DEI Language, Please: A New Step in Corporate and Marketing Communications

By Leslie Clavin, VP, Editorial Services 

In the age of diversity, equity and inclusion, we know that the old schoolyard taunt, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” has never been less true. Words matter. Sentences sting. Enter DEI language.

At a time when companies — both B2C and B2B — are being held more accountable for their actions, policies and statements than ever before, it is imperative for us as communicators to be more mindful of the words we choose. The wrong phrasing can have direct consequences on a business, from consumer boycotts to undermining DEI initiatives to attracting quality talent.

It’s easier than you think to inadvertently say something with discriminatory undertones. For example, years ago, my children’s elementary school held a “cakewalk” fundraiser during its annual fall festival — until someone pointed out its racist origin to the organizers.

It might seem unnecessary for someone working in technology or B2B marketing to focus on equitable writing, but the industry’s everyday jargon is riddled with verbal landmines:

  • Racist terms like “whitelist/blacklist” an email domain or job titles like “Ninja” or “Guru”
  • References that tie back to slavery (there is a reason that online real estate listings now refer to the “main” or “primary” bedroom.)
  • Sexist terminology such as “male and female” connectors or phrases such as “manhours” to describe the work that went into a project
  • Ableist adjectives like “disabled” software features

In the ongoing journey toward a more equitable world — and to guide coverage of it — a group of writers, editors, DEI professionals and industry leaders have developed a guide designed to serve as “a living resource for all journalists and storytellers seeking to thoughtfully cover evolving social, cultural and identity-related issues.”

Language, Please was developed by Vox Media with funding from the Google News Initiative’s Innovation Challenge. It not only provides guidance on six categories of difficult-to-discuss topics — borders and populations; class and social standing; disabilities, neurodiversity and chronic illness; gender and sexuality; mental health, trauma and substance use; and race and ethnicity. It also gives brief histories of the issues and context for why one term is preferable over another, as well as additional resources to consult for more information.

While Language, Please is designed for journalists and their editors, it also serves as a valuable resource for corporate and marketing communications. As communicators, we might not have a need to consult the site as often as the AP Stylebook, however, it’s a great additional resource.

As we all continue our journey to make a more equitable and inclusive world, it’s not only what you say that matters, but how you say it. A DEI language check should be a new step in every organization’s content development and review process.  

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