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  • April Dawn Shinske

Craft Authentic Communications, Foster Belonging

Updated: Sep 12, 2020


Every business website I visit seems to have two alerts at the top of the page:

  • Our response to COVID-19

  • How we're supporting diversity/Black businesses/claiming we are kinda woke

And each time I see those paired headlines, I wonder about the second. I find myself asking, "Are you? Are you REALLY?"


My question stems from having spent more than a decade honing communications within the diversity, inclusion, and belonging space, and knowing full well I have only begun to explore the surface of the work. Companies and organizations need to do more than claim (often opportunistically) they are being inclusive because it's an of-the-moment smart-marketing approach.


Authentic investment in the long-haul work of fostering belonging is as essential as it is complex, and the effort involves a lot more than a screaming headline atop a website.

As communications professionals, we have a sacred duty to support diversity, advance inclusiveness, and foster belonging. We choose the words, we select the images and ultimately we set the overt and subtle tone of our organizations’ voices in the world.

Authenticity, Belonging and Communications

The work of diversity, inclusion and belonging in communications means doing the right thing every day, and evolving quickly to make real-time changes that power high impact for your internal and external customers. But those correct daily decisions must couple with a long-term commitment to learning, growing and listening to peers, customers and subject-area experts -- especially those who possess lived experience.


As you work to create dynamic, meaningful communications that are on the right side of history and foster a sense of goodness, consider these essential points:


Take delight in diversity

Chances are high that if you are a professional communicator, you love people and their stories. You want to be "in the know" and want to share information with an authentic voice. If you have a background in journalism, you are especially invested in getting stories right -- relishing both accuracy and inspiration in the messaging you produce across mediums.

Diverse storytelling isn't separate from great storytelling. Storytelling cannot be compelling when it isn't authentic. And authentic storytelling cannot happen without welcomed diversity of voices, viewpoints, experiences and ideas.

When you have genuine interest in the lived experiences of your audiences, when you desire to tell their stories beautifully, when you want your brand to accurately reflect the needs of your customers, and when you work hard at ensuring you are getting it right, you will naturally become a better communicator much more adept at fostering diversity, inclusion and belonging.


Understand belonging is the goal

Who are your favorite hosts? If you were invited to a backyard barbecue, what would prompt you to accept or decline? What would excite you to attend? My favorite hosts go out of their way to make me feel like I belong, introduce me to friends I haven't met yet, check to see if I have allergies to the food they'll serve, make sure there is a chair for me at the fire pit, and genuinely care about my opinions and perspectives, even if our families, careers, priorities and backgrounds may differ greatly. I want to go to the barbecue where I know I will fit in, be comfortable and have a strong sense that I belong. Think about it: If someone invited you to an event and told you your presence would be "tolerated" or "accepted" or "included" but that you wouldn't really belong, would you want to head over and roast marshmallows together? Probably not.


Remember: Diversity and inclusion are worthy goals. But diversity only means a mix of people were invited to the barbecue. Inclusion only means guests were made to feel they could take part. But belonging means a cozy seat at the fire pit surrounded by good friends and laughter. Fostering belonging should be an attainable communications holy grail.


Communicators can be a lot like great or awful barbecue hosts. Every choice either helps our audiences feel included at the fire pit, or like they have a standing-room-only view of the party, next to the choking smoke of the grill.

Everything you communicate adds to or detracts from belonging

One of my least favorite things is receiving a communication about diversity with an accompanying image that either isn't diverse, inclusive -- or realistic. Sadly, I see and receive those ”miss the mark” pieces all the time from companies and organizations. If we're building a social media post about socio-economic disparities across zip codes, let's make sure the image we select depicts people who might actually look like real people living in the neighborhoods we are discussing.


No matter what topic you are covering, ask yourself: Is this project I'm producing truly representative of my audience? Does it include people of different ages, ethnicities, sexual orientations, genders and abilities? Does it look and feel real?


Words, especially, matter. Ask yourself whether you are making assumptions that reflect your own background, not necessarily the full experiences of your audiences, when you select language.Our assumptions and language can marginalize our audiences, even when our intentions are good. We have to move from good intentions to lexicons that foster belonging.


Learn and act

Despite -- or maybe even because of -- my years working to be as fully representative as possible in every communication, each time I approach a topic through the lens of equity, I remind myself: "I have no experience!" I am not overstating the point. I have great strategies under my belt, a well-intentioned heart and stellar communications tactics at the ready. But my lived experience in being a person of color at work and in the community? That would be zero. My lived experience in being a senior? Also zero. In being a single mom? Zero again.


We all have lots of gaps between what we've lived and what our colleagues and customers have lived. Unfortunately, by the numbers, the majority of public-relations professionals are white. Insight Into Diversity stated that a "2018 Harvard Business Review analysis of federal labor statistics found the industry is 87.9 percent White, 8.3 percent African American, 2.6 percent Asian American, and 5.7 percent Hispanic or Latinx." We need to move those numbers toward a leadership sea change that better reflects our diverse communities and customers. But right now, those of us who happen to be both white and communications pros have a particular obligation to own our ignorance and actively seek to do better. We have exactly zero lived experience when it comes to the daily drain of facing bigotry, yet we are charged with speaking for our colleagues and customers who do.

Time to stop, listen, and learn from colleagues who bring lived experience and authentic voice.

For me that means joining every training I can, sitting in on every roundtable, listening to every webinar (even the ones that turn out to be dull!), and asking for expert review of every piece I craft that might require additional voices and knowledge I don't possess. I don't know what I don't know. That's OK. But it's also something I have to own and correct.


Communicating for Good

Being a maker of good in the communications space means being willing to sit down, quiet down, listen and learn, no matter who we are, what we look like, or what path has brought us to the work at hand. Deeply educated communicators create the finest end products. And customers and colleagues you care about will feel and appreciate a deeper sense of belonging when you take the time to carefully construct authentic communications that make everyone feel welcome, valued and important.


April Dawn Shinske is an integrated marketing communications professional with nearly two decades of experience crafting messages that transform team members into brand ambassadors. Connect at aprildawnshinske@gmail.com


Copyright August 2020, April Dawn Shinske. All rights reserved. Please cite authorship and link back to aprildawnshinske.com when sharing content. Thank you.

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©2020 by April Dawn Shinske.