Connecting with diverse communities: The dangers of taking culture for granted

July 9, 2007

Copyright © 2007 PRSA. All rights reserved.

By Renée T. Walker, APR

The following article appears in the July issue of PR Tactics.

The business case for engaging diverse communities is widely accepted today as many companies identify these communities as a critical market opportunity. Yet, are companies truly connecting and communicating with diverse communities for optimal results?

According to the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth, spending power among diverse groups is expected to exceed $2 trillion in 2007 with African-Americans responsible for $852.8 billion, Asian-Americans for $454.9 billion and Hispanics for $926.1 billion. Companies have taken note of the economic clout wielded by diverse individuals, yet they continue to inadvertently hinder their ability to successfully enter or expand their operations into diverse communities in a variety of ways.

Companies take notice — don’t take culture for granted
Companies often take the importance of culture for granted. Multicultural, multigenerational, demographic and geographic differences abound among diverse populations.  A one-size-fits-all communications approach often fails to connect with a diverse audience.

Effectively communicating with diverse, multicultural audiences requires an enterprisewide commitment to gain understanding of cultural differences, establish credibility, and address or minimize community resistance.

For companies to develop sustainable and profitable relationships with diverse communities, their internal and external communications can’t just distribute a broad message and assume it will resonate with multiple groups.

Building relationships with diverse media and distributing targeted communications isn’t enough. Companies should be active and visible in diverse communities and their messaging should communicate respect and sensitivity to the differences that exist within these populations.

Political campaigns show the way
Companies may lack credibility with diverse communities because these audiences often distrust mainstream messaging. Trust and credibility must be earned with these groups. Like them or not, political campaigns offer great insight into successfully communicating with diverse, multicultural audiences through targeted communication strategies.

Political candidates and their campaigns communicate often with diverse communities to continually cultivate relationships, gradually build credibility and proactively address community resistance on a local, regional or national level.

Communication professionals and companies can employ similar strategies in their communication efforts. By proactively engaging and actively listening to diverse perspectives throughout the development and implementation phases of their communication strategies, companies can establish their presence, build sustainable trust and credibility, and foster good will to achieve positive results.

Assemble your dream team
A disjointed communications strategy significantly hinders a company’s ability to connect with diverse communities. Like political campaigns that rely on the expertise of media consultants, strategists, speechwriters and the like, companies should engage the expertise of their internal and external communications professionals in the development and implementation of their strategies for diverse communities. Each professional can provide a wealth of information and a unique perspective to the relationship.

By creating a cross-functional team and leveraging the communications talent within the company’s PR, community relations, philanthropic, public affairs and internal communications departments, a solid foundation for success can be created to effectively communicate with diverse audiences.

More than just media contacts, public relations can identify other earned media opportunities to introduce, support and promote brand awareness within the targeted community. Frequently, community organizations struggle to secure speakers and presenters for their programs. Speaking opportunities at organizations, such as community development associations, are a great opportunity for midlevel executives to visibly engage in the community and to interact with community leaders.

Communicating with elected officials and sharing the company’s community-based programs and commitment to important social causes are just the beginning. Public affairs can also be instrumental in identifying key community needs, positioning the company as a resource for assistance, and creating collaborative relationships with other business, civic and community stakeholders to address key community concerns.

Employees are the company’s best cheerleaders and advocates, particularly within diverse communities. Proactive engagement of employees in community involvement opportunities and sharing with them the company’s financial and active support of community, and social-related causes will not only enhance employee morale, but will also noticeably demonstrate the company’s commitment to diversity.

A call to action
Companies can improve the effectiveness of their communication by gaining the knowledge needed to address distrust within diverse communities. By engaging their internal and external communication professionals, companies can ensure consistent and respectful messaging that will connect with the diverse audiences they are trying to reach. Keep in mind the following points:

  • Engage your internal and external communication colleagues to ensure company messaging is consistent across all audiences.
  • Never underestimate the sophistication of diverse audiences.
  • Recognize the impact the company’s presence, products and services will have on the community.
  • Build credibility — the most important attribute — within multicultural communities. Reputation certainly impacts a company’s ability to successfully communicate with diverse communities.
  • Target your messaging and communicate with a high level of sensitivity in a consistent, accurate and forthright manner across all internal and external audiences.
  • Support cause-related and community-based programs and demonstrate community involvement early in the communication process. Establishing credibility and understanding community needs are key drivers for success.

Successfully communicating with diverse audiences requires a concerted, coordinated and comprehensive companywide strategy. For optimal success, companies must be active and visible within the diverse communities they serve.

Renée T. Walker, APR,  is manager corporate public relations for Kelly Services, Inc., a global staffing solutions provider. Prior to joining Kelly Services, Walker served as a key member of Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer’s administration.

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