On Thursday, May 15th, the Professional Development Committee and Ketchum graciously welcomed a full house for an informed and captivating discussion of culturally sound communications practices. The awe-inspiring expert panelists included:

  • Mannone Butler, Executive Director, Washington, D.C. Criminal Justice Coordinating Council
  • Dr. Dionne C. Clemons, Division Director, Communications and Community Engagement Division, United Planning Organization
  • Diane R. Johnson, M.P.H., Vice President/Account Supervisor, Health Affairs, Ketchum Washington
  • Moderator: Avelyn Austin, Managing Account Supervisor, Online Strategy Ketchum Washington

After a warm welcome from Ketchum Washington’s Vice Chairman, Lorraine Thelian, the panelists dove into the issues and answered the probing questions of attendees. First, the panelists addressed the concern of being aware of racial sensitivity. Dr. Clemons defined “the lived experience” as who a person is in totality, and cautioned that we all have bias. Mannone Butler shared a helpful acronym for noting cultural differences, AURA: Acknowledging, Understanding, Respecting and Appreciating. Diane Johnson’s approach to looking at race, culture and ethnicity is comprehensive. She suggests taking a bird’s eye view of the total population and recognizing the differences, but warned that the differences may not be important. Further, Mrs. Johnson said, “being able to discern when the differences are important is key.”

The next topic of discussion was the importance of language in communications initiatives. According to Mannone Butler, the importance of language begins with working with the audience to communicate effectively. Diane Johnson pointed out that the unique and richly diverse population of Washington, D.C. is a microcosm of the world.  She advised communicators to approach language as a barrier that can be overcome. Dr. Clemons described the use of recognized influencers and partners as a method for overcoming language barriers.

With regard to reaching culturally diverse audiences, the panelists agreed that the audience should dictate the platform. Dr. Clemons gave three key questions to consider; 1) Who are you talking to? 2) What is the message? 3) What is the goal?

A curious attendee asked how to approach the differences in cultural values. Dr. Clemons suggested that communicators consider effect of hegemony, the influence of the dominant culture that shapes the value system of society. Diane Johnson cited the use of third party organizations, like churches, as a mechanism for employing values. She stated that values are based on personhood. Mannone Butler cautioned that voice matters! Communicators should strive to create an environment that facilitates trust.

A few of the best practices we discussed for effectively reaching diverse audiences through culturally conscious communications efforts are as follows:


  • Learn your audience; don’t operate from your vantage point.
  • Learn with whom you are speaking then talk to them; the interaction doesn’t have to be formal it just has to be informed.
  • Know the opposite: listen and learn from people who aren’t like you.


  • Understand the issue at hand. Develop an appreciation for the goal. Then focus on the approach.
  • Invest in the relationship, meet and engage on a one-on-one basis, if possible.
  • Recognize learning opportunities and teachable moments; use them as fuel for the future!


  • It’s a digital world, leverage social media in your research and outreach.
  • Be sure to leverage partners that are recognized by the audience.
  • When working on a global campaign, reach out to partners who have had success with campaigns outside of the U.S.

Finally, the panelists issued a few challenges for PR and communications professionals:

1)      Move beyond the tactic; think more about what the goal looks like.

2)      Be smart in advising your clients.

3)      As communicators we need to demonstrate the changing make up of our country and the world. It’s up to us to reflect all types of people.