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

My last Insight discussed the role of language diversity on college and university campuses. That’s one piece of a much larger diversity, inclusion and accessibility-whole comprising multiple moving parts whose edges can be sharp and textured and which don’t always fit together easily. This time, we’re going to talk about doing something difficult: giving your outbound communications a good-old inclusion audit. I wrote in that last piece about doing this in a variety of classes. You need to do an audit, too–to acknowledge places where we’ve not met our ideals, and to catalogue how high the stakes can be when we fall short.

Understand that when you don’t address something properly, you hand other people a gap to fill in unpredictable ways. Mind those gaps. Remember, too, that impressions are built up over time, and every communication behavior is viewed in the context of those that came before while becoming context for the next one to come along.

In an ideal situation, all members of our campus communities would be well equipped to communicate in the institutional voice and for the good of the institution. Communications should be oriented toward forming positive long-term relationships and fostering belonging, which means you need to be thinking about how all your outputs serve that goal.

I offer one initial piece of advice: Think outcome first, output second. Decide what you want to accomplish, not what you will make.

Now, let’s audit your materials. One thing I know well as an editor is that we can be so familiar with what we want to say that we lose the ability to hear what we’ve actually said. An audit involving audience members gives you a chance to hear 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. So, an essential activity is setting up focus-group-style sessions with faculty, staff and current students who can talk to you about their impressions of your outbound comms alongside 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 new questions can you ask your community about their time on your campus?

If you can’t physically be on campus or share space with people because of COVID-19, you can still get something of this experience. If you’ve never taken your campus’s virtual tour, now is a great time to do that! Really 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. Actually, even if you can walk around campus pretty freely right now, you should do this anyway. You need to make sure there is coherence between the online and on-campus experiences.

Once you’ve tried to get to know the physical plant and 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.

So. Here’s what you need to do:

Develop student journey maps and find people to talk to who have experienced various touchpoints. You can think of touchpoints as all the occasions on which your outputs 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 apprehension about how to make the money work. This also includes the experiences students have using your CRM platform.

Make a master list of all the outbound communications you can think of, across as many channels as possible, and categorize them according to touchpoint. Does anyone check these outputs through a diversity, inclusion and accessibility lens specifically before they are released?

Answer many questions about content and process. When I use the words “reference,” “feature” or “mention,” let’s take that to mean noting something either verbally or visually. I’ve written these as though I am asking you, but you can reframe these to ask your focus groups.

The content questions:

1. What do you consider “diversity” and “inclusion”? How long does it take you to define those terms using only your communications and to find examples?

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 with disabilities to navigate and succeed in safety?

4. When you talk about “backgrounds,” what do you really mean? How can you tell which backgrounds are recognized and valued? If you are using that as a proxy term for race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status, what might you be overlooking by making this choice?

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 show any signage in languages other than English, or do you have videos featuring other languages, which can (and should) include sign languages? What is the process by which you decide whether someone’s English should be subtitled, 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 preferred pronouns and in which circumstances? How does gender expression feature in your comms?

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 from my own anthropological experience: If you feature pictures of students handling human remains in labs, do you know the provenance of those collections? 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 hot-button 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.

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?

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 in democratic society responsibly. I bet you have some verbiage in your mission statement to that effect. By performing an inclusion audit on your comms, you are drilling down to missional bedrock. You’re also embodying the value of 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. Your institutional future depends on whether you are truthful and keep your promises.

Once you’ve performed the audit and arrived at some observations, you have some clarity around the sharp and irregular edges that cut away at coherence and community on your campus. Doing the tough work of making pieces fit is your job, and fixing your comms is part of that.

RHB vice president Dr. Rob Zinkan, graduate research assistant Connor LaGrange and I have been investigating a set of 108 higher ed strategic plans. Strategic planning is itself a form of self-audit and self-repair, and it is itself a process that can benefit from guidance. There’s a great question emerging from the literature (with credit to David P. Haney and Hal Williams and to Peter Eckel and Cathy Trower) on how to do this well that we can adapt to use here: if increasing diversity, inclusion and accessibility is a strategic goal, what does doing the opposite of that look like? Does decreasing diversity, inclusion and accessibility seem like anything a right-thinking person would do? If everyone does the right-thinking thing, it’s not really strategic anymore. It’s so much more than that—it’s the right thing to do.

I see it as both higher ed’s great challenge and great blessing to lead the charge to do the right thing. Each campus is called to take on its own leadership role. Are you answering?

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Aimee Hosemann

Aimee is a Writer at RHB.