Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneuer and investor Donald Thompson writes an exclusive column every Wednesday for WRAL TechWire.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK –  The more I learn about leadership and inclusion, the more frequently I’m reminded how true it is that every person’s perception of themself – their capabilities, obstacles, advantages, disadvantages, community, and world – is shaped by stories. And not just the stories we hear when we’re kids but also the stories we continue to consume throughout our lives from media and marketing. 

As the former CEO of a digital agency and now a CEO who teaches diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as business strategy, it’s obvious to me how the two are intertwined and how big a responsibility we have as professional communicators and executives to shift the mainstream narratives toward more inclusive, authentic stories.

“Storytelling” has been a marketing buzzword for years, and it works, especially in content marketing, because the human brain is hardwired to learn from and respond to well-told stories. The narratives we hear shape what we think about ourselves and what we think about other people and places. And, if we hear the same types of stories over and over again, the implications and connotations inside them get buried so deep in our minds that they become part of our unconscious biases. 

We may never go to Mexico, Egypt, or South Africa, for example, and experience those places for ourselves, but because of the stories we’ve been told about each one, we think we probably know what they are like and how people live there. We think we know how their citizens are the same and different from us because we’ve heard stories about them or seen pictures of them. We consume those stories with our biases operating at full force in the background of our minds, and they either reaffirm what we already assumed was true or they surprise us by breaking our preconceptions. One great example is P&G’s Widen the Screen video and project.   

At The Diversity Movement, we have a good number of digital agencies on our client roster. Their demographics echo what is standard in the marketing industry. Namely, they are populated by mostly White people and mostly women. They are open and receptive to DEI, eager to get started and committed to doing well. And I applaud them for that. But also, I advise them to do more. 

Unlike most industries and professions, what’s unique about the marketing space is that we have an incredible power to shift the social narratives we create about people. If you’re in marketing, public relations, media, or communications, committing to internal DEI is a great first step, but it is not enough. Recruiting a diverse team and creating equitable, inclusive work environments is only part of your responsibility. 

At the same time, I urge you to use your influence to make the world a better place. Create better narratives. Tell more authentic, inspiring, aspirational, and unpredictable stories. By controlling the narrative, you control the focus of the story and what that story means. Use your influence to build a better world. 

How do we make the marketing industry a leading example of equity and inclusion? In short, we learn how to tell diverse stories, and we commit to using inclusive processes behind the scenes in the development of our brands, projects and campaigns. 

  • We commit to giving both marginalized and underrepresented individuals a consistent voice in how their stories are told, and we commit to continue telling those stories. 
  • When we design brand identities, websites, videos, content, campaigns and more, we insist on web accessibility and digital inclusion
  • We ensure authentic representation – and reject tokenism – of all people and communities in all images and videos. 
  • We learn inclusive language, and we teach it to others. At the same time, we give people space to practice, make mistakes and continue learning.
  • We pay attention to our metaphors, our casual phrases, our analogies for products, and the imagery in our words.  
  • We include the people we are trying to include in our process and our deliverables. 

Just last week, The Diversity Movement announced our ongoing partnership with the American Marketing Association. As an initial offering, we’ve created a 13-page white paper that gives detailed, actionable, how-to guidance for future-focused marketing and corporate communication in an increasingly diverse world. This content, a Best Practices Guide to Inclusive Marketing, is available for free download through the end of April. Depending on where you are in your DEI journey, this guide is a terrific starting point or a solid next step toward more inclusive practices.

Remember, part of the reason that big firms are great at inclusive marketing is they have big resources to draw from and dedicated teams leading their DEI progress. if you’re an average-sized agency, you probably won’t have a Chief Diversity Officer, but I can guarantee that you have people who care. By empowering those professionals with DEI education and clear guidance on inclusive practices, you can not only shift the internal culture at your organization but also shift the national culture we all share.

You don’t have to get everything perfect all at once. But it’s important that you commit to progress. The truth of it is this: everyone is a content consumer. Those of us who are also content creators must realize the extent of our influence and responsibility, and commit to doing better. Otherwise, we’re just waiting on the sidelines while the world moves forward. 

About the Author

Donald Thompson is an entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) and executive coach. With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, he is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture, and driving exponential growth. He is also co-founder and CEO of The Diversity Movement, a results-oriented, data-driven strategic partner for organization-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Donald serves as a board member for several organizations in marketing, healthcare, banking, technology and sports. Connect with him on LinkedIn and at donaldthompson.com

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