuine DEI effort requires accountability and transparency. It requires a sincere look at where your organization can improve, and being honest about those places for improvement both internally and externally. 

Establishing DEI-centric systems is not a linear process. People won’t just automatically adopt new systems easily because you tell them they should. We’ve learned in our own efforts that often it is one step forward and two steps back and that requires patience and persistence. This is the stage Forum One is in now, and when we talk about DEI, we do our best to talk about it with an awareness that we, as an organization, still have work to do to ensure that the systems we are trying to set up are effective.

Be humble and adaptable

Remember that this is an ongoing process. You should continually be learning new things and adjusting your perspective. A diversity, equity, and inclusion effort is not something that can be finished. It is an ongoing process and commitment to incorporating DEI principles into your organization’s work and values. DEI is a conversation in our culture, and that means that new information will become available, your understanding of what DEI means will evolve, and you will continue to be introduced to new ideas and experiences that will shift how you approach your organization’s DEI work and message. 

Sometimes this process may be uncomfortable, but that means it’s working. Be open to those shifts and to thinking about things in new ways, because that’s how you become part of the conversation. If you learn something new that requires a change in your messaging, own that and be open about what has changed and why.

Be prepared to take a stand

 It is important to pay attention to what is going on in your industry and the wider culture and be prepared to respond sincerely and with conviction to events in a way that supports the values you are committed to—and to make changes that reflect those values. Forum One has committed to standing against racism, but we know that only matters if we examine our own processes and ways of doing business to incorporate that commitment into all of our work. This is an ongoing process for us and something we are committed to continuing to examine and work on.

Be specific

DEI is important in every industry, and prioritizing it is the right thing to do. But when incorporated authentically into all of your work, it also makes an organization better at what it does. What does it mean for your industry and organization specifically? How does it help your employees?  How does it improve your organization or your work? For Forum One, a focus on DEI makes us a better employer and a stronger partner. It can help us be better designers, better writers, and better developers. It can improve our relationships with our partners and clients—and our work on every level.

Remember what you’re trying to accomplish

Remember that DEI messaging is only as valuable as it is authentic and that if it’s lip service or checking a box, people see through that. Messaging is a tool. Incorporating DEI into your messaging is important, but won’t do any good if it isn’t backed up by tangible actions. DEI messaging is effective when it is honest, sincere, and fully integrated into your overall vision for your organization and approach to your work.

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