Last month, the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University issued a report in which the researchers found that Black students expressed significantly less trust in their colleges and universities than their white peers. In the coverage of the report, one of the authors of the research, Shannon Calderone, posed an important question: “Are students getting enough of a voice in the larger campuswide conversation, particularly students of color?” The companion to this question is: Are institutions communicating to Black students and students of color in ways that resonate and make them feel like valued members of their community?
Due to limitations of in-person outreach due to COVID, the words we use and the way in which we create and communicate inclusive communities hold additional significance. This month, the one-year marker of our transition to remote and hybrid education, is an ideal time for higher education communicators to review how senior administrators build trust among Black students and students of color. Specifically, communicators should review all efforts to increase engagement over the past year and potentially survey students to ask if communications from senior leaders are viewed as increasing or decreasing power disparities and if Black students and students of color feel they have voices on campus.
In work shared by Lumina Foundation, Communications Network posted diversity and inclusion resources that may be of assistance to communicators, senior administrators and the colleges and universities they lead. Specific to internal communications, they suggest using the institution’s intranets to foster inclusion, using newsletters to highlight diversity and equity efforts, and creating style guides for appropriately describing and illustrating diversity. If you are looking for examples to replicate, a number of public and private institutions have developed their own inclusivity-focused style guides, with some also referencing language in The Diversity Style Guide or A Progressive’s Style Guide.
Communications Network also encourages leadership-based communications that include diverse voices and that leaders “acknowledge the[ir] privilege and power” in internal and external communications, and they urge leaders to be humble. These narrative framings should be reflected in op-eds written by senior leaders, letters to the editor and to the community, statements on the institution’s website, and other touch points with key audiences. Develop and implement a comprehensive thought leadership plan for each leader identified. Review which leaders have been selected for writing opportunities on behalf of the institution and the prompts they were given to ensure their thought leadership to-dos from marketing and communication haven’t limited their contributions to the community. Allow your diversity and equity officer to write about topics of interest beyond inclusivity and assign other senior leaders to write about the diversity work they lead and value. Immediate adjustments to communications strategy based on these recommendations have the potential to positively impact campus culture and how welcome students, faculty and staff feel on campus.
While the efforts noted above focus on the words and the vehicles for outreach, consideration should also be given to those who are asked to assist in advancing the messages. With faculty and academic advisers holding greater trust among first-year students, senior communicators should consider reaching out to those faculty members and advisers with the greatest political capital among students of color and asking for their assistance. Based on their insights, additional adjustments to communications and strategy may be needed.
And finally, the most fundamental question for our communications colleagues to ask is of our presidents and senior leaders: What are we doing to build trust and encourage diverse voices to be heard? While the crux of this piece is to provide communications guidance to and key questions for campus colleagues, we -- as communicators -- must ask and advocate for the concrete steps to provide opportunities for students of color to be heard on campus and to have opportunities for leadership roles beyond what are currently available. Words alone can’t address distrust. Language shared isn’t enough to build relationships. Communicators must have something to live, feel and experience to point to as progress as well as the follow-up actions and outcomes associated with our rhetoric. We can’t write language about opportunities, inclusivity and belonging if they don’t exist, because doing so will ring hollow for our audiences and point to even larger culture gaps on campus. Communications are strongest, especially on diversity and equity work, when forward momentum can be shared and the efforts behind them are authentic. As we all know, actions speak louder than words.
Communications continue to be critically important during COVID, and survey work suggests that leadership outreach and engagement efforts prior to and during the early pandemic days were not successful in building greater trust among Black students and students of color. The NSSE data for 2020 and its analysis provide insights for marketing and communications professionals to better connect and engage with students of color to build greater trust; we should use it to our advantage as the collective work needed to address the gap in trust is significant.
Teresa Valerio Parrot is principal of TVP Communications, a national public relations agency solely focused on higher education.