Public Relations Tactics

Creating bias-free communications

August 30, 2013

On July 19, President Obama spoke candidly about how he — as well as the African-American community — pulled from “sets of experiences to inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida” regarding the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

In his speech, the President asked each of us to “wring out as much bias” of ourselves and to be more honest about our varying beliefs on race relations in this country. This “bias” that President Obama spoke of not only affects how we view others who are different from us, but it also influences how we craft and carry out communications programs.

PR practitioners bear a great responsibility to communicate language, images, ideas and issues in a truthful, authentic, respectful, equitable and socially responsible manner — also known as the T.A.R.E.S. test of ethical persuasion.

Although we may inherently believe that the communications messages and campaigns that we develop are free of bias, research shows that we all speak from a place of predisposition. Our experiences shape who we are and the lens through which we see the world.

When scholars conduct qualitative studies where the researcher must interpret what the data says about a subject involved, they learn to become highly aware of their personal bias. Often, predisposition affects the researcher’s choice of topic and interpretation of the findings, which can skew the results.

To limit the level of bias, scholars go through a process of self-discovery — with an analysis of their social historical position, class, race, gender and religion — to determine how this worldview would ultimately shape their beliefs on that subject.

Researchers are supposed to start their research with the assumption that there isn’t an objective view. He or she also must know that they can’t separate from their topic of study, and realize that interactions between the researcher and the researched create knowledge and understanding.

Bias reveals itself when practitioners create seemingly witty or innovative campaigns that offend instead of gain acceptance. For example, take Nivea’s “uncivilized” ad campaign that asked men to “Recivilize Yourself,” and depicts a Black man preparing to hoist a disembodied head with an Afro toward the atmosphere.

Further, Burger King tapped R&B songstress Mary J. Blige to sing about its chicken snack wraps. People said that this was racist and an example of “buffoonery,” so Burger King pulled the ad and publicly apologized to Blige.

A method of self-discovery

To conduct your own self-discovery when embarking on implementing a new program, product-launch or initiative, you can:

  • Reflect on what you already know about the subject matter.
  • Think about how you understand the subject as it relates to society’s definition.
  • Talk to others and ask them what they understand or assume about the subject.
  • Investigate what the media, industry and community say about the subject. 
  • Consider how you interpret the subject from your bias and compare your interpretations to how others view it.
  • Use all of this information to implement your program and be respectful about its execution.

Like researchers, we all must acknowledge that we have a lens through which we see and experience life. Our perspective allows us to bring our creativity, intelligence and skill sets to the work that we do. Being reflective aids in communicating in a way that passes the T.A.R.E.S. test.


Dionne C. Clemons, Ph.D.
Dionne C. Clemons, Ph.D., is a strategic communications thought leader and educator. She currently serves as Director of Communications and Community Engagement for the United Planning Organization in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @Drdcclemons.


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