Why—and How—You Should Do a Communication Inclusion Audit Now

The legislative and judicial landscape around diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) has become ever-more contested since that time. We’re republishing this piece to account for this moment in history, in support of institutions who remain committed to DEIB.

In the last three years, the already hard work of steering higher ed toward its promise of creating equity and social mobility has only become more difficult. Conflicts over why–and for whom–higher ed exists have gotten more pitched. What this reveals is that concepts you may have taken for granted as settled, or whose definitions you hadn’t really set yet, are being misunderstood and misused. 

In the most-recent round of RHB’s strategic planning research, we published an installment focusing on the ways in which diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) work has continued at several institutions that produced plans we profiled during our original research.

We noted that goals containing DEIB elements were the most common category of goals across plans. Late last year, we observed that DEIB continues to be an important element of 54 strategic plans launched in 2022 and 2023. However, we also noted that the language around DEIB may be less focused on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in favor of concepts like accessibility, student success, supportive environment and welcome. These words can be associated with the outcomes of DEIB work, but they also stand at a remove from the controversy around the more “traditional” vocabulary in this political moment. 

Understanding that the ways you reference race, ethnicity and other identity factors may change based on the contexts in which you operate, we urge you to continue to tell your audiences how transformational your work is and why it matters. If you haven’t had institution-wide conversations about your mission, vision and values—or your strategic goal progress—now is the ideal time for that. Helping set institutional guidelines for talking to and about the people who matter most to you, like students, in honest and powerful terms, is an essential and on-going part of the work of higher education marketing and communications.

An audit of your existing materials is a great way to get that institutional conversation going. This is a moment in which you need to check and check again that your communications are accurate and transparent. Remember that the unsaid still lurks as a presence alongside the said in every conversation, so as you undertake an audit, be attentive to where the unsaid claims space.

Set the scene for an audit

We suggest doing this audit in the company of your audience members, which gives you a chance to learn whether you said what you wanted to say the right way. This is most important when it comes to conveying welcome and support for all members of our communities. Setting up focus-group-style sessions with faculty, staff, current students, community members and others allows them to talk to you about their impressions of your messages in the context of their own experiences. Have these discussions with your team, too.

As you anticipate these conversations, walk around your campus with the mindset of a new visitor. One of the best ways to make yourself receptive to new impressions and to hear what others have to say is to take yourself out of your usual experience. Going for a walk is a tried-and-true ethnographic method, one that acquaints us with a place that even works for people who think they already know a place well. Familiarity can make us overlook a lot of important information and make us resistant to hearing about things that we don’t or choose not to notice. 

So the first thing we have to do is try to shake ourselves out of our familiarity. Park somewhere new and take a new route to your office. Go shopping at the bookstore as though you were a prospective student or try to find a new coffee shop or a new place to work for a couple hours. To use a famous anthropological saying of indeterminate authorship, “make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.” Try to see and feel your campus anew. What fresh observations can you make about how people speak, behave and congregate? What kinds of images and messages are they exposed to as they move around your campus, whether they are institutionally approved or not? What new questions can you ask your community about their time on your campus?

If you’ve never taken your campus’s virtual tour, now is also a great time to do that. Inspect the tour with the idea that there are people you want to entice who may not get to test for “ground truth” by coming to visit in person. 

Once you’ve tried to get to know the physical surroundings of your campus all over again, make a list of the things you noticed. Hopefully this includes new acquaintances and some gems you tend to overlook which have reinvigorated your commitment to your campus community and the important work you do. Hopefully as well, this will be motivation to help you move through the next phase, involving intensive examinations of your communications materials and enlightening discussions about how people’s lived experiences measure up to the promises you make through outreach.

Here’s what you need to do:

  • Develop student journey maps and find people to talk to who have experienced various touchpoints. Think of touchpoints as all the occasions on which your messages reach an audience member, from the moment your first recruitment email lands in a high school junior’s inbox to the times students show up in the financial aid office clutching documents and feeling apprehensive about how to make the money work. This also includes the experiences students have using your CRM platform.
  • Make a master list of all your internal and external communications, across as many channels as possible, and categorize them according to touchpoint. 
  • Answer many questions about content and process. When we use the words “reference,” “feature” or “mention,” let’s take that to mean noting something either verbally or visually. 

The questions:

  1. What do you consider “diversity” and “inclusion”? Which identity-related categories are discussed in the guidance in your editorial or visual style manuals? How often is the content of those manuals reviewed and updated? Which of your colleagues have the training or desire to take leadership roles here? Which communicators or marketers in other units have expertise to share with you? Does anyone check your messages through a specific diversity, inclusion and accessibility lens before they are produced or released?
  2. Building on question one, what are the primary values your communications associate with diversity and inclusion—are these themes described as educational experiences, workforce preparation or something else? How do you promote the intrinsic value of the lived experiences of your constituents?
  3. When you say “accessibility,” do you mean “affordability,” or do you mean clear ways you’ve made it possible for people to navigate and succeed in safety regardless of ability?
  4. When you talk about “backgrounds,” what do you really mean? How do you show which backgrounds are recognized and valued? If you are using “backgrounds” as a proxy term for race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status, by what rubric do you decide which “background” elements are relevant to a message?
  5. Which diversity/global learning experiences are featured in your materials? How do you feature international students, faculty and staff?
  6. How do you feature resource centers for different identity categories?
  7. How do you give visibility to services for military veterans, non-traditional students and students who have care-taking responsibilities?
  8. How does language appear in your materials? Do you provide any content in languages other than English, which can include signed languages? What is the process by which you decide whether someone’s English should be subtitled or otherwise “corrected”, knowing that there are many Englishes and sometimes they don’t share the same colloquialisms?
  9. How do you talk about access to food for a variety of diets, budgets and schedules? How do you publicize food banks on or off campus?
  10. How visible is faith and political diversity in your communications?
  11. How do you reference heritage month events? Is it a tone of foodie fun, or is it about having real conversations that lead to real understanding?
  12. How frequently do people provide their pronouns and in which circumstances? How does gender expression feature in your communications?
  13. How do you feature Native American, American Indian or Indigenous people that lived and still live in your area, and who are part of your campus community? How are you in relation with those people in a way that matters to them? How do you acknowledge the land the campus is on and its stewardship by peoples indigenous to your region? And, to cover a specialized topic: If you feature pictures of students handling human remains in labs, do you know the provenance of those collections of skeletal materials? Are those collections potentially subject to repatriation and/or reburial under federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) legislation? The way human remains are treated in photography, especially promotional photography, is a controversial issue, so make this part of the conversation you have with Native American/Indigenous communities. And if you don’t have someone on your campus who understands NAGPRA and can review any potential issues with you, get into conversation with someone who does. (Also, note that the Department of the Interior released updated regulations in December 2023 that may change how your institution meets NAGPRA’s provisions.)

The process questions:

  1. How are content assignments given? What are the processes of editing and quality analysis content undergoes before release?
  2. Does text match what is reality, or is it aspirational? What would the text say if it was authentic and truthful? How do you model learning from self-reflection and others’ experiences? Your students might tell you whether representations resonate with their experiences, giving you clues about where you can dial up or dial back on your efforts.
  3. When you select photos for various uses, are they consistent in tone and content across platforms? How often do you refresh your image bank? Do your student photo formulas essentially boil down to “one of these, plus one of these, plus one of these…”? How many times does the same minoritized or international student appear in multiple pieces?

Why an audit—and what next?

Now, there’s another final question, one you might be asking: Why am I doing this? (It’s a good question.)

The answer is both simple and profound. Higher education is not just about content transfer or skill development. It is also about cultivating a community who have the capacity to participate responsibly in democratic society. I bet you have some verbiage in your mission statement to that effect. By performing an inclusion audit on your communications, you are drilling down to missional bedrock.

To be effective, regardless of the language you use to talk about DEIB, this has to be an institutional commitment. We invite you to keep going after the audit, sharing what you have learned and what you plan to do now that you’ve done this audit across your campus. You also might want to put that sharing in the context of our discussion of performativity and speech as action. Briefly, every message causes an effect: your messages open space for others to respond. Messages create expectations and responsibilities. Audiences remind us of the expectations we set through our messages because what we say and do matters. By sharing what you’ve learned with your audiences, you embody the value of responsibility and self-critique, which is one of the most important and loving actions we can perform—giving a sign of our intent to keep a promise we’ve spoken. Your institutional future depends on whether you are truthful and keep your promises.

Marketers and communicators across campus should be aligned to institutional standards here. This is not a constraint on their agency, but rather a clarification of the ways that they can best represent the institution through the guise of the specific case of a unit, college or division. As Rob Zinkan, RHB’s Vice President for Marketing Leadership, reminds us, audiences see the institution holistically and we do well to remember that.

Sometimes you will hear us RHB folks mention “consequential moments in the life of an institution” as times when clients call on our expertise. When it comes to the role of DEIB in higher ed and society generally, the consequential moment has in some ways been imposed upon you. The challenge has been set before you. As you decide how your institution will respond, we are standing by with an empathetic ear when you have questions or ideas. 

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Aimee Hosemann

Aimee is the Director of Qualitative Research at RHB.