8 PRINCIPLES FOR EFFECTIVE MULTICULTURAL COMMUNICATION
Every day, thousands of businesses, nonprofit organizations, and public agencies encounter the challenges and the benefits of working in an increasingly multicultural society. From reaching out to potential customers, clients, donors, and taxpayers to providing critical products and services, every organization in today’s society must make effective communication in a multicultural context a key priority. It is an absolute necessity for organizational success and for building healthy communities.
Taking a multicultural approach to communication increases the relevance and impact by recognizing, respecting, and engaging the cultural backgrounds of all stakeholders and framing communication in ways that invite real participation and dialogue. Effective multicultural communication unlocks new resources and brings additional perspectives and talents to the table to develop innovative and sustainable solutions to our most challenging social, environmental, and economic issues.
An analysis of the raw data highlights the significance and growth of our nation’s increasingly multicultural population. Take ethnicity statistics alone: ethnic and racial groups account for 30 percent of the U.S. population, or more than 90 million people. By 2050, communities of color will make up 49 percent of the U.S. population, or more than 209 million people.
Through our work with leading businesses, nonprofits, and public agencies, we have distilled eight principles for effective multicultural communication. You will see that many of the principles make great sense for communication to all audiences and are built upon well-established communication and social marketing theory.
1) Check Your Assumptions at the Door: Begin With Yourself
Before beginning to work with any group that is culturally, ethnically, or racially different from your own, it is critical to step back and identify any assumptions, preconceived beliefs, or stereotypes that you might hold about that population. Your best intentions may be undermined by old assumptions or isolated experiences that can impact your ability to develop a sound strategy that effectively achieves the behavioral, attitudinal, or systematic change you seek. It is also essential that you not assume a particular group holds the same set of values or beliefs as your own.
2) Understand the Cultural Context(s) of Your Audience: Do Your Homework
The goal of any communication is creating shared understanding. As communicators, when we relay a message (language, symbols, images), it is with the expectation that the receiver can interpret as the sender intended and has the ability to take action accordingly. This is not always the case. Various cultural groups have unique ways of perceiving, organizing, and relating to information. They may have different needs, values, motivators, and behaviors. The norm for one group may not necessarily be relevant or appropriate for another group. The message must fit the cultural context (the norms, ideas, beliefs, and totality of meaning shared by a cultural group) of the audiences you want to reach.
3) Invest Before You Request: Create Community-Centered Partnerships
Historically, there has been a tendency to reach out to organizations serving special populations at the point when businesses, issue advocates, or other organizations need help accessing a community or seek to expand service or products to a community. Too often the first introduction is a request for assistance in conducting outreach, sharing information, facilitating market research, or referring participants to programs. In many cases, communication has been one way and self-centered—what can this person or organization do for us? By investing in the community—learning about organizational needs, attending events and community forums, and participating in community-based efforts—you can build trust and the foundation for long-term engagement. By taking this step first, before you have a specific programmatic request, you invest in building connections that lead to long-term partnerships.
4) Develop Authentic Relationships: Maintain a Long-Term Perspective
Authentic relationships are those that engage community members in idea generation, feedback, and decision making. Such a relationship is patiently developed because there is no need to rush to get to know and understand each other. The relationship is based on a true sense of shared values and shared mission and is focused on ongoing collaboration rather than a specific project. Communication, contribution, and commitment are all two-way.
5) Build Shared Ownership: Engage, Don’t Just Involve
As you seek to engage the community in your work, look for opportunities for the community to become vested in the mission that drives your work and its outcomes. Identify opportunities for leadership roles for members of the community and engage them as decision makers and owners of strategy. Actively seek their guidance and input in evaluating and refining strategies and messages. When there is more than one cultural group that you wish to engage, identify the needs, values, and motivators that the groups have in common and use these to develop messages and strategies that help unify the groups. This approach helps build community, ensure that groups do not feel they are in competition for attention or resources, and also helps to identify and elevate shared community needs and values that help shape ongoing community dialogue.
6) Walk Your Talk: Lead By Example
All of us have had experiences in which the message conveyed by an organization is inconsistent with its actions and behaviors. The classic example is a retail business with a huge welcome sign in the window and a staff that ignores you. This is just a manifestation of the challenges audiences experience when the message doesn’t match the experience. If you say that your programs are flexible, open to all members of the community, and based on community needs, then that must be what your audience experiences. If you commit to collaboration, then you must behave collaboratively. If you are committed to providing services to “everyone” in the community, your organization’s staff, governance, and partnerships need to reflect the community, and your resources need to benefit that community.
7) Relate, Don’t Translate: Place Communication Into Cultural Context
Successful multicultural communication requires more than just translating English-language content. It requires embracing the social nuances of diverse cultural groups and markets and actively engaging them in the creation of relevant communication strategies, tools, and messages that have the best opportunity to achieve the desired action. When existing strategies are deemed effective, the process of adaptation for new audiences is much broader than the words on a page. In fact, more important than deciding which language to use in your materials is ensuring that the content resonates with the culture and identity of your audience.
Effective multicultural communication entails appropriate interpersonal communication dynamics, the right context, and appropriate usage of culturally relevant imagery, vocabulary, vernacular, metaphors, or slang. Translation makes things readable, not necessarily relevant. A better approach is to make a conscious choice between translating existing concepts that work, relating existing concepts into new images and words that convey ideas more effectively, or developing completely new creative (message frame, copy, imagery).
8) Anticipate Change: Be Prepared to Succeed
Bringing new people and new perspectives into your organization, especially those from a cultural group that has not been previously engaged—be they staff, volunteers, clients, customers, members, investors, donors or community partners—will naturally change the dynamics of your organization. It may change how the organization is structured, governed, and staffed. It may impact how consensus is built, how meetings are managed, and how decisions are made. It may impact how a product is reformulated or how a marketing campaign is planned and executed. When conducting multicultural communication, answer the questions: “Are we prepared to succeed?” “Are we ready for change?”
Cases Study Examples:
The YMCA offers many examples of community-centered partnerships.
Issue: The YMCA of the Columbia-Willamette in Portland, Oregon, was interested in connecting with the fast-growing Latino population in the area. It wanted to increase Latino participation in programs and encourage that community to volunteer and become potential donors to the organization.
Strategy: The YMCA’s president was new to the area, recently relocated from Los Angeles, where he had worked extensively with Latino youth and families. He reached out to a local Latino-led community organization that served children and youth through a variety of programs. He offered transportation, access to facilities, and staff to lead nutrition and fitness classes free of charge.
Results and Impact: The pilot program sparked multiple on-site programs and joint fundraising efforts over several years. The Latino organization gained access to quality facilities, expert staff, and curriculum about health, fitness, and nutrition to supplement its educational and workforce development programs. Hundreds of children and teens benefited from year-round health and fitness programming. Over time, this relationship led to new Latino board members, an increase in Latino volunteers, and an increase in the number of Latino youths and families attending YMCA programs and services (the original goal).
New Seasons Market is a good example of investing before requesting.
Issue: New Seasons Market is a chain of Oregon grocery stores committed to building strong communities and supporting a healthy regional food economy and environment. Unlike many stores that carry a wide array of natural and organic foods, New Seasons has opened several stores in underserved neighborhoods that include the established African-American community, a growing Latino population, and many new Southeast Asian and Eastern European immigrants. These stores are in locations that were abandoned by traditional grocers decades ago. New Seasons needed to establish community support to build the stores and a strong customer base in neighborhoods other grocers had considered unprofitable.
Strategy: New Seasons’ CEO and other leaders began attending neighborhood meetings prior to siting new stores. They learned from community members that a major need and priority was bringing a grocery store with healthy food into the neighborhood. They garnered community feedback on store location, product mix, and service needs. They began hiring and recruiting from the neighborhood for jobs in their other stores while new stores were in development. They participated in priority neighborhood projects, from street tree plantings to sponsoring a youth entrepreneurship program at one store. They advocated as an ally of the community for improved transit and other needs.
Results and Impact: New Seasons opened two large stores in neighborhoods without a grocery store and hired staff at all levels that reflected the local community. The diverse customer base from the neighborhoods has made both stores very successful. New Seasons has forged strong community partnerships and relationships, providing it with allies on priority issues of food policy. In turn, New Seasons has been engaged as an ally for community development and economic equity priorities. Further, local communities have pointed to New Seasons as an example of the expectation they have for other companies that benefit from doing business in their neighborhood.
The Lee y serás campaign (an initiative of the National Council of La Raza, Scholastic Inc., and Verizon) is a good example of “relate, don’t translate.”
Issue: Currently, 86 percent of Latino fourth-graders and 91 percent of Latino eighth-graders in the U.S. read at or below basic skill levels. Fewer than 25 percent of Latino 17-year-olds can read at the skill level necessary for success in college and the increasingly high-tech workplace. This achievement gap actually begins before children enter kindergarten. A major goal of this national bilingual early-literacy initiative is to empower parents and childcare providers to play a first teacher role.
Strategy: As the education system has increasingly encouraged learning English, non-English speaking parents do not receive encouragement for and may even be discouraged from reading to their children. Also, the traditional message of “Read to your children so they will be better prepared for school” does not resonate as well in the Latino community due to a belief by some segments of the community that learning begins in school, not at home. Clearly, traditional literacy frames would not work with this audience. New materials and a unique creative approach were needed in Spanish and best developed within a cultural context that the various Latino subpopulations could relate to.
The campaign’s focus group research guided the development of a message framework that centered on succeeding in life, rather than the dominant literacy message frame, “Read to your child so they can succeed in school.” Latino cultural strengths such as storytelling, rhymes, and singing were emphasized. Further, based upon an understanding of the work-life demands (another cultural context factor) of the primary audience, the message frame highlighted how talking, telling stories, and singing to children could be incorporated into parents’ daily activities.
By recognizing that many parents have multiple jobs and cannot meet the demands of traditional messages that call for a set amount of time spent reading each day, the campaign created a culturally relevant frame that was effective with parents and primary caregivers. Six pilot campaign markets were selected to reflect cultural needs of specific subpopulations such as Chicanos and Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles, Cubans and South Americans in Miami, and Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in New York.
Results and Impact: Initial impact assessments in the six markets show very promising success. Parents involved in the program clearly and enthusiastically articulate and act on their first teacher role and articulate the core messages of the campaign in their own words when describing what is important for their children to succeed. Cultural aspects of the program such as rhymes, stories, and songs have been particularly well received.
Effective multicultural communication is a critical factor in engaging and garnering support from the full spectrum of voters, donors, customers, constituents, and stakeholders that make up the American mosaic. By applying the eight principles, your organization can better advance your goals and help create a stronger and more equitable society. While there are many nuances, approaches, and perspectives to learn and apply, ultimately it all comes down to what we like to call the 3Rs: Relevance, Relationships, and Results.
Metropolitan Group is a full-service social change agency that crafts and integrates strategic communication, resource development, and creative services that empower social-purpose organizations to build a just and sustainable world. More information is available at www.metgroup.com.