Some association publishers are growing more intentional in implementing a diversity and inclusion strategy for content, even calling it a key to their viability and survival.
By Carla Kalogeridis
When I decided to do an article for Signature on diversity and inclusion in association publishing, a long-time AM&P member was among the first to volunteer for an interview.
“I was so happy to see your post on the AM&P listserve about this article,” she tells me. “I have wanted AM&P to talk about this for a long time.”
Her comment gives me pause. I wonder why diversity and inclusion haven’t been on my radar before now. The embarrassing truth: It never crossed my mind.
I guess there’s some good and some bad in that admission. The good: I don’t think of people in terms of their skin color, ethnicity, disability, age, or gender. The bad? I don’t think of people in terms of their skin color, ethnicity, disability, age, or gender.
Is proactively thinking about diversity and inclusion not only the right thing to do, but also a strategic move for association communicators? Do association publishing teams need a D&I policy? Do we want — or need — what could amount to affirmative action in publishing?
The idea for this article came from Damita Snow, senior manager, publishing technologies, and chair of the Staff Diversity & Inclusion Council (DIC) for the American Society of Civil Engineers. She had emailed asking if I’d done any articles on diversity and inclusion. She is interested in what other associations are doing in the space and is willing to share ASCE’s initiatives as well.
What are we doing in that space?
I tell her it’s a great idea, and post on the AM&P listserve asking for associations willing to share their thoughts and initiatives on D&I in their publishing activities. Three members respond: One member says her association has no formal D&I initiative but it’s something she consciously does on her own. One member messages that she knows her association needs to be doing something, but isn’t sure what. The third member is the one who says our discussion of this topic is long overdue. It’s enough for me — I know we need to get the D&I discussion going at AM&P.
REFLECT Our Members — or the People We Want as Members?
It’s not Signature’s style to refer to people by their first names, but this topic is personal, the interviews were deeply personal, and so, here we are. It feels right to use first names for those who are willing to open up to me about this subject.
“Association publications try to reflect the average member in their content and imagery, but that’s a mistake,” says Apryl Motley, CAE, a former association editor and experienced freelance writer and publishing consultant. “We can’t operate in a bubble. We think, ‘These are our members, and this is what they want,’ but associations have a responsibility to introduce people members don’t know and a different kind of perspective.
“If the bulk of your membership is white men 50-60 years old, associations have to turn themselves inside out and ask: ‘Is this everybody we want to reach?’”
It’s an interesting question. We tell ourselves over and over that members want to see themselves in our publications. Do we default to the average member and consider our job done? Or is it just as important to show the people we want as our members? Somehow, that feels a bit dishonest, and I wonder about that. To continue Apryl’s example, if your association is comprised of mostly 50-60 year-old-men — but you want to attract a more diverse crowd — is it wrong to imply in your content and imagery that the association membership is more diverse than it is?
ASCE is the oldest national engineering society and one of the most progressive. The Diversity & Inclusion Council that Damita chairs is a committee of ASCE staff members whose purpose is to create a more inclusive and respectful workplace, “embracing our differences because they are beneficial to us all,” she says.
Damita’s colleague, Dr. Lisa Black, is ASCE’s senior manager, diversity and inclusion, and works with members of ASCE’s National Committee on Diversity and Inclusion (CDI). The overarching purpose of CDI is to advance the value of diversity and inclusion within the civil engineering profession.
“Many people haven’t come to terms with the fact that there is a huge demographic shift in this country,” says Lisa. “The country is browning, and associations needs to address these shifts.” To her point, the U.S. Census projects that by the end of this decade, the majority of children under 18 will be non-white; by 2043, non-whites will comprise the majority of the U.S. population.
ASCE’s D&I initiatives are promoted organization wide. “Our leadership is committed and accountable to D&I,” Lisa says. “Our outreach begins at the K-12 level, and we partner with affinity organizations to make sure that underserved groups know about civil engineering. These are our future members. Not only is our internal D&I policy important, but so is what we project to the public.”
Perhaps there’s nothing more public than an association’s website, and Damita says ASCE makes a conscious effort to ensure the site represents a diverse population. ASCE has a D&I policy for the website and ASCE publications, from magazines to catalogs.
Internally, short videos featuring different employees — called “Structures: Faces of ASCE” — stream on the association’s intranet. “ASCE employees can talk about their interests or life experiences,” she explains. “It’s about getting to know someone you wouldn’t normally talk to. It builds camaraderie, diversity of thought, and idea sharing. Being more inclusive helps your creativity and innovation and expands your reach.”
In preparing for this article, several AM&P members advise me to talk to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), and I soon find out why. Vicki Deal Williams, chief staff officer for multicultural affairs, says that someone has been in her job role at ASHA since 1969. “ASHA created this position in the 1960s because a group of members was feeling disenfranchised,” she says. In the 1980s, she says the association grew more intentional about it, “and we’ve been trying to live this value ever since.”
In the late 1990s, various ASHA departments — including the PR, communications, and publishing teams — underwent cultural infusion training. “Folks came in clusters of those involved in similar work,” she says. “We talked about why D&I was important to them and why it is important to members, and how they think it relates to the association and their job.” The training was particularly important for the communications professionals, she says. “There’s a difference between intent and impact. We all write and speak with a different set of filters, and sometimes there’s a mismatch between what you intended and what you communicated.”
Bridget Murray Law, editor in chief of The ASHA Leader, says there’s no need for a separate D&I policy for ASHA publications because D&I is such a big part of the association. “D&I includes race, age, culture, but also disability,” she points out. “Our members experience a lot of prejudice, so our content is already centered on D&I.”
Some ASHA writers are paid and others are volunteers. Bridget says for every article, they ask: “What’s the diversity angle that we should be including here?”
“We are accurately depicting the world in which our members function, but we also make sure to pull from diverse expertise if we have it,” says Vicki.
Bridget agrees that an association should represent the membership in its content, but must be intentional about D&I, too. “If we’re interviewing 10 to 12 leaders in an issue, we make sure that it’s a diverse group — we look at male, female, race, position, and demographic. We’re never going to interview someone who’s not qualified. The idea is to find people who are equally qualified. We just keep looking until we have a diverse representation of qualified people to interview.
“Associations need a diversity of opinion,” she continues. “If you’re always interviewing the same kind of person, you’re missing the boat.”
Do We Need to Spell It Out?
Our nation’s recent presidential election put diversity and inclusion into the limelight. “Today’s graduates are more aware of diversity and inclusion than any generation before them,” says Apryl. “But how will recent events impact them? I was disturbed by acts of racism in my community after the election because much of the hate speech and behavior was coming from local students.”
In other words, just because young professionals are more aware of D&I doesn’t mean they are embracing it. “Inclusiveness is at the core of D&I,” says Damita. “It’s about removing barriers and not making assumptions.”
One assumption associations cannot make, the women say, is that their publishing teams will automatically work D&I into the organization’s content. “A D&I policy for association publishers may be a good idea,” says Apryl. “If you don’t take a deliberate, conscientious approach, diversity won’t happen.”
“Diversity doesn’t just happen,” Damita agrees. “It’s much more strategic. It’s thought out. What are the areas you want to focus on, and what partners do you need to make that happen?”
“If you aren’t actively trying to be more diverse and inclusive in your content, you’re not addressing your responsibility,” Apryl says. “Everyone likes to believe that they don’t need D&I policies, but people usually only do what they are being held responsible for.”
A clear D&I policy, Apryl says, could help association communicators think things through. “When it comes to creating content on deadline, we go too fast, and we go after the low-hanging fruit,” she says. “If a policy helps an association publishing team be more thoughtful and deliberate on D&I, then they need the policy.”
Of course, she says, not everyone will agree on the need for one or what the policy should include. She remembers being an at association staff meeting 10+ years ago when someone asked what the association’s diversity policy was regarding the magazine — and the room fell silent. “No one likes the word policy,” she says. “But it’s really about broadening your net. You don’t see what you don’t see — until someone shows it to you.”
What should a D&I policy include? “It should include the practical steps to D&I,” Apryl says, “geography, age, gender. With diversity, you should be open to interviewing non-members, and that might even entail changing a board policy.”
She also encourages developing relationships with affinity associations. “If you’re an association of accountants, reach out to the association for Hispanic accountants and the association for African-American accountants,” she says. “We need more bridges between these groups and the mainstream group.”
At least two people I interviewed don’t see the need for a written D&I publishing policy. Christine L. Avery, senior manager for the American Payroll Association’s membership publications, is one of them. “While we haven’t yet implemented a written D&I policy, our staff is proactive about showing gender, ethnic, and age diversity in our publications,” she says. “There have been a couple of times when I’ve had to point out a lack of diversity in photos, but I’ve only had to do that once or twice. It’s a natural part of how we do things.”
Christine explains that one of APA’s core values as an organization is diversity, and it’s driven and reinforced from the top down. “Our CEO, who has been with the organization since its founding 35 years ago, values and supports D&I on every level, whether it’s among our employee population or our membership base,” she says. “So D&I is at the core of who we are as an organization and that translates into diversity among our board and volunteer committees.”
Because trying to recruit more diversity into the membership is part of ASHA’s strategic plan, Bridget also says there’s no need for a written D&I policy for ASHA publications. Two of ASHA’s eight strategic objectives relate specifically to D&I. “When we created our content plan for the year, we made sure all eight strategic objectives were addressed,” she says, “so we know we’ve got D&I covered.”
Affirmative Action in Publishing?
I ask the association publishers if they purposefully do — or would — select writers or interviewees based on the diversity they bring to the publication’s overall content. Shouldn’t we be going after the absolute best sources for a story — regardless of ethnicity, culture, gender, or age?
“People from all cultural backgrounds are imminently qualified to interview or write on any topic,” Apryl says. “If you’re trying to broaden the scope of your publication, you need to go find these people. You shouldn’t just interview whoever’s available.” She says the same effort needs to go into diversity in imagery.
As an editor, I wonder about the publication looking contrived. I look at that stock photo with the token white, black, Hispanic, and Asian and worry that it’s patronizing, even potentially offensive.
“Often, people of a particular community will look at pictures on your website and publications, and if they don’t see people from under-represented populations, they wonder if the association is right for them,” ASCE’s Damita says. “Association professionals need to stop being afraid to talk about it.”
“If I flip through a magazine and never see anyone who looks like me, that’s worse than a contrived photo,” Apryl says.
I take her word for it.
“Even when I go to association meetings, there still aren’t many people who look like me,” she says. “I’ve walked into meetings like that all my life, and it’s hard to explain if you haven’t experienced it.”
“It’s about feeling safe to share your ideas, and knowing that your voice will be respected and appreciated,” Lisa adds. “And it helps to know that the association is aware of it.”
As senior managing editor for APA’s monthly flagship magazine, PAYTECH — and in charge of putting out several monthly digital publications as well — Christine relies heavily on the association’s Board of Contributing Writers. The group meets every year in May during APA’s annual conference to talk about article ideas for the coming year.
AM&P has a similar group called the Content Creation Committee, which I co-chair. I ask her if she is conscious of D&I when putting together her Board of Contributing Writers each year. I know we haven’t been.
“Any member who wants to volunteer for the committee can serve,” she says. “I would never go ask a person of color to join our Board of Contributing Writers just to fill a certain D&I niche. That would not feel right. I don’t want to choose my writers — I want them to choose us and be hungry to write for their industry publication.” Fortunately, she says, the board is naturally diverse. “Among the people who volunteer, the diversity is there.”
Christine says D&I is something that she and her team think about regularly. “When we work with authors and choose photos — especially those that represent APA events — we always keep diversity and inclusion in the forefront.”
It’s interesting to me because Christine had shared that her association is comprised mostly of women in their 50s. “We know who our members are, we know the demographics,” she says. “But when I show conference photos in the publications, I make sure to show photos of men as well. Certain members may feel in the minority, but showing them in the publications says, ‘These people come to the conference, and you should, too.’”
She agrees that it might be contrived, but that the end justifies the means — and not just in showing diversity, but truly creating a more inclusive environment. “When it comes to images, we hand-select people of all races, gender, and age because it’s good to make people feel welcome,” Christine says. “You do your members a disservice if you don’t show them the diversity in your industry, because who comes to a conference or joins an association is not necessarily a reflection of the industry.”
However, when it comes to writers, Christine always goes to the best person for the job. “We don’t feel the need to handpick a writer because they are a person of color,” she says. “If you’re volunteering to write, we’ll take you.”
I ask Christine if she’s worried that not being strategic about diversity among authors could lead to a lack of perspective in APA publications. “The content of our publications really transcends race and gender. Since our members, regardless of race, religious beliefs, etc., are tasked with keeping their companies compliant by paying people accurately and on time, D&I really doesn’t come into play,” she says. “Also, people are people no matter what race, age, or religion they are, so we’re always going to have different perspectives.”
ASHA’s Vicki agrees. “We all have a culture, we all bring something unique to the discussion,” she says. “Associations have to start thinking about diversity differently. Who are the people who can bring a different perspective? It will feel uncomfortable for a while, but people naturalize very quickly.”
“It’s not that you have to devote every issue to diversity,” Apryl adds. “But when you see issue after issue of a publication that is never diverse and you never see people like you, that translates to the membership question, and you ask yourself if you really belong. You wonder, how much of this is for me?”
“It’s not about making sure you have everyone at the table all the time,” ASCE’s Lisa sums up. “Some articles are very technical, and you need the best, more experienced people involved with them. But if you make a point of casting your net wider and in new places, you will find yourself engaging with new authors and new industry experts naturally.
“It’s not about filling quotas,” she emphasizes again. “But if all things are equal, you might make the decision to interview the minority expert or individual who represents an underserved population.”
“When you’re putting together your publication, it’s not about saying, ‘We need one of these, one of these, and one of these,’” Damita agrees. “That’s insensitive. It has to go deeper than that. But you do have to place value on a diverse membership and an inclusive way of communicating.”
Should Sexual Orientation Matter?
Knowing that gender issues are part of D&I, I ask why someone’s sexual preferences should matter when I’m choosing potential interviewees or story imagery. It’s an honest question, but I sense my ignorance even as I say it.
“If you’re trying to build a more diverse membership and an inclusive environment, you should be sensitive to LGBT issues, too,” Apryl says. “Some people are going to think: ‘Why would I bring my partner to this association’s meeting when I don’t even see people of color represented in its publications and other media?’ Your members have to trust you and trust the environment.”
Bridget recalls a story that shed light on gender issues for ASHA. “We did a story about transgender voices and the professionals who work with these individuals to help them sound like the other gender,” she says. “We got some negative feedback from members saying that we shouldn’t be addressing social issues, only professional ones.
“But some of our members are doing this kind of work, and if they’re doing it, we’re going to cover it,” she says. “You have to be willing to put your neck out.”
Bottom line, they say: Gender issues and sexual orientation are part of D&I.
Where Will You Be Challenged?
One unique area of D&I challenges comes to associations serving international audiences. APA’s Christine switches hats monthly as part of her association’s other company, the Global Payroll Management Institute, and often needs to keep D&I even more in mind. “I spend another two to three hours on each article for our international monthly e-publication,” she says, “being very mindful of diversities and customs. Serving 8,000 international subscribers from more than 90 countries, it’s hard to make sure you aren’t offending certain cultures. Our staff has spent significant time researching different cultural sensitivities.”
Association politics might also challenge your D&I efforts. “The best way to evolve and grow is to recruit people who are not like you,” says ASHA’s Vicki. “Be honest with the membership on what you’re trying to do in D&I. Reach out to them, form a committee, talk about it at convention.”
If politics aren’t getting in the way, an association might simply not know where to start. “The biggest challenge is overcoming the urge to do things as you’ve always done them,” Apryl says, “and understanding that some conversations might be uncomfortable. In some associations, you might even need an outside facilitator.”
“Even if you have a staff that’s completely on board, it’s not always easy,” agrees Damita. “Get some D&I training for your publishing team. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s the right thing to do.”
“Often, all you need is someone willing to raise the issue,” says Lisa, “someone who recognizes that the survivability of the association depends on it.” A good place to start is the association’s style guide. Adding D&I to your association’s publishing style guide could open the discussion. (See sidebar, “Did You Know There’s a Diversity Style Guide?”)
As I write this, I recognize that my sourcing for this article itself could have been more diverse, but I am pleased that the discussion is well rounded. “It’s not just about diversity of skin color or gender preference or age,” Lisa concludes. “It’s also about diversity of thought.”
ASHA’s Bridget sums up with a sobering thought. “If you’re not diverse and the profession you serve isn’t focused on diversity, then you could unintentionally render yourself obsolete,” she says. “You risk not making it into the next century as an association.”
(email@example.com) is publisher and editorial director of Association Media & Publishing.