Julia Louise Krahe
Julia Louise Krahe

The use of inclusive language to communicate with and about people from diverse backgrounds and identities has never been more important. Thanks, in large part, to recent social justice movements, healthcare organizations are increasingly attuned to the effects of discrimination and systemic racism, and widespread efforts are being made to ensure people of all genders hear themselves reflected in health-related messages and materials. What’s more, these considerations extend to a variety of subjects like sexual orientation, religion, ability level, age, and more. As a result, nearly everyone—from specialty care societies to healthcare journalists—is thinking about how to communicate inclusively.

This isn’t only the right thing to do, it can also make a real difference in people’s health. As the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says, “valuing, respecting, and affirming an individual’s identity contribute[s] to improved health outcomes.” Experts further affirm the heightened importance of culturally competent care—including the use of inclusive language—in reducing health disparities.

While valuing inclusive communication is an important step, it’s clear from Crosby’s current work with payors, health systems, and federal agencies that implementation is often very complicated. While numerous inclusive language guides for health communication practitioners exist and generally rely on similar principles, a close review reveals that they often provide differing and sometimes conflicting guidance. For example, the Associated Press does not recommend capitalizing “white,” but the CDC does. Anyone using the Census as a guide might restrict conversations around gender to “male, female, transgender or none of these,” whereas the guide produced by the American Medical Association names at least a dozen different gender identities.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '22 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine
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As terminology evolves, it’s not always easy to know the right thing to say. We see this with the word “Latinx,” which was added to the dictionary in 2018 as a gender-neutral term for people who are of Latin American descent and would otherwise be described with the gendered Latino or Latina. The term caught on in academic and social media circles, as well as with healthcare leaders like Dr. Anthony Fauci. Yet a 2020 poll by the Pew Research Center found that just three percent of U.S. Hispanics use the term, underscoring questions about whether it resonates with the intended audience. In addition, the available guides don’t generally offer suggestions for how to address historical texts, like research studies that report data based on outdated racial descriptors such as “Caucasian” and “Colored.”

As a result, each organization is left to choose for itself what inclusive language standards it will use to meet its specific needs. Any group that does not have clear, comprehensive guidelines risks—at best—having well-intentioned communicators making disparate choices that undermine brand consistency. At worst, you could quickly find yourself in the middle of a high-profile controversy around your organization’s values and practices.

The following tips can help any organization that is committed to using inclusive language move from intention to action, making smart choices along the way.

Choose your guide wisely

You can’t expect consistent, inclusive communication if you don’t offer clear guidance for people to follow. When considering how to provide that guidance, if you can use another organization’s existing inclusive language resource, do it. Though these documents are generally built around similar principles, it’s important to be attuned to variations in the specific guidance provided. When assessing each guide, first consider the source and how closely it aligns with your organization’s mission and values. If you’re primarily writing for the media, you might find that the Associated Press’ guidelines fit your needs. Healthcare organizations may choose to examine the American Medical Association’s guide first.

But don’t stop there. You need to assess each guide based on your own organizational needs and values. Read the guidelines you’re considering carefully and think about whether they address all of the circumstances that your colleagues and constituents commonly face. Put a critical eye on whether you have a nuanced reason to disagree with any specific elements. If everything lines up, use the ready-made resource and focus your attention on ensuring it’s understood and implemented across your organization. But if there is no single guide that meets all of your organization’s needs, it’s worth the time to build off of an existing guide or create your own.

Build your own resource

To successfully develop an inclusive language guide that works for your organization, think process before content. Start by orchestrating an approach that will not only help you effectively examine the relevant issues but also establish the buy-in necessary to see the resulting guidance widely adopted.

The first step is asking, “Who should be in the room?” Think about bringing together diverse voices that offer different lived experiences and represent various internal and external stakeholders. If you don’t already have it, cultivate buy-in from senior-level champions. If those contributing to the process are genuinely excited to engage deeply in these complicated questions, you will be in the best position to create something of lasting value.

Once you know who your contributors are, think about how decisions will be made. Consider your organization’s role, goals, values, and audiences to help guide your approach. Whenever possible, do the research necessary to understand how each of your specific audiences wants to be addressed.

Next, you need to create a process for examining discrete issues and making decisions. With so much potential inclusive language content to be covered, a clear process will help prevent you from having meandering conversations that don’t result in real decisions. It’s also important to ensure that you create the space to dive deep into issues that are relevant to your organization while setting aside any that might be less so. Be sure that you’re considering inclusion holistically, thinking about all of the aspects of identity that your organization regularly addresses in its communications.

As you work, recognize that in many cases there is no perfect option. While some decisions likely seem more clear-cut than others, there are instances where there are good arguments on both sides of an issue. Also, build in an understanding that things will change and you will need to revisit your guidance over time. Create a plan up-front to regularly review your organization’s guide to ensure that it comports with the latest thinking and continues to offer the support your organization needs to live its values.

Throughout this effort, keep in mind that many of these issues are deeply emotional. It’s important to establish a culture that encourages deep and open discussion, allows people to make and repair mistakes, and meets everyone where they are so that you can move forward together. With a clear process and set of expectations in place, you will be well down the path toward establishing the shared inclusive language that best connects with your audience and communicates your organization’s values.


Julia Louise Krahe is a lead strategist and Senior Vice President at Crosby Marketing Communications.