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Over the last few years, the work of steering higher ed toward its promise of creating equity and social mobility—including for those who work within it—has only become more difficult in many locations. Conflicts over why—and for whom—higher ed exists have gotten more pitched. 

Marcomm (marketing communications) leaders dwell right in the middle of this maelstrom. High winds push against you despite the necessity of telling honest stories about your institution; setting the verbal and visual standards to which your marcomm colleagues across campus should adhere, and, ideally, driving your institution toward accomplishment of strategic priorities. Institutional diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) language and policy are threads that run through those necessities. 

We know from conversations with campus colleagues how closely some of you feel watched by people outside your institutions, understanding that what you say may be misunderstood or misconstrued. You may also be feeling the challenge to DEIB in an intensely personal way beyond your professional role because of identities you claim. At the same time, it’s your job to keep moving forward on efforts to meet institutional reputation and revenue goals.

Acknowledging that, we share four pieces of practical advice derived from RHB’s recent research into higher education strategic planning.

1. Clarify the language you will use to talk about DEIB at this moment. RHB’s latest round of strategic planning research included 54 plans launched in 2022 and 2023. We found that, compared to the set of 108 plans we studied in 2020, more plans include discussion of institutional values. Some lasting effects of the pandemic, Great Resignation and social justice movements of spring 2020 are reflected in plans, as seen in the prevalence of DEIB, student success and employee-focused wellness and job-satisfaction goals in strategic plans.

At this moment, you can take the lead in clarifying how your institution chooses among words like “diversity,” “equity,” “inclusion,” etc., and what they mean to your institution. What audience data can you bring to bear—or collect—to champion the needs of your audiences in alignment with your institutional mission and strategic plan? What expectations of your institution are set by audience perceptions of you and your brand? 

Let’s say your strategic plan states that your institution will provide students with career exploration opportunities that position them to flex within a shifting, diverse occupational landscape after graduation (it probably does say something like that). What do employers believe about how your graduates will perform in a multicultural workplace? This is a question you can and should ask because it interrogates perceptions about your brand that can affect your strategic goal achievement.

2. Empower campus colleagues with your guidance. This moment is also an opportunity to clarify why following institutional brand guidance like an inclusive or equity style guide matters. The best examples of these go beyond providing prescriptions for how to craft verbal or visual expression built on your positioning statement, brand attributes and messaging pillars. The most effective style guides also discuss why it matters to have such a guide and why people should follow it.

For instance, introductory text in these guides can talk about how shared language is integral to sharing an institutional culture; why it’s important to talk to people featured in stories about when and how to highlight relevant identity categories, and that the process of refining verbal and visual standards is continuous because we are constantly learning from each other.

These guides are not constraints on how campus partners do their jobs. Rather, they can provide deeper rationale for why it matters to share a language, culture and institutional identity that encapsulates brand but is much broader in spirit.

3. Show your audiences when you can’t tell. In our research, we did note that some strategic plans launched in 2022 and 2023 don’t use language like “diversity,” “equity,” etc. In those cases, we do note words like “access,” “welcoming environment,” “student success” or “foster a people-centered culture.” In situations where you are unable to tell people about DEIB using that vocabulary, it is paramount that you show your audiences what that looks like on your campus.

As an example, student success is the product of a web of campus relationships that surround a student—fundamentally a creation of engaging in DEIB work. How can you make that clear, even if you don’t use “DEIB”? What are the scenes that comprise the experience of belonging on your campus?

Regardless of the language you use, this is even more imperative when it comes to telling the story of the measurable outcomes that your institution creates for the people it touches. Truth and evidence are also contested concepts at this historical moment. Your role as audience champion places you right in the middle of that contest.

Allying expertise in storytelling and persuasion with skill in tracking reputational reach and market or audience brand research creates a quantitative and qualitative structure to support the work your institution does, while also demonstrating your effectiveness to your audiences. This is a natural opportunity to build on your existing relationships with institutional assessment colleagues and your chief strategy officer to jointly collect and present evidence of progress toward strategic goals.

4. Redouble your internal messaging. It makes sense to be concerned about external audiences such as legislators or social media personalities whose responses to your campus discourse can be loud, swift and consequential. Make sure some of that concern retains an inward focus. Building a positive employer brand is a frequently mentioned strategic priority. 

As the people who are often charged with communicating internally, building a reputation as a great place to work can fall within your purview. Frequent and honest communication with your internal audiences reassures them you appreciate them and their work, and gives them material with which to advocate for your institution in their own social networks. Institutional leaders we interviewed as part of our research shared how constant messaging about shared values such as inclusivity enabled campus colleagues to adopt and use that language in a wholehearted and authentic way. 

Another opportunity awaits you here: We’ve observed that some of the most highly effective marcomm units tell their internal audiences how they work. This makes space for transparently describing how you will continue to develop your DEIB expertise now and in the future. This shows that you can be trusted to be reflective about your work and that learning must continue.

In closing, we recognize the difficult, unfinished work of DEIB. We support your continued efforts to tell your audiences how transformational your institution’s work is. We also believe the language of DEIB matters and that using it creates possibilities for further work. We advocate using that language as often as you can.

As several of our interviewees told us, they perceive a moral and ethical responsibility to do this work, especially when it is challenged. As well, using the language of DEIB demonstrates to members of your community that you recognize their concerns about what efforts to make these terms unspeakable says about the climate for them as human beings.

Aimee Hosemann, Ph.D., is director of qualitative research at RHB, a higher education consultancy founded in 1991 that helps institutions achieve greater relevance.