A checklist written in a notebook

Checklist for Creating Diverse and Inclusive Content

As an institution committed to cultivating an inclusive, diverse community, your communications are a critical window into your community and a tool to sustain and advance it. Presenting authentic diversity and highlighting your priorities around inclusion on the website may yield stronger affinity and increased engagement among key audiences while demonstrating a serious institutional commitment to equity.

But to communicate sustainably and consistently about diversity, your organization needs a framework for continually affirming editorial choices that authentically reinforce inclusion. (And when I say “authenticity” in this article, I mean presenting an accurate if aspirational view of your community, with low to no manipulation or staging involved.)

To be successful, your entire communications operation needs to be aligned to reinforce these priorities, without demanding undue labor from under-represented persons. It’s not enough to say “we value diversity” — you have to demonstrate it consistently and meaningfully through what you say and publish, because people expect and notice it but also because it is the right thing to do. 

To that end, here are some key considerations to build into your content development process.

Understand What You Mean by “Diversity”

In higher education communication strategy, diversity and inclusion are labels that are frequently invoked, and rightfully so. But within your institution, is there a shared understanding of what these terms really mean and what objectives or considerations you may have around each?

By first seeking a shared understanding and surfacing related institutional goals, you can clarify and focus your communication efforts. But, a marketing and communications office should not approach this effort independently. 

A partnership with your Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Chief Diversity Officer, or similar institutional function will lend more credibility, authority, and integrity to your efforts by deepening your understanding of how to pursue them effectively and yielding more thoughtful, accurate, and intersectional content.

From a communications perspective, it is generally important to approach this effort through multiple lenses — race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, socioeconomic factors, geography, and ability, to name a few. Your diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) authority will have guidance on what this means for your school. (If your office of disability services or similar entity charged with overseeing accessibility is not housed within DEI, seek them out and include them in the dialogue, as well.)

Also remember that diversity and inclusion will mean different things at different institutions — neither is a monolith. What’s important is that different functions and populations across the institution, of which communications and marketing is just one, are working in partnership to advance these goals — the president, the first-years, and everyone in between.

Get Executive Muscle Behind Content Guidelines

Much like one person cannot be the “diversity reviewer,” a communications and marketing office cannot reinforce inclusive communication approaches without executive buy-in. Having a shared understanding of the goals is the first step — the next step is the structure and authority to pursue them.

The University of Michigan’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion created a strategic planning toolkit that spans multiple university functions, including a dedicated section for marketing and communications. Their rationale? “The University of Michigan’s decision to involve every unit in addressing DEI is based on the understanding that effective culture change requires an ongoing commitment throughout the organization.”

As I wrote earlier, these partnerships are critical. If your DEI and accessibility offices are not as proactive, reach out, form a partnership, and meet regularly. Come with questions and a readiness to learn and receive guidance. Identify priority areas to focus on, create action plans for improvement, and share outcomes with relevant stakeholders. As you evolve your own editorial processes, get feedback and buy-in.

The University of Dayton has some powerful diversity and inclusion best practices for marketing and communications, addressing representation, authenticity, inclusive language, and the need for continued personal and professional development on these topics. While brief, the document is great for high-level establishment of priorities and principles to guide communications practices.   

Content and process review

Once you achieve executive support to begin planning and creating content with diversity and inclusion in mind, there are two next steps: 

  1. Understand your current state by reviewing and auditing existing content – including an assessment of how accessible the content is to all members of your community

  2. Define a process for creating content that appropriately reinforces diversity, inclusion, and accessibility going forward

Content review 

While you can commit to new approaches going forward, you still have a large volume of marketing content out there already. By conducting a thoughtful review, you will be able to make short-term changes (particularly to high-priority digital content areas) and develop a better sense of what processes need to change.

Here is a checklist for pursuing this type of review:

❏ Define your goals — These may be determined in conjunction with your institutional partners. What do you need to communicate in terms of diversity and inclusion? What realities do you need to reflect? What objectives do you need to reinforce? Is the focus on representation, community dynamics, authenticity, or some combination of factors?

❏ Know and understand your audience — Clearly-defined goals and audience are the bedrock of any content strategy approach. In this context, confirming your audience priorities and refreshing your understanding of your audience will help focus how you approach your review, with your primary users in mind. For your main institutional website, this may be prospective students, but for a Giving subsite, this may be prospective donors. Also, do you have a significant number of English language learners? Or first-generation students? Understanding your audience segments will shape your content processes.

❏ Establish editorial guidelines — To understand if your content is missing the mark, you have to establish a standard. With your goals in hand, you can create preliminary editorial guidelines that give form to your objectives in improving your content’s substance, language, and narrative. Our post on making your website content more diverse points to some solid examples of higher ed style guides that define standards for writing about gender, LGBTQIA issues and individuals, people with disabilities, race and ethnicity, and even students from low-income backgrounds. Note that I say “preliminary” editorial guidelines — these are just to get you started. Once you complete your review, you’ll have a better sense of where you need explicit guidelines to help improve your content.

❏ Define the scope of your review — Your content is a vast ocean, so prioritize your ports of call. If recruitment is a priority, focus on admission content first. If campus climate surveys reveal concerns among current students, prioritize content geared toward them. Don’t try to swallow it all at once. And even within each priority, evaluate a representative set of content — so, not all 42 program brochures, but rather 5 from a representative range of programs.

❏ Audit selected content — The goal of your audit is to identify both issues and areas of opportunity (which may manifest as gaps), as well as to determine how much effort it will take to revise. You should strive to uncover areas where, through language or information, you are failing to acknowledge the context of certain populations or communicate to them in a meaningful way — or, at worst, your content is insulting or demeaning to them. This is applicable through the lenses of race, geography, class/economic status, gender, ability, language, and age. Some considerations, which could be assessed on a simple scale (e.g. 1 to 5, high/medium/low) with a few examples noted with brief context:

  • Visible expression of diversity across a range of representation — note that this should not be reduced to simply “showing the rainbow” but also the dynamics in which individuals are presented (e.g. photo of a faculty member of color leading a class discussion)

  • Use of appropriate language and terminology (e.g. describing someone as a “wheelchair user” not as “wheelchair-bound”)

  • Avoidance of bias, stereotypes, or hurtful cliches 

  • Broad representation across editorial content (e.g. news story subjects, featured campus events)

  • Use of authentic imagery vs. stock photography

  • Findability of specific information targeted to underrepresented segments (e.g. making scholarship information for socioeconomically disadvantaged students easy to find; avoiding jargon in explaining course registration so first-generation students can fully comprehend; not only publishing information for trans students in the health services section)

  • Mentions of people, functions, and priorities across your content that relate to diversity, equity, and inclusion

Once you have your findings in hand, report them not only to the marketing and communications team, but to senior leadership and your DEI partners, accompanied by an action plan to address them. Beyond any immediate fixes, a big part of that will be your revamped editorial process going forward.

Editorial process

Communicating for diversity and inclusion can’t sustainably be a firefighting operation — putting in the work to build these lenses and frameworks into your editorial process will save time, effort, and harm down the line. Here are the steps to take:

❏ Convene a content review committee — In the literary world, many authors consult with “sensitivity readers” (sometimes called authenticity readers) to improve the quality of a work by ensuring it avoids stereotypes and cliches, while meaningfully accounting for the needs and perspectives of underrepresented populations. These readers are typically people whose lived experience gives them powerful insight in determining whether a work is effectively authentic and representative.

Similarly, you could regularly (once or twice a year) convene a content review committee, comprising individuals from a range of audiences — undergraduates, graduate students, staff, faculty, international students, etc. — with relevant lived experience and representation from different segments of your community. 

The goal is to identify ways to improve content by soliciting their feedback on drafts (so, not yet distributed or published) of different types of publications, such as a new viewbook, a program brochure, a webpage about student organizations, a recent photo shoot, Instagram takeover videos, or a professional video recap of commencement. The committee may adhere to the criteria that guided your audit, but also assess your content through the powerful lens of their lived experience. This feedback may include language changes, alternative narratives or perspectives, or removal of stereotypes.

❏ Conduct content testing — If forming a content review committee seems daunting, you can still solicit meaningful content feedback to learn how to make your content more diverse and inclusive. Some approaches:

  • Highlighter tests — Ask people to take a pink and a green highlighter, using pink to highlight words, phrases, or images that are confusing or off-putting, and using green to highlight those that land positively. Then discuss the results and identify what approaches to evolve or retain.

  • Media sentiment — Survey software like SurveyGizmo have tools to gauge user sentiment of photo, video, or audio content. You could hack this approach to either read or display written content to people, as well.

  • Card sorting —  Card sorting exercises with individuals from different segments can help you understand how they might prioritize information and what their primary concerns and questions are.

  • Usability and sitemap testing — Similarly, usability and sitemap testing with individuals from specific segments could help you identify if your language or information hierarchy is problematic.

  • User research — Through ethnographic inquiry and focus groups, you can surface more granular feedback about the success of your written and visual content in positively reinforcing your objectives for diversity and inclusion.

  • Build diversity priorities into your editorial process — When you report on your editorial effectiveness at year’s end, match up to your institution’s diversity and inclusion objectives — how good of a job did your content do at supporting these priorities? Did you elevate relevant voices, achieve authentic representation, and highlight relevant initiatives? Take the goals you defined previously and assign metrics to them, defining KPIs just like you would with any other measurement effort.

❏ Build diversity into your content training and guidelines — Give content creators not just the tools but the context from which to produce more diverse, inclusive content. This is how style guides and training go hand in hand. We’ve talked about style guides already, but thoughtful content training should help content creators understand why those guidelines are important and how to apply them.

❏ Create an ongoing review process — Wash, rinse, repeat. See everything in the previous “Content Review” section? You can’t do that just once. To truly hold your content accountable to your diversity objectives, you need to regularly revisit your goals, confirm your understanding of your audience, review your guidelines, and review a representative set of content.

This work matters

This is challenging yet essential work. If you want to promote your richly diverse campus community, you have to put in the work to represent it authentically and communicate about it meaningfully. This not only serves the institution’s best interests, but it reinforces inclusion at a fundamental level. And it works best when what you’re communicating is simply an accurate reflection of your community — if your institution is not really working on it, no amount of marketing can make up for that.

The reality is that many marketing and communications teams may not reflect the composition of their campus community. So while the ideal solution is to include a range of voices and perspectives on your marketing team that reflect your community, the other approach is to create processes and guidelines that hold you accountable to your goals around diversity and inclusion.