It is easy to write through our own prism of understanding and experiences. However, as PIOs we are often communicating with a wide range of audiences. Audiences that have very different opinions and experiences of your services. This makes it difficult to communicate with the right tone for every audience every time.
Understanding your audience is key and taking the time to learn more about the appropriate use of language will go a long way to ensure you don’t alienate people unwittingly. It is often small unintentional missteps in language that can lead to slow burn crisis issues that grow before your eyes.
Words matter and so does the way you use those words. So how can you be sure your communication strategy is fit for purpose when it comes to serving your community?
Ask for feedback from allies and advocates
Your community is who you are communicating with, so you need to consult with them on how you communicate with them. Find your allies and ask for their feedback on anything you are wanting to publicize in the community. They may see red flags that you aren’t even aware of and so it pays dividends to take the time to look for this vital information. Not only could you save the potential issue of having a comms crisis, but it would also save you money and resources in the long run.
Educate yourself on different perspectives
There are many resources available online that are written by various groups and people who can offer insight on the most appropriate way to communicate. We’ve listed many of these resources below. Take the time to read these guides to be sure you understand cultural nuances and perspectives when it comes to writing copy or content for your site or social media channels. Public consultation is challenging yet incredibly valuable so be sure to get it as right as you can from the start.
Talk to people in your organization
Looking inwards as well as outwards will really help you to get your messaging right. Be open about what you are trying to achieve and see if anyone within your organization can provide you with insight that you might not have previously considered. Not only is this good relations externally, but your internal employee relations will be strengthened through considerered approaches. It may be a more casual ‘favor to ask’ email or you could find significant insight by consulting with a particular employee support network or group that is a part of your organization.
Here’s a list of resources to help you use the right language with your audiences and communities.
Race and Ethnicity
- The Asian American Journalists Association has published a guide to covering Asian America.
- The National Association of Black Journalists has a style guide on terms and language related to Black American history, culture, and current issues.
- The National Association of Hispanic Journalists publishes a downloadable Cultural Competence Handbook that aims to help journalists and others “develop a working vocabulary related to diversity issues, avoiding stereotypes.”
- The Native American Journalists Association maintains numerous reporting guides on specific topics relevant to reporting on Indigenous communities.
- The University of British Columbia offers language guidelines on writing about Indigenous peoples.
Gender and Sexuality
- Gender Spectrum, a nonprofit dedicated to creating gender sensitivity and inclusive environments for children and teens, provides information about understanding gender on their website.
- GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide is intended to help journalists and other creators tell LGBTQ people’s stories fairly and accurately.
- NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists provides a stylebook supplement offering resources on covering LGBTQ issues; it’s intended to complement publications’ stylebooks.
- The Radical Copy Editor’s Style Guide for Writing about Transgender People is a usage guide for bias-free, respectful, and inclusive language in reference to transgender people.
- The Trans Journalists Association’s Style Guide is a tool reporters, editors and other media makers can use to begin to improve trans coverage.
Style Guides That Address Multiple Dimensions of Diversity
- The Conscious Style Guide provides resources, articles, and newsletters on topics like age, gender, race, appearance, and religion.
- Writing about race, ethnicity, social class and disability from Hamilton University
- Guidelines for Achieving Bias-Free Communication from the Anti Defamation League
- The Diversity Style Guide from San Francisco State University’s journalism department includes terms and phrases related to topics like age, drugs and alcohol, disability, religion, sexual orientation, and race and ethnicity.
- The Global Press Style Guide offers rules for referring to the people of the more than two dozen developing countries where the Global Press Journal reporters work.
- Not a style guide per se, but a valuable resource: The Society of Professional Journalists and the Trans Journalists Association have teamed up to create the Race and Gender Hotline, a free consultation service to help reporters on deadline address questions about race and gender in their stories.
- The Photographer’s Guide to Inclusive Photography, produced by PhotoShelter and Authority Collective, discusses issues related to photographing race, gender, the Global South, Indigenous communities, and LGBTQ+ communities.
- The Symmetry Style Guide: Writing about People with Dignity is specifically aimed at writers working on journalistic articles for Symmetry magazine, but it could be helpful to a wider audience as well.
Health, Disability, Addiction, and Ageing
- The International Longevity Center has a style guide for members of the media writing about aging.
- Guidelines for Writing About People With Disabilities
- The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction’s Stigma Primer for Journalists provides guidance for reporting on substance use and the people it impacts.
- The National Center on Disability and Journalism has a page of resources for writers and editors, including their Disability Language Style Guide.
- The National Eating Disorders Association offers guidance for writers covering eating disorders.
Trauma and incarceration
- The Dart Center Style Guide for Trauma-Informed Journalism provides guidance on terminology and ethics in reporting on the impact of trauma on individuals, families, and communities, and in reporting on trauma-laden issues such as racism and sexual violence.
- The Marshall Project offers a guide for writing about covering people who are and have been incarcerated.
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