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Anti-Racism Case Study: Embedding Anti-Racism into the heart of how we communicate

Museums Galleries Scotland is striving to be an anti-racist organisation. We will share the approaches we have taken to embed anti-racism in our work.

This case study is by Kelly Forbes, Digital Manager, and Rosie King Marketing and PR Officer.

Thinking about how we talk and communicate on behalf of the organisation is a large part of how we work as a communications team. Thought goes into everything. It helps us have the right language, appropriate tone of voice and imagery for our audience on every channel and medium we use.

But, with so much time spent thinking about “our audience”, no-one stopped to look around at who we weren’t reaching or why. This was a key prompt for us in 2020. Our journey towards becoming an anti-racist organisation required us to review our practice, consider changes, and take action to implement the changes needed to work in a more inclusive manner.

Surprisingly, one of the challenges we faced was keeping our focus on anti-racism only and not the wider context of Inclusion. It’s no surprise that when you improve your work practices to support Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour, everyone wins.

Communications Review & what needs to urgently change?

Our first step was to review our current ways of communicating. At first, to audit the language and imagery but also to look for missing perspectives in our communications. This was done by taking random examples from all our communication channels to review. The process highlighted some issues that became a high priority for fixing.

The first priority was imagery. We use an internal image library for visuals that can be added to our communication activities. Like a tweet congratulating a museum on their latest grant award or as a relevant header image for a news story on the MGS website. Our image library is a mix of images we have received directly from museums, images we have commissioned ourselves and stock photography. Our image library predominately featured white people and the few images we had of Black, People of Colour (BPOC) visitors to museums were exclusively of young children/families.

We’ve started using the photography we commission to help offset this bias, working to feature more BPOC in our commissioned photoshoots. However, there have been times we still haven’t got this right. We launched our third strategic delivery plan in March 2020 and had commissioned a photoshoot with staff and collection items from David Livingstone Birthplace Museum as the front cover. Due to last minute cancellations, the only staff members who could attend on the day of the photoshoot were white. To meet a print run for the delivery plan, the cover images had to be taken that day.

After its publication we were rightly called in by colleagues in the museum sector of the poor optics of using an image of white staff working with African collection items. We made the decision to take more time to redesign the cover and reprint it. It’s an uncomfortable example of prioritising deadlines and costs rather than promoting diversity and doing something right. It’s also a key learning point for us. We will always need to allow more time in our communication plans to guarantee we have the necessary time available to work in an anti-racist manner.

A side by side comparison of two publication covers. The left is one image of a group of white people examining African collection items, the right is a collage of images of buildings, objects and people in museums
A side by side comparison of two publication covers. The left is one image of a group of white people examining African collection items, the right is a collage of images of buildings, objects and people in museums
A side-by-side comparison of the 2020 Delivery Plan publication covers.

Language was another area that needed our focus. The museum sector has a habit of using terminology than can be complicated, academic and reliant on initialisms and acronyms. By also using this kind of terminology without proper explanation we were making our communication less inclusive. This exclusion isn’t limited to people outside of the sector either. The perspectives of a huge number of volunteers weren’t being considered with our use of terminology. We’re trying to address this by always making our content simple and easy to understand and avoiding the use of acronyms.

We now use the Progressive Style Guide as a term of reference, but also as a starting point for how we can embed this language consistently in our own communications. Working as a team, we support and educate others when something is missed and prompt ourselves to consider all perspectives before we start a piece of work.

Our website is one of our most important channels for communicating with others. While we can make changes to language and imagery ourselves, we need expert help to remove structural biases within the design of the website. We’ve already started this work using human centred design principals to better understand the needs of current audience groups, and also ones who we want to use the site in the future. Having an external developer support this work is important to remove any unconscious bias we, as an organisation, might bring into the project.

Public and Media Relations

Having a new approach to our Public Relations (PR) activity is a crucial element of aligning our communications with our Anti-Racist practice. Traditional mainstream media has its own biases and structural racism to contend with. We recognised that many of the people we want to reach have been excluded from or are not represented in mainstream media. They are unlikely to engage with this media format as a result.

Reflecting on how we could act on this imbalance, we decided to be more proactive in seeking out and establishing relationships with media outlets who prioritise a diverse range of voices through increased research and communication. When we have an opportunity to, we also try and educate media outlets about the importance of including stories with greater representation. This includes ways that they can manage any negative backlash that may occur from writing about issues that challenge perceptions of white supremacy.

The issues we need to talk about are too emotionally complex to effectively boil down to 240 characters and pithy soundbites.

This fear of a public backlash is still a barrier to organisations taking positive actions to become an anti-racist organisation, particularly on social media. With no room for nuance, the speed and ferocity in which things can escalate when something goes wrong is frightening. Truthfully, the issues we need to talk about are too emotionally complex to effectively boil down to 240 characters and pithy soundbites. Which is why we include clear calls to action to educate and push our communication to longer formats whenever we can. We also ensure that staff have the training and support to deal with difficult issues online. Big Partnership provided training and resources to us early in 2021 that informed our social media processes. We’ve added our own values based approach to this. Emphasising wellbeing support and creating a buddy system for those who must monitor and respond to challenging social media content.

Having a multiformat approach provides benefits. We had some success during our previous #MuseumsAreGo campaign working more closely with bloggers and micro-influencers. It’s something we’re keen to continue in future work. For our current consumer facing marketing campaign we are working with Binita Walia at The Space inBetween to increase our opportunities to work with a diverse range of people through this kind of marketing campaign.

Ongoing process for change

This learning journey towards anti-racist practice never stops. Part of that process is to accept that we will make mistakes, but we will own them and learn from them.  It’s a constant feedback loop of review, change, and reflection that eventually, if you work hard at it, becomes your organisational culture.