Skip to Content
12 Min Read

Messaging Beyond Jargon: Creating Equity in Social Change Communications


  1. Learn approaches for how to infuse “equity” into a brand and all institutional communications.
  2. Learn how to translate jargon into compelling language and bring your organization’s most important work out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
  3. Learn how to partner with internal stakeholders and leadership to develop an equity-based approach to communications.



Greater impact when people understand the mission – help clients think strategically about brands.

Small group from Colorado Health Foundation were in Pueblo to launch new project though series of events, introducing foundation to the communities that weren’t traditional audiences. Created events with the “Denver standard”, want everyone to have the same experience. Nobody ate from the fruit and cheese platter like they did in Denver – made the staff check themselves. As a staff noticed that something wasn’t right – what does it mean to meet the community where they are. Equity vs. equality. Great example of how to infuse brands with equity and break through jargon. Those are really important when doing social change, important to think about the whole experience you’re creating – be consistent.

A Case Study

Context Colorado Health Foundation – 60+ staff members, variety of lived experience. Lots of different perspectives, especially on diversity, equity, and inclusion. How to navigate different perspectives. Emphasis this as a living case study – still a lot to learn, just one example. Largest foundation in Colorado, grants across the state, policy and advocacy work. 3 years ago, new leader join the foundation as new CEO and president. Brought in new schools of thought about grant making, thinking about the word “health” and what it means. When she joined, had a narrowly defined brand, tremendous shift. Limited community presence as an organization. Program officers now spend 40% on the road – now have arms in communities that they never had before.

2016/2017 spent a lot of time redeveloping organizational brand. Use listening to make sure decisions are community-informed.

Committed to a new body of work, investing in a variety of different types of research, including polling, of what people in Colorado think about healthcare.

What the definition of health equity is? Use definition as a communications framing tool, push discourse around the issue (poverty, factors that affect healthcare)

In addition to moving locations, restructuring departments – what does it mean for staff to be community informed? Young foundation, but has entrenched reputation/how coloradans think of the foundation. Surprising – consistency across disparate groups that were contacted.

Assigned staff by geographic areas as well as issue areas. Create an “impact practice model” – set of guiding principles for how staff show up across the state. Be appropriate to the context, regardless of who you’re talking to.

The Challenges of Promoting Equity

  1. Finding new organizational strategy and brand at the same time. Had to develop brand in non-traditional way, with help from mission minded.
  2. Bold leadership vs. conservative staff. New CEO – voice needs to be bolder, more persuasive, shift personality. Challenging for staff to feel comfortable with bold new direction, tackling issues like race. As managers, had to shift how they operate
  3. Language, tone, photography missteps – early into brand redevelopment – shift from stock photography to authentic photography. One challenge – perceptions of Coloradans who are low-income. Used authentic photographs, realized that given the content, couldn’t make the assumptions that families were low income. Solution was to talk openly about it – use captions that address it head on. The word “low-income” was in the document a ton, capitalizing some ethnic groups and not others. Positive report was primary care in hospitals – image was two white doctors and a black man wearing scrubs – other documents with low income reports had poc on the cover. Have an open dialogue, resulted in a messaging/communications committee of a diverse group of people to take a second look at these documents to not repeat issue
  4. Staff discomfort with the notion of equity. Disentangle when it’s a communication challenge vs. something else. Realize that challenges were deeper.
  5. Be authentic – if you say the wrong thing, people will be understanding. A challenge is how you show up. Staff showed up with reserved body language – all had different reasons for acting this way. Working on how people show up – communications tool, messaging – try to seem more unscripted. Giving people talking points so that staff can explain things in their own way – a big piece of getting away form jargon.
  6. Creating shared understanding among staff. Staff were getting into disagreements, not handling things well. Create trust and relationships. When you don’t understand things, how do you clarify and give productive feedback? Don’t assume somebody did something on purpose.
  7. Brand – trying to get people to understand that knowing how the foundation talks about itself is part of the job. Be willing to engage in that dialogue, share with other departments, advice – changing relationship so that there’s a productive dialogue when something isn’t working

Met Zach, struggling with messaging. Initially, positive feedback but negative feedback from staff. E.g. “knight in shining armor” means very different things for different people. Comes across as tone-deaf. Address unintentional messages that the public will pick up on. Have the dialogue with team members.

Requires a lot of listening in the moment. Came up as brand equality – in 2018, brand democracy. Can’t just stick to a script, have to listen carefully in conversation. Lots of people who represent brand that you don’t have control over so it requires staying in conversation with them.

Capitalize on people who are very comfortable with brand. Created a trusting space – partners have ears to the ground. Introducing “communications office hours” – try to communicate authentically. Use 1-1 consulting to work with people who are struggling with the language. Educate staff on things about the brand, as opposed to massive training sessions


Q: Did you have to draw ground rules – this is a safe space, take in opinions – does your role as a comms expert trump that?

A: Advisory committee – doesn’t run the committee, an officer runs it. Immediately creates a safe space – support the officers who run the meetings, help design the guidelines. Tell people that we need the input and guidance, even if it’s not going to look exactly like what they want. Struggle with the notion of feedback – spend a lot of time on guidelines. Be careful about line in the sand – communications team is at a different place. Have the expertise, but might still be the wrong thing. Safe space where people can challenge one another on the issues – explain why you came to the decision you did.

Q: Challenge – in my team, want to use tickets to track hours, have sense of visual brand. Team is more rigid while leadership is big picture?

A: Deeply believe that the brand will develop organically. Listen for the pieces that are going to drive that. In terms of making it come to life/activating it, push beyond traditional thinking. Rethink everything culturally – not build able, not between 8-5. Thinking about notion of “evidence” – everything that was scientific. From a comms standpoint, talking about graduate school. Blow up that notion to include thoughts from communities, etc. Less brand policing. Constantly return to values.

Q: What do you do when people go out and don’t get the messaging exactly right? What happens when people are being off message? What tools do you have in place to give feedback or get back on track?

A: One instant, program officer realized she was off-base and asked directly for help. 1-1 consulting was easy to manage. When program officer doesn’t realize, test program officers all the time. Sense of humor, casual setting. Openness rather than calling somebody out in an open setting.

Q: Race is an issue in the room. Very socially aware staff member, older african american man sitting in her area, woman complained about the volume of phone calls in the area. Even if very socially aware in one setting, insensitive in others, how do you handle it?

A: Brand as a synonym for reputation – not just logo, name, etc. Comes to life in how you act and what you do. How do you bring brand to life in strategic decision making. Key pillars to brand platform – challenged to not even use the word “brand”, in this context people were not comfortable with that word. Talk about “vision” and “mission”, “core belief” and “rally cry”, “cornerstones”.

Don’t say health equity even though this is an organization that emphasizes this. The outward facing and internal language doesn’t talk about health equity. Rather, decodes it. Connect to rural conservatives as well as liberals. Language is emotional – emotion taps into pride and self-reliance. Purple state language that reaches across the aisle. Decoding jargon so that it’s accessible and other people can understand it.

Rally cry language is what the staff use most often – it’s the most relatable. Specific target audience – serving people who need us most.

Q: In reach as opposed to access. How do you test the language?

A: Empathy is key. Step into the shoes of people you’re trying to reach. Versatile phrase – access associated with healthcare. Don’t shame, scold, etc. Create an environment where if you want it, you can have it.

Cornerstones – communicate with applicants, partners. Talk about who you’re there to serve. Here for those who have historically less power and privilege – work around “disenfranchised” “marginalized”.

Translate brand visually – old version used regal colors. Seen as authoritarian, top down. Communicated wrong message, changed to blue and green. Apple shape – health, life, vision of upward lift created by equal pieces working together. Important to update the logo and translate what it meant so that everyone in the team could use it as a talking point.

Q: How did you come to the decision to update the logo?

A: #1 rule was to not change the logo. Changed the color palette, have a series of logos to use at special times and moments – adding a logo story was huge.

Overlapping prism color, authentic photography, icons. Choices on typography, more approachable, down to earth. Carefully script the one-minute brand message. High-level message that could be used throughout all situations. Train staff – comms issue or staff discomfort? Listen to harsh feedback, but stopped it before it became unproductive. Let staff craft their own 1 minute messages – memorize it but also personalize it.

Communications/culture shift – came to a person to person approach. Shifted to a more journalistic approach. Before this, race rarely entered the conversation. Never talked about poverty. Listening became vastly more important. Shifted away from surface-level staff relations to deeper conversations. Sometimes it’s tough! Operate like managers; also, translators. Trusting relationship that have been able to develop. Building trusting relationships among staff. Trying to create closer relationships so that these conversations can be facilitated. Strategic decision to do person to person, which is going to take longer.

Q: As part of the work – how has this affected who has a seat at these communications meetings? Who is creating these stories?

A: Completely revamped hiring process. Three positions open – for each of those, completely stripped out education requirements in favor for a worldview experience. Want both professional and personal worldview experience. If you’re talking about equity but have an all white, middle class team, nobody is going to believe you. Opportunity presented itself, when some staff left, to have a more diverse workplace. Careful to avoid tokenism – create a safe space for those people to feel like they can speak out. Now there’s a diverse team – bring the perspective out.

These notes were captured by The Communications Network and have been reviewed by the presenters. ComNet18 Breakout Session notes were made possible thanks to the generous support of the Kalliopeia Foundation.


* indicates required

Join The Network

Community, learning, and leadership to help you do good, better.

Become a member