Farra Trompeter: Welcome to The Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and worker-owner at Big Duck. Today we’re going to ask the question, “How can you create messaging and communications that reflect the principles of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion?” What is often commonly called JEDI.
Farra Trompeter: I am going to be speaking with Vanessa Wakeman, who uses she/her pronouns. Vanessa is the founder and CEO of The Wakeman Agency, a trusted advisor to nonprofit organizations and socially responsible companies globally. An expert strategist focused on leveraging communications and pursuit of systemic justice, Vanessa has led engagements for many nonprofits including Echoing Green, The End Fund, ClimateWorks, United Way of New York City, the New York Women’s Foundation, New York Urban League, and Hispanics in Philanthropy, which we have shared working with some of those clients as well. So it’s great to be connected. Vanessa is an inductee to PR week’s Hall of Femme and noted as one of the 100 most influential Black leaders in New York, in city and state’s Black Power list. Vanessa is the creator of game-changing tools that disrupt oppressive systems. Most recently, the Lexicon Project, TM and C3 Diagnostic that operationalize internal and external practices within organizations seeking to place equity at the center. Vanessa, welcome to the show.
Vanessa Wakeman: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I am excited to have this conversation and to spend some time with you. So thanks for having me.
Farra Trompeter: Of course. I’m excited to spend some time with you, too. So, as I mentioned, Big Duck and The Wakeman Agency have worked with some of the same organizations, and our team has actually had the benefit recently of building off of some work that your team produced, including a recent guide to lexicon. And I’m just curious if we can start there. What is organizational lexicon and how does it provide a tool that organizations can use to really kind of approach their internal and external communications?
Vanessa Wakeman: Thank you. So a lexicon is really a resource of vocabulary, a glossary, if you will, of language that the organization would like to operationalize and make it sort of standard practice. As part of the lexicon, we also sort of include messaging and highlight opportunities for organizations to think more intentionally and deeply about the use of language for us as a communications organization, communications at the foundation of every interaction. And so helping people to not just make assumptions about the use of language or going with, well we’ve always done it this way, but think about the power inherent in language and the evolution of language, and use the lexicon to help them sort of examine and interrogate how they are speaking to their audiences. And so what organizations get through our process is, like I said, a glossary of words and terms that they should use, terms that we recommend that they not use, ways to think about language so that they can sort of be self-sufficient. And then also really a close eye at messaging to sort of connect them to who they are today and then, aspirationally, who they want to be as an organization. Because there is oftentimes a disconnect there. And then also, most importantly, infusing JEDI principles into that. So to make sure that the language is culturally competent and fluent.
Farra Trompeter: Great. And I want to pick up on what you were talking about regarding the power of language. How does that specifically show up for nonprofits? What connections do you see between a nonprofit’s messaging and its mission?
Vanessa Wakeman: As I said earlier, there is often a disconnect, and I think part of it is like resource-challenged and having 500 other things on the to-do list. And so just not having the time to really look at the mission. Sometimes not celebrating and taking a moment to see like, oh wow, we’re no longer that organization so we started here 40 years ago, but we’ve grown, we’ve matured, and now we’re this. And also not knowing how to articulate that change. And so what I often say to organizations is, you are missing out on the opportunity to more closely align your audiences and your donors, and also expand that based on who you are today.
Vanessa Wakeman: When we think about like the things that keep staff engaged, that keep board members engaged, that keep, you know, donors and supporters engaged, it’s having a clear and consistent understanding of like where we are and where we’re going. And sometimes when the language isn’t there to sort of help guide and, and participate in those conversations people are sort of walking around with a question mark like, I know we used to be this, I think we want to be this, but nobody’s telling me that. And then we also give people, in the wrong way, too much credit for like, oh, you should know this, you should know this because you work here. You should know this because you’ve been a donor for a long time. Make it easy for people. And sort of to create that consistency and that shared experience of like who an organization is.
Farra Trompeter: That’s helpful. Now, on the other hand, I know you also help organizations navigate crises, which can often be caused, worsened, or remedied with the right or wrong words. And I’m curious specifically how you think organizations can use messaging to navigate a crisis communications situation?
Vanessa Wakeman: I always tell people to look at politicians, right? Like they are the perfect example of like really great messaging and terribly flawed messaging, right? And what I will say and give credit to even the worst of what the politicians say, their ability to pivot and like, “Oh, oops, got it wrong. Let me try again. How does this feel to you? Oh, I know I said that last week, but I know you all didn’t like that, so I’m gonna go in a different direction.”
Vanessa Wakeman: So I think with messaging in crisis, it’s really important to sort of establish the parameters around like how do we build the emotional connection most importantly to us just as an organization during social justice and social change. Let’s tell the truth, right? Like start with the truth and then identify like what parts of the truth, what pieces of it are you able to share? Because in some instances, based on confidentiality, like you just can’t tell the entire story. But to the degree that you can share, like really wanting to be rooted in truth and thinking about what is going to be the like olive branch that will help people to trust you again as an organization. So we made a hiccup here. Are you able to say like, we know we screwed up and we want to make it better. Like what can we do? So like creating a dialogue. I think it’s important to take it seriously and not look as if this is a performative measure. I think to consistently sort of communicate as things advance or change to be like, hey, we’re not just sort of like putting our head in the sand and hoping this goes away, but we’re in the active, mature phase of this relationship where we want to be discussing and communicating about our flaw and our error and our sort of path forward. So I think that it’s really important.
Vanessa Wakeman: And as far as the mission, people sometimes disconnect organization from people, but the reality is people are the organization and people make mistakes, like intentional mistakes, or like, you know, just totally unethical and then sometimes it really was an oops. And so trying to understand what is needed in that particular moment to help people to sort of get on the path towards repairing relationships and reputation.
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Farra Trompeter: I want to pick up on a word you just mentioned, performative. And I want to travel back in time to 2020 where we saw a lot of nonprofits and companies, I know you mentioned you work with socially responsible businesses as well, a lot of them were rushing to publish DEI commitments and antiracist statements. I know Big Duck did as well and there were just a lot of pressure at that time and, perhaps still, but very much in 2020, to show up as both an ally and as someone who was kind of connecting to others in their ecosystem and responding to what their peers and partners were doing. And I’m curious, how do you think organizations can, or will, or are showing up authentically in that work and not being performative?
Vanessa Wakeman: So I want to take two seconds to just point back to 2020. That was a disappointing moment for me because it was very clear that it was a lot of performative antics and people sort of succumbed to the pressure versus let me sort of stand in this discomfort and come up with a real plan. So there were like lots of promises made and like, oh we love Black people, we do, and you know, and scene, versus like taking the time to like really be in the conversation about, even beyond allyship, like what does it take to be like a co-conspirator or an accomplice in this sort of journey? So I think let’s learn from that and identify ways to get better as we move forward. And I think in this moment it’s really being clear about who you are, right? Like, so there are people and organizations who are committed and genuinely care about this work and want to engage in meaningful ways to advance it and like have justice as part of their work. Like what does justice mean for us? Like they’ve defined that they could taste it, they could feel it, they’re working actively to actualize it.
Vanessa Wakeman: Then there are others that are saying like, we’re being told that we have to do this, right? If you don’t want to, like don’t, it’s okay. This work is not for everybody. Like I’d like to live in the idea of like everybody wants, you know, to be in the space of antiracism. Everybody wants to deal with systemic oppression and sort of create change. That’s not real. And so like let’s deal in truth and facts around this is who we are as an organization. We know that maybe our donors don’t really care about this and we need to play to them. Like we are not brave or courageous enough to be in a conversation about that change. And so we’re just gonna be quiet, just be quiet. Like don’t be a distraction. Either you’re helping or you’re distracting, and the other part of that is just because you’re not making active racist statements does not mean that you are not helping to uphold systems of racism. And so just want to throw that out there around like performative antics and like how people can like really be in the truth of who they are.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, no, I appreciate so much of what you’ve said and we’ve touched on some of those topics on other episodes here on the podcast, and I think it’s a journey and I appreciate what you’re saying is that like if you’re on the journey or your organization isn’t there, better to do nothing than to show up in that performative way is distracting and actually might wind up causing more harm.
Vanessa Wakeman: Yeah, it’s harmful. Absolutely.
Farra Trompeter: And so like kind of get to where you are and go to the next level. And for some people that next level might be, again, as they’re trying to thread that needle internally, is to look at the connection between JEDI work, which again is justice, equity, diversity, inclusion, and communications. And I’m curious if you have any tips or suggestions around those two topics, connecting JEDI and communications?
Vanessa Wakeman: So oftentimes an organization will contact us and say, hey, we have a strategic plan around actualizing JEDI in our organization. And for us, it looks like these three things we want to make sure like it’s woven into our recruitment practices, our career mobility opportunities, the projects that we work on, or the vendors, whatever it is. That all starts with communications, right? So when you think about job descriptions, is there language there that sort of is inclusive or exclusive? That’s a simple sort of way to think about it. In career mobility, what is the path? How are you analyzing and evaluating the contributions of different people? If I’m a certain kind of communicator, so we know that there’s these stereotypes around like the angry Black woman, like if I’m communicating and sort of sharing passionately in a staff meeting or team meeting, this is what I think it should be. Is that being used against me? Right?
Vanessa Wakeman: But you say you want people who are outgoing and you know can lead. Like how do we really distill, analyze, understand different communication patterns and like why is it okay for this person versus this person? So I think like that’s one simple way. And then on a more like strategic communications, how are we communicating with audiences? I think it’s do we have the cultural competency? Have we built the muscle to be able to send out external communications where the people that we are communicating with see themselves in this writing, right? Are we hero-ing certain people? Is it like, hey, it’s all about the donor, no one else matters. Are we sort of writing from a like white-dominant culture sort of like language structure, which shows up in certain ways? Like are we really willing to be in the constant curiosity and examination of like, is this the way? And they’re going to be mistakes, right? But the mistakes made from someone who is being mindful and intentional versus someone who has not even begun the exploration on all willingness are two totally different paths.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I want to uplift the “Be curious.” That’s, I think, a great thing to be in life, but specifically on these topics, and really ask questions of yourself, ask questions of your colleagues, and really just continue to have the conversation. Well, Vanessa, sadly, it’s time for us to go.
Vanessa Wakeman: Okay.
Farra Trompeter: If you’re out there and you want to learn more about Vanessa’s company, go to The Wakeman Agency, that’s thewakemanagency.com. You can also follow them on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram at Wakeman Agency, and on LinkedIn at The-Wakeman-Agency. You can connect with Vanessa on LinkedIn at Vanessa Wakeman. And Vanessa, before we wrap, anything else you want to share?
Vanessa Wakeman: My parting words of wisdom would be, there’s so much power in language and communications, like use it. For nonprofits who may feel like they’re underfunded, under-resourced, if you can identify ways to use, as they tell kindergarten students, use your words. If you can use your words, I think there’s like so much value to that. And so when you’re thinking about we don’t have the money for PR. We don’t have the money for communications. The return on investment when done right is like well worth it.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah. And I want to add another comment, which is a few years ago we put together a collection of resources about different language guides that organizations have published. And if folks are interested in that, just to give them some ideas of the type of things that might go into a language guide. Certainly, as you’re listening to this, go to our website, bigduck.com/insights. We’ve got blog posts there. We’ll have this transcript. We’ll link to that. We’ll also look for some resources from Vanessa’s website at the Wakeman Agency. We’ll link to those in the show notes. So yeah, be curious, ask questions, and really try to look at the power of words. Thank you, Vanessa, for being on the show.
Vanessa Wakeman: Thank you.
This podcast has been sponsored by Bloomerang