Honing your DEI communications strategy

In the midst of massive societal shifts, diversity, equity and inclusion has become a key part of communications. But what if we say the wrong thing? What terms should we use or not use? Is our messaging missing the mark?

Kim Clark believes communications has a key role in an institution’s DEI policies. And she’s got the knowledge and tools to help us succeed.

Clark, a DEI communications consultant and speaker who runs Kim Clark Communications Inc., will lead a pre-conference workshop at the NACCDO-PAMN Annual Conference in Salt Lake City. The workshop, Using a DEI LENS: Showing and Telling Our DEI Story Through Outcomes, will help participants learn to embed DEI work into our processes to get DEI-informed results, shifting from activities to measurable outcomes, and creating effective DEI-focused communications plans for our centers.

Kim Clark
Kim Clark

By the end of the interactive session, you’ll be able to not only apply what you learn to your work immediately, but you’ll be able to foster trust across your team and with leadership to have productive conversations on DEI efforts.

Clark talked to us about her work in DEI communications and why our roles our critical.

How did you come to focus on DEI communications strategies? Why is this your passion?

Social justice echoes through me as a Muscogee Nation citizen, a gay woman and a mom of two kids with disabilities. The quantum leap happened when I met my mentor, Rev. Deborah L. Johnson, in 2004. I upleveled my DEI and people-centered internal communications strategies immediately and have never looked back.

One of the times the work was tested was after the Pulse tragedy. My inbox was flooded by employees asking for help – they didn’t go to HR, their managers or the ERGs. They came to communications. They said they couldn’t focus, they didn’t know what to do with their anger, their grief. They felt scared and alone.

Fortunately, we had the infrastructure in place and a virtual vigil including a guest appearance from my mentor all came together in less than 30 minutes. Conference rooms were booked across the country, invitations were sent out and emails were sent out from the executive sponsor of the LGBTQ+ employee resource group, who worked with me on what was needed from the event. Seeing the shift, the support for the employees, the ability to follow up with folks – I am still speechless at what a profound effect that had on employees.

Needless to say, I kept going with even more conviction and we were able to be there for folks again when the Charlottesville tragedy occurred. But, we must seed before the need, not wait for something to happen and then react. Nope. We need to mature beyond the cyclical conversation of “should we say something, or not, or who, or when, or how.”

Your website says, “True DEI communications takes guts.” What do you mean by that?

DEI requires personal change for workplace change to occur. How we show up as people influences the work we do. It takes courage, maturity, humility, empathy, conscious awareness and coachability to recognize that other people are having a different experience than we are and not everyone is in a situation where they have the opportunity to thrive. What’s in place now doesn’t work for everyone. We have to apply new approaches, which is all that DEI is. Communicators have to speak up and name the trajectory we’re on when communicating and its potential impact on workplace culture. Speaking up in systems that reward performative work takes guts. Systems are the problem, and it’s people who built them. It takes people collectively to fix the systems.

As communicators, our work is about connection. We have to understand where people are and what they are experiencing so communications are relevant, resonate and meaningful to them. We have to check our egos, mitigate our unconscious biases, be open to learning, and give permission to ourselves and others to make mistakes when doing this work. Why? Because we’re trying to do something that’s never existed before: a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace. We’re all learners here. It takes guts to be a student and admit we don’t know everything – which is a set up. It’s impossible to know all the things, and that’s the beauty and benefit of diversity – we don’t have to. We just have to make the inclusive space and remove inequitable barriers to bring it all together.

What are some of the biggest mistakes communicators make when focusing on DEI?

Mistakes look like missing the premise and purpose of what DEI is by reporting out on activities such as trainings, events, social posts during Pride, having various skin colors on the employee presentation slide, and thinking that is solving systemic, policy issues that improve the individual employee’s day-to-day situation. Most mistakes come from thinking they know what DEI is without asking critical questions in a strategic way.

We haven’t paused to ask the question: what are we solving for? Or going deep in conversation with our DEI partners to understand the DEI strategic goals and collaborate on the role communication plays in making them a reality. Also, staying reactive on social issues and missing the critical conversation on proactively setting up a social issues framework like The DEPTH Model helps communicate the vision and position of the organization in meaningful ways around the context of social issues. We end up causing more harm than good on DEI-related narratives and communications when we’re not intentional and transparent on how DEI is anchored to our organizational purpose, mission and values.

Also, seeing DEI as separate and not something we have a role in is a mistake. That mindset damages the entire organization by withholding the vibrancy and vision only communicators can create in helping understand the benefits of DEI for everyone. Also, if we don’t educate folks on how DEI relates to how we do business, they will forever misunderstand the work and we’ll continue to have inequities, high employee relations stats, and other talent and business issues.

Basically, many of us rushed out there to be in the game without having done much of anything to learn the skills or rules or having any practice. It’s time to adjust and settle from the fervor and pushback, to reorient ourselves around the work, and to come back more informed, purposeful and impactful.

What do you hope PAMN attendees come away with from your workshop?

With folks sending in their questions at registration, they are co-creating the workshop so that we can address their biggest questions, needs and roadblocks. Plus, I want attendees to feel more confident in being involved in the work, and that they have very practical skills they can immediately put to use when they get back. I want them to want to apply a DEI lens to their work and recognize how integral they are in the work. DEI efforts at any organization cannot be effective without communications and communication partners who get it. So, ultimately, I want to help every attendee get it and want to get to work on making a difference in their organization.

The pre-conference workshop will be Monday, May 20. Register for the pre-conference workshop. If you’re already signed up for the conference, you can add the workshop to your registration.

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