There is rapidly growing awareness across industries that leaders need to take diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) seriously and actively support initiatives that can root out systemic bias and discrimination within organizations. In fact, there is plenty of research suggesting DEI in any industry cannot succeed without leadership support, and support includes communication choices. How leaders narrate and construct messages regarding DEI is consequential.
The DEI Problem in PR
Public relations leaders are in strategic positions of power to improve the state of DEI in the industry through how they communicate about DEI-related issues. However, past research and industry trade discourse suggest leadership support for DEI, both communicative and in terms of concrete action, has been sorely lacking. In a country where currently marginalized groups will collectively constitute a slim majority by 2050, the level of diversity in the public relations industry is anywhere between 11 and 20% according to various sources. While the racial and social justice movement over the past year has put DEI on the front burner, there is still a long way to go.
Diverse Voices, a recent publication by the PRSA Foundation and the Museum of Public Relations, highlights the career paths — including the supportive and not-so-supportive organizational climates — of some of the PR industry’s most prominent and diverse leaders. We analyzed the stories in Diverse Voices using a qualitative research approach (narrative analysis) to examine how leaders are communicating about DEI. We looked for themes across stories with the goal of revealing the shared (collective) vision of PR leaders and the implications of this shared vision for DEI in practice and for systemic change. The results of our analysis are published in the PR Journal. We also offer five storytelling tips for catalyzing change and moving the needle on DEI.
How We Communicate Constructs Reality
Communication scholars maintain that human beings make sense of reality in narrative form and that the language we use to talk/communicate about social and professional issues creates reality and shapes what we can envision as being possible. This suggests that the way leaders communicate about DEI matters significantly. Our analysis of the 43 stories in Diverse Voices revealed the following shared themes and overall vision across the leaders’ stories:
— Underdogs on a solo quest. The stories overall follow a common plotline of the leader being an underdog who overcomes adversity. While such struggle is a factual reality faced by members of underrepresented groups, this solo theme runs a risk of ignoring larger systemic inequities and structural obstructions that disadvantage members of marginalized groups and hamper their advancement to leadership positions.
— You’re on your own. Overlapping with the underdog theme, stories of success among diverse leaders tend to focus on individual outcomes without much information about supporting characters and other relevant details that contribute to their success. This results in fewer descriptions of systemic and organizational transformation in the stories, thereby reinforcing an ethos of “rugged individualism” that may actually reinforce inequality. A few Individual successes may lead to the impression that the system in place is fair.
— The future of DEI looks like… Stories that focus on the past and present, as is the case with Diverse Voices, tend to not offer much of a vision of the future. From the perspective of communication and storytelling, especially communication about a topic such as DEI where systemic change is the urgent goal, trying to create a shared vision of what the future ought to look like is hard to do when there is not much reference to the future in our stories.
We suggest five strategies to avoid these storytelling traps.
Suggestions for Practitioners
Mindful and reflexive changes in words, phrases, and narrative elements in everyday talk and in writing/messaging can yield more inclusive and future-oriented visions which, according to communication theory about narrative visions, could aid in building more inclusive professional practices, leadership, and cultures at a faster pace. Below are five specific strategies we can immediately use in our stories:
1.) Use more plural, “we” language. When telling stories, we recommend using more inclusive language. Rather than using “I” or “you,” write or say “we.” Rather than “here’s how you can be successful in DEI” say “here’s how we can be successful in DEI.”
2.) Include mundane details and background characters in stories. When telling our stories about DEI, we recommend including specific details about who has been supportive or not supportive in our successes or failures. This will help paint a bigger picture and generate a more collective vision of the practices and people involved in bringing about systemic change and avoid the impression that the path to success and leadership for members of marginalized groups is a solo journey.
3.) Avoid the Horatio Alger’s trope. The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative, common in the underdog narrative, is often called the Horatio Alger’s “rags-to-riches” trope. Individual skills play a role in our successes, but so does the work of forebearers, allies, and other characters in the narrative. Once again, the big picture is important.
4.) Focus more on the future and on how-to scenarios. The stories in Diverse Voices, as noted, focus on the past and present. Stories that paint a vision of what the future might look like, and what concrete practices are needed to realize that vision or sustain it in the future, would provide actual guidance for practitioners and future leaders.
5.) Use creative narrative structures. The power of storytelling is that writers can use flashbacks, flashforwards, multiple types of voices, and other storytelling devices to creatively imagine a different reality. If a vision precedes reality, as communication scholars suggest, then we need to use all storytelling devices strategically to reimagine and reconfigure current undesirable DEI realities.
We hope that Diverse Voices will be followed up with similar publications and that leaders and practitioners sharing their stories will consider these five suggestions. Leaders in the profession can mindfully use the power of storytelling to reshape DEI narratives, and by extension, the future. We cannot become what we cannot see (or envision through communication).
Nilanjana Bardhan, Ph.D., is a professor of public relations and intercultural communication at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She is a board member of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations and co-chairs its DEI committee.
Craig Engstrom, Ph.D., is an associate professor of business communication at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a communication consultant. Learn more about his work or connect with him via www.craigengstrom.ninja.