The Public Relations Society of America Southeastern Wisconsin Chapter (PRSA SE WI) is excited to share a series of blog posts from its Diversity & Inclusion Committee. This blog series features stories about how diverse communities have experienced and responded to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the inclusive communications efforts they employed.
A pandemic is horrible for anyone, but imagine what the pandemic has been like for individuals not commonly considered during difficult times. The Latinx man watching COVID-19 ravage his community as well as his predominantly Black neighbors. The Asian individuals under attack by ignorance and prejudice due to their presumed links to the virus’s country of origin. The woman and her children forced to quarantine with her abusive husband. The blind man struggling to receive info on how to stay safe from infection. The hearing-impaired woman with coronavirus symptoms who cannot read the lips of her first responders behind their masks.
For many there is no need to imagine, because these scenarios are their reality. However, there are organizations using broader approaches, being more culturally aware, offering a better variety of options, and helping to ensure information as well as assistance reaches ALL people.
Addressing Racial and Ethnic Disparities
There is an old saying that states, “when America catches a cold, Black people catch the flu.” The sentiment being that what affects the majority of Americans, can have even harsher effects on Black communities. COVID-19 has made this sentiment an actuality with African American as well as Latinx communities disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. Out of the nearly 14,200 confirmed coronavirus cases in Milwaukee County as of July 13, Latinx and Black individuals had the most cases with nearly 4,800 and 4,100 cases respectively.
Further adding to the pandemic’s negative impact, Asian people have been the targets of hate crimes and discrimination due to COVID-19’s origins in Wuhan, China. Within less than three weeks of its launch, STOP AAPI HATE received more than 1,400 reports of coronavirus-related harassment against Asian Americans in 46 states.
Local organizations are looking to face those challenges with greater cultural awareness and community education:
- Ayuda Mutua MKE provides key pandemic information and assistance taking into consideration that its target community is primarily Spanish-speaking and may be hesitant to trust government agencies.
- You Matter is a social initiative working to ensure people of color are well-informed as well as hopeful in the face of this pandemic through targeted, culturally aware outreach and communications.
- Hmong American Friendship Association (HAFA) has been a beacon in Wisconsin, which has the nation’s third largest Hmong population. HAFA’s recent project filled a crucial pandemic information gap for a community whose unique culture and language is rarely considered in communications efforts.
- Milwaukee’s Equal Rights Commission added “COVID 19 Coronavirus Diagnosis” as an option on its Discrimination Complaint Form in addition to existing options due to race and several other protected classes.
When At-Home is Not Safer
COVID-19 Safer-at-Home orders have unintentionally led to increases in domestic violence nationally and locally. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the Milwaukee Police Department saw an 8 percent rise from last year in domestic violence reports between January 1 and April 1. In the first couple of weeks in April, MPD data shows the number of reports was 28 percent higher than April 2019.
Several local and international initiatives offer relief to individuals facing domestic violence:
- Our Peaceful Home is the first culturally specific domestic violence program for the Muslim community offering advice and resources. Some sessions are even provided in Arabic, Urdu, and Rohingya.
- SHOFAR is a Milwaukee Jewish Federation initiative addressing domestic violence as well as sexual harassment and child sexual abuse in the Milwaukee Jewish community with awareness, training, and resources.
- Unsafe at Home is a campaign launched by the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services that brings local agencies, institutions, and community members together to coordinate Milwaukee’s response to victims of abuse and neglect during the pandemic.
- Signal For Help was launched by the Canadian Women’s Foundation. It is a one-handed sign abuse victims can use to silently show people on a video call they need help and want someone to safely check in with them.
Making Information Truly Accessible
In some ways, individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing are well-suited to face the pandemic due to their existing reliance on technology such as videophones, texting, and emails for communication. However, the growth of online offerings without the accompanying accommodations for disabled individuals has been frustrating. The examples are endless. Websites containing videos without captions and/or descriptive text (alt-text). Online classes and video conferences that don’t consider navigation for screen readers nor do they offer the ability to pin an interpreter to a larger screen, among other accessibility considerations.
This is equally true for those reliant on visual communications. The inability to gather together in person and without a mask in order to fully view and appreciate the nuances of sign language and facial expressions has been extremely challenging.
Statewide and regionally, there are options for disabled people to receive and send important communications:
- IndependenceFirst’s Assistive Technology Services, Website Accessibility Resources, and Peer Support are just a few of the over 20 programs and services the organization offers to disabled persons.
- Great Lakes ADA Center provides a number of services and resources including technical support and archived website accessibility webinars.
- Vision Forward offers a range of education, training, and support programs for visually impaired individuals, such as low vision services and technology demonstrations.
- HEAR Wisconsin made and donated masks with a transparent mouth for first responders attending to hearing impaired individuals.
Takeaways for Communicators
Nationwide we’re facing compounding health, economic, and racial crises that are forcing us to look at how we operate as a society as well as identify areas for growth and change. The need for effective, intentional, and inclusive communications is critical, creating opportunities for PR practitioners to help organizations through these challenging times.
One word can transform the meaning of a message. One platform adjustment can expand your message’s reach. As you communicate personally and professionally, use person-centered language that makes allowances for varied audiences, keeping different biases and stigmas top of mind when writing and proofreading communications. And be mindful of the environment and experiences in which people will be receiving your communications. All of these factors can change how your messages are perceived and understood. Now is the time for more diverse and inclusive communications. We encourage you to be a part of the transformation.
Senior Public Relations Advisor
Kane Communications Group
Community Relations & Special Projects Director