The Power of Words and Images: 5 Things to Know About Inclusive Brand Communications



Linda Descano, CFA®, EVP and Head, Corporate Communications and Executive Visibility, Red Havas

When I was taunted for being “chubby” or “fat” growing up, my parents encouraged me to retort that “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Years later, I mustered that phrase once more, but this time I only said it to myself when colleagues openly despaired over me being a “fat bride.” One had the gall to leave the business card of a diet doctor on my desk. 

I fully realize the biases that I’ve faced because of my weight, and later, my age, could have been far more damaging had I been a different race, faith, sexual orientation or gender identity. I am a white woman. And yet… I have been told that I couldn’t possibly be a geologist because, as an Italian-American Catholic woman, my options for the future included making babies, making meatballs and growing even fatter. Working in finance for many years, I was reminded time and time again that I couldn’t possibly grasp certain nuances of debt instruments because I lacked an MBA and—horror of horrors—went to a state school for university. And don’t get me started on what I heard as I passed age 40, and then 50. 

While I survived those taunts and have had a successful and fulfilling career, the truth is that words do hurt. They leave invisible scars that fuel self-doubt and give rise to the sort of impostor syndrome that chips away at your confidence and your soul. It takes incredible energy to keep those “whispers” under control day in and day out, year after year, decade after decade. 

And it’s not just words that have impact. We all know the power of images. When I was planning an advertising campaign for a business I led at the time, I made it clear to our agency that I wanted a campaign that reflected all the women we serve. To immerse themselves in our brand, I asked the creatives to attend one of our events. Regardless, every mock-up they showed me featured young, blond, thin white women. And while that demo was part of our community, it wasn’t the majority. I certainly didn’t see myself reflected in their proposed “faces” for our campaign, and neither did my team. 

After we had stomached enough mansplaining by the all-male creative team on why we were wrong, we switched to a new agency and, with their support, ditched the entire “model” concept entirely. In the end, we decided the members of our community would be the faces of our campaign, showcasing our diversity in every way. Not only did our community rally around our approach, so did other brands and communicators, earning us multiple awards. It was truly a career highlight.

These issues have been particularly top of mind for me these days. After a year of landmark protests over the relentless inequity and injustice that people of color face, I decided my response to this year’s International Women’s Day #ChooseToChallenge campaign would be to use my voice and platforms to highlight how each of us can be more inclusive in our communications, whether it’s how we engage one on one with colleagues, friends and families, or how we craft creative and copy on behalf of the brands and organizations we work for.

This became the springboard for the March episode of Red Havas’ monthly “Red Sky Fuel for Thought” podcast. To help us think through the topic of inclusive communications, we turned to Carmella Glover, president of Diversity Action Alliance, a coalition of public relations and communications leaders working to accelerate issues of diversity, equity & inclusion in our profession. We also reached out to my fellow New York Women in Communications board member Brandi Boatner, IBM’s manager of digital & advocacy communications, who is one of my “sheros” and who has spoken extensively to PR and communications pros about the importance of brands being “socially thoughtful” in their communications. After reading the latest Havas Prosumer Report on “The Future of Aging,” I also asked my Havas colleague Sébastien Houdusse, chief strategy officer for our BETC agency, to join the discussion.

You can listen to our 25-minute discussion here— and I hope that you will, as I’m certain you will walk away as inspired and energized as I was. For those looking for the CliffsNotes version, below are the takeaways that I’ll be applying to my communications going forward:

  1. Know where you stand: For inclusive communications to have integrity and authenticity, they must reflect the organization’s values and commitments to DE&I. And no matter how inclusive you make your communications, pledges without action will tarnish your brand and the goodwill you’ve built with stakeholders.
  1. Acknowledge that unconscious bias exists: Being a truly inclusive communicator starts by recognizing that each of us brings some unconscious biases to the table—and we need to consistently evaluate our word and visual choices with a critical lens. Consider tapping colleagues from diverse groups and experiences to review your message for unintended bias. Keep a log or glossary of terms you come across—or perhaps personally have used in the past—that need to be wiped from use, such as “I’ve been slaving away,” “As low man on the totem pole,” “We need to schedule pow-wow,” “I’m so OCD about organizing my emails,” and so forth.
  1. Listen to learn: Inclusive communications is a learning process—and takes an ongoing commitment. Having the right “listening posts” can help you understand your stakeholders’ perceptions of certain words, expressions and images. Additionally, listening enables you to evaluate existing or new communications and content in the context of current conversations.
  1. Be intentional and purposeful: Don’t just focus on what you are going to say, but also consider why you are communicating a certain position or message. Be as open as possible with your audiences. Use neutral language that is clear, concise and respectful to all. 
  1. Images matter: We all know the power of an image, so be sure the visuals you select make your customers and employees feel seen and included—and that your visuals are consistent with supporting copy.

This is a topic I will continue to revisit over the year and welcome those who share an interest in this to reach out with your thoughts and ideas. 

About the Author: Linda is an executive vice president of Red Havas in New York. Linda specializes in providing strategic counsel on corporate communications, executive visibility, issues and crisis management, and Merged Media communications strategies to global corporations and organizations. Prior to joining Red Havas in 2015, Linda was managing director and global head of content marketing and social media at Citi; other roles during her tenure at Citi included president and CEO of Women & Co., the award-winning financial lifestyle community for women, and director and portfolio manager of the Citi Social Awareness Investment program. A PR News PR Professional of the Year and one of Campaign U.S. Digital’s 40 over 40 honorees, Linda brings a unique blend of storytelling experience and investment acumen, complemented by work in B2B, B2C and B2B2C, giving her an uncanny ability to help clients create authentic conversations and campaigns.