By Danielle Cabot
Consider a situation where you need to address a diverse audience—whether that be an aging population, immigrant communities, communities of color, LGBT residents, or residents with disabilities.
What words will you use? How will you decide? What can you do to make sure your message is received as is intended, delivers information to residents effectively, and even brings new faces to the table?
First, choose your frame of mind
“Diversity is not a ‘problem,’” says Stan Alleyne, former chief communications officer for Minneapolis Public Schools and now a consultant with Minneapolis public relations firm Tunheim. Alleyne, who is black, says, “We need to change the narrative in Minnesota. We’re an asset. We’re a benefit. And the more you learn, I think the more you’ll realize that there’s strength in diversity.”
Framing your city’s changing demographics as a positive in your materials, agenda packets, and promotions is an example of how language can help your city’s leaders and residents think differently about developing services for the future, says Rajean Moone, executive director of the Minnesota Leadership Council on Aging.
For example, don’t say: “How will our city respond to the aging crisis?” Try saying it like this instead: “How will aging look different for coming generations, and how can we plan for that?”
If that sounds like your communications work will intertwine with the work of your city’s policy leaders, you’re right. Effective communication and inclusive policy will support each other in reaching your city’s goal to improve services and civic engagement.
Find the right words, but not too many
When communicating with or about underrepresented populations, you may struggle to find the right words. These tips can help you communicate in a way that will engage residents:
“How would I explain this to my immigrant mother in a way that she will understand it?” is the question Bloomington Assistant City Manager Elizabeth Tolzmann asks. It helps her remember to keep it simple and succinct.
Language barriers aren’t the only incentive for clear messages. Imagine what your 40-word sentence sounds like through a screen reader used by someone with a visual impairment.
All you need to do is consider how many cities are successfully led by older adults to see how inaccurate that image can be!
Start small if you need to, but use a professional service that will correctly translate not just the words but the message and tone, says Jacqueline Larson, communications and marketing manager for the City of St. Louis Park.
Residents are the experts
Using the appropriate terminology to identify a population or to connect with someone over an aspect of their life experience can feel like an obstacle course of word choices and evolving terminology for communicators. But there are experts ready to help you choose wisely—your residents.
This work is already happening on a policy level in cities across the state, informally or formally, through town halls, listening sessions, commissions, and one-on-one meetings with community leaders. Making it work for your communications can be a natural extension of this work.
At its most basic level, introducing yourself and talking with community leaders will allow you to learn correct terminology and cultural practices. In Bloomington, for example, staff have been ready to engage citizens in less traditional spaces as a way to connect with residents.
“We have really rich Native American history and culture,” says Tolzmann. “We learned by working with the community they prefer being called ‘American Indian’ as opposed to ‘Native American.’ By being inclusive in our language and building the cultural competency of our staff, we are better able to preserve historic sites and celebrate the rich history of our community.”
Tolzmann and city staff recently met with residents after Mass at a Latino church for a casual listening session. “I think people really appreciate when we’re out and about and using different forms of communication and methods of engagement whereby we spend more time listening to our community than talking to them,” says Tolzmann.
Residents can also help you vet how a message will be received before it is finalized and distributed. Does something you think will be informative and direct come off as threatening? Have you accidentally scheduled a meeting on a holy day? Is the translation of your document technically correct, but it lacks the emphasis or mood you struck so carefully in the original? (See sidebar, Promoting Inclusive Swim Events in St. Louis Park, below.)
New approach to communications plans
Your city’s communications will also benefit from asking how people want to receive your messages. For example, the City of St. Louis Park’s Fire Department wants to involve more East African residents in a safety training program. Instead of producing a flyer, city staff have learned that the most effective approach would be to make personal connections with the East African community leaders, who can then take the message back to community members.
“First, we have to build relationships,” says Larson. “Then we can start putting other marketing materials together.”
Alleyne recommends taking a new approach to developing communications plans.
“Communications plans are so common in communications departments, but what is not common is slowing down and making sure the communications plan is authentic to all the stakeholders,” says Alleyne. “What did you put into your communications plan to make sure that you’re reaching everybody? Take a little more time on a communications plan and then call it a communications and engagement plan.”
By developing these relationships and planning your communications around engagement and inclusion, you will build good will, which will in turn give you space to learn, make the occasional mistake, correct, and move on.
“When you have a relationship, and you have credibility, and it’s based on trust—people will allow you to make mistakes because they know that you’re going to fix it,” says Alleyne. “And they also know that they’re still going to be around the table, because you have a partnership.”
Danielle Cabot is communications coordinator with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: email@example.com or (651) 281-1233.
Promoting Inclusive Swim Events in St. Louis Park
The City of St. Louis Park has a long history of reaching out to its diverse population, which includes a large community of residents who practice Orthodox Judaism as well as newer residents from Somalia.
One example of St. Louis Park’s cross-departmental commitment to inclusion is promotion of the city’s gender-specific swim events, which have been around for about 10 years. These events at the city aquatic park allow swimmers to use the facilities in a female-only or male-only setting, which better accommodates religious and cultural practices and also can create a more comfortable environment for some swimmers, regardless of religion.
In 2016, the city became more purposeful about advertising the events, says Recreation Superintendent Jason West, and wanted to develop a flyer to reach more residents.
To do so, West started by connecting with community leaders from the Jewish and Muslim faiths to identify dates that don’t conflict with religious observations. Next, West and Communications and Marketing Manager Jacqueline Larson brought a draft of the poster design to the St. Louis Park Police Department’s Multicultural Advisory Committee (MAC). In addition to considering their feedback on the value of the events themselves, West and Larson also got to ask about how the poster was communicating their message.
One key question the city had was whether the whole design had to be translated into the different languages spoken in St. Louis Park—which include Russian, Tibetan, and more.
From a logistics and cost standpoint alone, talking to the MAC first was a smart move, said West. The commission suggested that just a part of the design (the word “swim”) could be translated, and that by showing that the city intended for diverse communities to participate, the poster would still be effective.
“It was a great conduit, too, for getting the word out that we have this program,” added West.
The commission provided an additional critique that the staff had not considered. MAC members recommended removing silhouettes of swimmers that had been a part of the original poster design. A silhouette of a swimmer may be culturally insensitive to the very groups the city is trying to reach, they explained.
The benefit of this review session goes beyond development of effective communications materials or even higher participation numbers for the aquatic facility, West learned.
“Let me put it this way, when I talked to the rabbi, he was just glowing that we actually think about this as a city and that we want to reach out to all the different cultures,” West says. “He understands—and I think he respects the city—that we do go the extra step.”
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