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How to make sure your PR language is inclusive

PR has changed a great deal since PRmoment launched 14 years ago, and one particular improvement is the degree to which practitioners recognise the importance of being inclusive. Language is elemental to this - here we discuss ways to make sure that all your comms speak to everyone in appropriate ways.

Why inclusivity is important

It helps people to feel they belong

Abbi Head, PR communications strategist at Little PR Rock:  "Language is essential to communication. In PR, we need to speak the same language of signs and signifiers as our clients so that they feel heard and understood. In this way, inclusive language helps people who feel marginalised to feel a sense of belonging. Essentially, PR professionals act as a bridge between the client and the media. Therefore, we need to nudge our clients to feel confident about their chosen languages and use them ourselves. This way, they will be more comfortable when speaking to journalists. I have worked in communications for charities supporting people with mental illness, learning disabilities and neurodiversity. Information needs to be accessible to everyone; inclusive language helps make this happen by ensuring everyone feels included in the conversation.”

Language leads social progress

Sara Thornhurst, trainer and consultant at inclusive PR agency INPR: “As professional communicators we are responsible for how the words and language we use regarding diversity and inclusion affects the attitudes, actions and behaviours of society. With specific regard to disability language, it’s only in relatively recent times that disabled people and people with impairments have had agency and control over the terminology used to define and describe us. As societies and cultures shift and harmful narratives are called out for the damage they cause, agencies and clients need to recognise and understand the power and role inclusive language has to play in social progress. Agencies and their clients can do this through being intentional in the language they choose, reading content written by and for disabled people, and learning about the Social Model of Disability and how its creation and adoption changed disability language for the better.”

The right words strengthen relationships

Cherish Anison, global head of people and talent at agency Cognito: “Language is powerful. When used correctly, language strengthens relationships with diverse client groups, encourages better knowledge sharing, whilst also enabling well-informed decision making. Imagine what happens when this same language is used or interpreted incorrectly, the impact can be detrimental, perhaps resulting in talent leaving the agency, loss of business deals and the breakdown of crucial relationships.

“The landscape we operate is global, varied and continues to evolve, therefore it’s crucial for agencies and clients to not only incorporate language reflective of this, but have it ingrained within the culture of their organisation.”

Working environments are happier

Josh Paterson, senior consultant at communications consultancy Five in a Boat: “Language is the absolute foundation of our craft in the PR and marketing industries, and agencies should lead by example in utilising a broader, more inclusive vocabulary in both internal and external comms. Showing acceptance of difference during in-person dialogue in the office or in social settings also makes everyone feel seen and heard, inevitably resulting in a happier working environment.”

Tips for writing

Hold each other accountable

Cherish Anison: “Introducing employee resource groups, inclusive language guides, D&I training and gender bias decoders are ways to promote more inclusive language. However, we need to go beyond this by also being willing to hold each other accountable, as well as, remaining open minded to truly cultivate inclusion.”

Question all language choices

Emma Laye, people director at marketing agency tigerbond:  “It’s important we’re using inclusive language both internally and within our work to reach the end customers and audiences we’re targeting with our messages. As comms professionals, we need to remain informed and consistently use non-exclusionary language. It’s our job to make sure we’re questioning the language choices we make for example; are we using disempowering language within descriptions?

“We have an opportunity to be part of a positive change within our industry, both internally with our diverse teams and with the campaigns and work we produce. It’s down to us to keep learning, ask questions and never assume. It’s a continual journey we’re all on as an industry.”

Bake inclusion into comms strategies

Sophie Barnes, PR senior account manager and diversity and inclusion champion at agency Splendid Communications: “Agencies need to bake inclusion into their communications strategy for all media. This doesn’t need to be a complex task and should go beyond gender inclusivity, and also consider age, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, race, religion and ability. Our approach is to always start by putting people first. Think as broadly as possible about the diverse audiences of modern Britain. Consider how your language might impact those of various identities, as they go about their daily lives, and ask yourself - will your words land in the appropriate way, free of any possible misunderstanding or, worse, offense?

“Be authentic, strive to always improve, hire diverse talent to create and feature in your campaigns, keep going with your inclusive messages and don’t look back, look forward.”

Actively listen to marginalised groups

Rachel Allison, founder of marketing agency Axe & Saw: “Inclusive language and making sure team members have pronouns at the bottom of their signature, is only the beginning in terms of really creating inclusive communications and campaigns, and it’s a shame that people think doing this ticks the box. We need to make sure that we are still doing the work, listening and giving space to those on the outside when it comes to storytelling. Actively listen to and consider the perspectives of marginalised groups, better still hire them and give them room to grow within organisations. Intentions may have been pure at the beginning, but the old trope is filtering through once again and the conversations seem to be moving away when it comes to really addressing and eliminating any unconscious biases in one's speech and writing.”

Be empathetic

Caitlin Singh, communications executive at B2B agency Definition Agency: “Whether you’re writing or speaking, making subtle changes to more inclusive language has infinite benefits for both clients and agency itself. What may seem like small exercises to some, like referring to a hypothetical person as 'they' instead of 'he' or 'she', will mean a lot to those we communicate with, and create authenticity within those communities.

“Just stopping to think about the words we use relating to ethnicity, nationality, and culture can have a huge impact on an overall sense of belonging in the workplace as many people just don’t realise the extra meaning some language has between the lines.

“Surely, it can only be a positive thing to reeducate ourselves on the language that may have once seemed ‘acceptable’, to have a little empathy for those on the receiving end.”

Quell brand fears of getting it wrong

Lucy Mart, managing partner of communications agency Pretty Green: “Consumer reports demonstrate that people are more likely to purchase products and services from brands that represent them. It’s also been proven that brands prioritising representation are over indexing with target audiences and beating the competition. However, we have found that despite this, there is still a fear of getting it wrong and some brands are being tokenistic or avoiding the issue entirely. To tackle this issue, we’ve created the ‘A is for All’ framework which allows us to help brands develop comms strategies that are representative of their audiences and deliver against their marketing objectives through increased engagement.”

Take contexts into account

Sandy Downs, senior account director and Head of DE&I at communications agency Teamspirit: “Obviously, at its core, no language used in a campaign should be discriminatory; slurs and stereotypes are a hard no. But truly inclusive language means taking different backgrounds and contexts into account; using plain English whenever you can, and translating any jargon you do need to use we come up against this a lot in financial services! The old adage is useful; if you can’t explain it, you don’t understand it.

“As usual, the best way to get it right is to lean on your experts. In this case, your experts are your representatives from different communities. Sense check your copy with different people around the office - do the young understand the 70s reference?

“Not only is this best practice, it is risk management. Time and time again, campaigns go live without being run past anyone who could have told you there’s an issue… and as recently evidenced by Sainsbury’s it’s no walk in the park!

Inclusive language is not an add-on, it is where every piece of comms should start, as without it, you are not truly communicating, you are only broadcasting.

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