Inclusive Communications Guide

Using the guide

When to use it

  • This guide is most effective when consulted regularly and often.
  • This guide is most effective when used to prevent harm in communications.
  • This guide can be used if you learn you’ve made a mistake or may have caused harm.

How to use it

  • Refer to it for specific-use cases; follow links to additional resources.
  • Share it with colleagues.
  • Make suggestions for how to improve or expand it.
  • Use it as the basis for your department’s own guide.
  • Pursue professional and personal development on these topics.


Below are definitions of foundational diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) concepts. See the Inclusive Language Guide  — now part of UW–Madison’s Editorial Style Guide — for recommended and consistent usage of terminology related to race, ethnicity, and national origin; gender and sexuality; disability; and more.


Diversity encompasses all the ways in which human beings differ. There are many types of diversity: race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, age, marital status, education level, country of origin, parental status, religion, physical or cognitive abilities, and more. Diversity can also represent differences in lived experience. Valuing diversity means recognizing such differences, acknowledging that these differences compose an essential asset, and striving for diverse representation as a critical step toward equity.


Equity is achieving equal outcomes, not merely providing equal rights. Equal rights, without acknowledging unique circumstances and barriers and providing sufficient resources and opportunities, can still result in inequality. A more equitable future requires acknowledging the harm caused by our nation’s history of unequal access to power, education, income, housing, health care, intergenerational wealth, and other resources and confronting how it continues to affect outcomes today. A diverse, inclusive environment is more likely to lead to equitable outcomes than a homogeneous and hierarchical one. To view and use a frequently cited visual representation of equality versus equity, visit the Interaction Institute for Social Change website.


Inclusion refers to fostering belonging and shared power. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines inclusion as “a state of being valued, respected, and supported. It’s about focusing on the needs of every individual and ensuring the right conditions are in place for [all people] to achieve [their] full potential.”


The American Psychological Association defines identity as “an individual’s sense of self defined by (a) a set of physical, psychological, and interpersonal characteristics that is not wholly shared with any other person and (b) a range of affiliations (e.g., ethnicity) and social roles.” Read more about “Why Identity Matters” from the Critical Media Project.


To be genuine and authentic, representation is when a representative of a community reflects the shared power and inclusion experienced by that community on campus. If a community feels marginalized because they are not truly included in the campus community, then the representative is being tokenized.


Tokenism is the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to meet a particular intended outcome, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups to give the appearance of equality. An example of tokenism is using a news photo out of context to indicate a desired level of racial diversity.


In 1890, UW–Madison professor Stephen Babcock invented a process for testing milk to determine its fat content, and therefore its quality. Called the Babcock Butterfat Test, this process would ultimately transform the dairy industry by ensuring milk sold to consumers wasn’t watered down. But Babcock and his colleagues had a problem: many farmers weren’t interested in hearing from university faculty about how to improve their operations. Babcock realized that effective communications would require less talking, more listening, and a more nuanced understanding of the farmers’ experiences, perspectives, concerns, and goals.

Babcock and his colleagues began to embrace two-way communications, asking more questions and incorporating what they learned into the process of sharing the Butterfat Test. With this approach, they found success.

This is what an inclusive communications approach is all about, one that begins with our audience and acknowledges that communication is not just about what we say, but also about what our audience takes from it. To do it well, we must be interested in and educate ourselves on the lived experiences of the people with whom we’re communicating.

What follows are best practices to help campus communicators improve their work and avoid common mistakes. It’s important to keep in mind that none of us will ever become full experts in communicating with people different from us, and norms and expectations will constantly change, but we can be lifelong students.

As you approach your work, keep the following guiding principles in mind:

Be open to different perspectives

Our worldview is informed by our own experiences. If we are members of a majority group, we may have faced difficulty in our lives due to family dynamics, finances, lack of employment, or illness, but we may not have experienced oppression related to our identity. People with systematically oppressed identities may have experiences that have been dehumanizing. Communicators should lead with empathy and ask themselves: “How can I validate another’s experience, even when I haven’t had that experience myself?”

Build your own capacity

We must educate ourselves and improve our capacity for inclusive communications. The burden shouldn’t fall on people from historically marginalized communities to do this work for us, especially since one person can’t speak to the experiences of all people who share an identity. Self-education should be considered a fundamental part of our jobs, not merely a professional development opportunity, because inclusive practices should be incorporated into all work. Many resources are referenced in this guide. These are just a starting point.

Obtain accountability partners

An accountability partner should be a person you trust to be transparent and honest and to provide critical feedback when you need it. We all have areas of weakness. As already noted, this responsibility should not solely fall on people from systematically oppressed groups, though their perspectives also shouldn’t be excluded. The best practice is one that hasn’t changed for millennia — build trusting and genuine relationships with people.

Practice humility

All of us will make mistakes. Truly listening to others, acknowledging our mistakes, and learning from them are critical components of inclusive communications. Find more in this guide for what to do if you make a mistake.

Build relationships

This is a process about giving rather than taking. Building real, trusting relationships takes time, but it’s the best way to broaden your perspective as a communicator — and you might find, when you get to know someone and demonstrate your willingness to help, listen, and learn, that they are willing to give you valuable feedback.

Best practices

The following guidance and resources provide a roadmap for more inclusive communications across media, including photography, videography, social media, the web, and written content.


UW–Madison is committed to creating an accessible and inclusive campus experience for everyone. This applies to both our physical campus and our digital spaces.

Digital Accessibility

UW–Madison has a long-standing web accessibility policy to ensure our digital environment is accessible and free from barriers. Visit UW–Madison’s “Make it Accessible” guide for resources on how to improve the accessibility of websites, multimedia content (e.g., images, audio, video), documents (e.g., PDFs), e-newsletters, and more. For assistance evaluating accessibility and usability, contact the Center for User Experience.

Physical Accessibility

The Division of Facilities Planning and Management’s Disability Resource Guide provides information on physical access to campus for people with disabilities, accessible pedestrian routes, emergency planning and evacuation procedures, accessible building entrances, and elevator access locations. The guide also lists building and classroom locations containing assistive listening devices, in addition to information on requesting snow removal.

Social media

The campus community is expected to follow the UW–Madison Social Media Guidelines, which outline appropriate practices for posting online on official university channels or on personal channels when an employee is seen to be representing the university. The following are additional guidelines for engaging on social media in a positive and inclusive manner.

Note that social media practices and platforms change rapidly. Before starting or continuing institutional accounts, be sure you can commit sufficient resources to stay current with these changes and best practices.

  • Terms, phrases, and symbols arise from a variety of origins, and many tend to lose their history and context — and can be appropriated by bad actors — over time. If you aren’t familiar with the origin or current context of a unique term, phrase, or symbol, don’t use it.
  • Do not use memes, GIFs, or emojis representing people or concepts from communities to which you do not belong. These can represent racial stereotypes or tropes that may not be apparent to you.
  • Set up an internal review committee with a varied group of colleagues to vet content before it goes public. If the committee is unsure on the right approach to something, it should consult outside resources and experts and err on the side of caution. This responsibility should not solely fall on individuals from underrepresented groups.
  • Consult the visual assets section of this guide for choosing appropriate images for social media.
  • If you use hashtags, make sure they accurately and concisely describe your theme or content. Make sure hashtags mean what you think they mean before you use them, especially if they may have associations the university should not endorse. Even when the meaning of a hashtag may seem straightforward, the context in which it is currently trending or being used may not be — and may be quite different from first appearances. If you want to jump in on a hashtag that is currently trending, make sure you learn the full context first.
  • Ensure captions complement photos and provide all necessary information. The tone of a caption should match the tone of an image. Don’t try to be humorous when the photo is not.
  • Include alt text in image tags to create accessible web content for screen readers. Alt text describes in words the nature or content of an image and provides valuable information for those with limited vision. The alt text appears in a blank box that would normally contain the image. Visit the UW–Madison Information Technology website for more information.

Best Practices for Handling Comments

  • Respond within 24 hours when possible, using a personable and approachable voice.
  • Have a clear strategy for dealing with an array of comments, whether positive or negative.
  • Decide that when you choose to acknowledge negative comments as they arise, you do so with an open, non-judgmental inquiry to gather more information. Aim to start the process of constructive engagement and offer an opportunity to turn a negative experience into a positive one. When possible, move to private messaging or offer further discussion in an email as removing the “spotlight” from a situation may help facilitate a more constructive engagement.
  • Follow University Communications’ guidance with respect to posting and the campus interim social media moderation guidance as it pertains to hiding or deleting comments. In general, only comments that are off topic to the underlying post, is clearly commercial in nature, or contains profanity may be deleted or hidden. Whenever possible, it is best to hide comments instead of deleting them. Moderating comments must also be done consistently (i.e., all comments containing profanity or off-topic content must be moderated), regardless of the viewpoint expressed by a comment. If you have questions about this, contact University Communications.
  • Making mistakes when posting to social media is inevitable, and it’s easy for mistakes on social media to be amplified. How UW–Madison responds to mistakes will determine the impact and level of harm. Please review the “If You’ve Made a Mistake” section of the guide for recommendations.

Visual assets

Representing authentic visible diversity in photography and video content has historically presented challenges for campus. Though well-intended, campus communicators are often tasked by administrators and others with developing communications and marketing materials that portray a diverse campus population, focused on underrepresented groups in inclusive settings.

While UW–Madison has seen modest increases in enrollment by underrepresented students in recent years and has bolstered efforts to recruit and retain faculty of color, it remains a predominately white institution. Efforts to show a diverse campus may not always be authentic to individual departments, events, or student cohorts. Finding a balance of both inclusive and accurate representation is complicated. Here are some best practices and important guidelines to consider:

  • Determine and define uses and objectives for visual content before creating images or selecting content from the photo or video libraries.
  • Build and maintain diverse and inclusive relationships with faculty, staff, and students prior to reaching out to specific groups and event organizers to request their participation and permission for your creating visuals.
  • Be transparent with your subjects about your interest in individual groups and events and strive for subject buy-in and explicit permission for use of visuals.
  • Use and present visual content within an authentic context. For example, ask yourself if the selected photo or video is illustrative of the broader event and topic, or whether it’s highlighted with the singular goal of representing the concept of diversity. The latter risks tokenizing individuals.
  • Don’t assume one’s identity or permission — ask people you’re photographing for permission to photograph them and about how they prefer to be described/presented to ensure caption information is accurate and authentic. Be mindful that diversity is not always visible and encompasses more than race and ethnicity.
  • There is a difference between seeking permission for use of people’s likeness in editorial and informative marketing platforms (e.g., brochures, newsletters, publications, social media, informational websites) and for visuals used in paid advertising and marketing. For the latter, it may be appropriate or even necessary to pay a subject to be presented as a visual “spokesperson” for UW–Madison.
  • Set up an internal review committee with a varied group of colleagues to vet content before it goes public. If the committee is unsure on the right approach to something, it should consult outside resources and experts and err on the side of caution. This responsibility should not solely fall on individuals from underrepresented groups.
  • Never digitally or physically alter visuals with the intent to change substantive information or the original context of the photo of video, including the addition, subtraction, or modification of individuals.
  • Routinely review existing communications materials, including websites, to ensure that images are still timely and that content is still relevant and being used correctly.
  • When you are asked to show diversity, it is crucial to the university’s mission to always be accurate and authentic in doing so. Reach out to colleagues at University Communications or University Marketing if you need help navigating content requests.

University Communications hosts an online campus photo library and a shared campus video B-roll on Box. Both contain contemporary visual assets and can be accessed with a NetID login credential. Before using visuals, please review related guidelines and policy on the UW brand site and the UW Policy Library.

Written content

Just as our approach to visual assets and social media should reflect inclusive best practices, so too should our writing and storytelling in print. From the start, ask yourself whose perspectives are being reflected and whose may be left out. Whom and what you choose to amplify can reinforce the equity, diversity, and inclusion values of UW–Madison.

  • Include a broad range of voices and perspectives in written materials. This includes highlighting or quoting not only established scholars, but also those in earlier stages of their careers, and those who hold traditional forms of knowledge or lived experiences.
  • Consider the language and word choices you use and whether they could cause harm, including by perpetuating stereotypes, reinforcing stigma, or further marginalizing a person or group of people by virtue of their identity.
  • Focus on people and their actions, not their identities, unless their identity is relevant to the story. In these instances, always ask people how they identify — never assume.
  • Consult the Inclusive Language Guide and other diversity style guides.
  • Before you use a certain identifier, phrase, or description for a person, consider whether it’s something you would use when writing about someone of a different identity or from a different background. For instance, only point out that a female scientist accomplished something while parenting children if you would do the same for a male scientist, and only if it’s relevant.
  • Recognize that communications work is a two-way street. Share your materials with your sources, particularly for factual accuracy, and be receptive to feedback.

What to do if you’ve made a mistake

We will all make mistakes. Usually, these are unintentional, and sometimes even well-meaning. But they can still cause harm. How we respond can positively or negatively influence the impact. When we realize we’ve made a mistake or caused harm, consider the following steps you can take to correct it. Done well, you may find that being willing to acknowledge errors, address harm, and learn lessons for the future can even serve to improve relationships.

  • Find out specifically what mistake you’ve made and what harm may have been done. Make sure you understand the points being raised and talk to a trusted colleague if you need help.
  • Respond with empathy. Thank whoever has pointed out your error. This acknowledges the role you played and the other person’s perspective.
  • Apologize in a sincere way. Make sure your apology is specific to the incident, and not overly general. Never say, “I’m sorry if you felt … ” Just say, “I’m sorry.” Remember not to be defensive or dismissive in your apology.
  • Research the issue or matter at hand. Look for information on the issue or topic and educate yourself. Determine ways to address and hopefully repair the harm — both now and for the future. There are many ways to gather this kind of information, from simple internet searches to conversations with trusted colleagues or your internal review committee. Do not place this burden on individuals from marginalized or underrepresented groups.
  • Be timely in your response. Allowing too much time to elapse before acknowledging the harm may unintentionally give the perception you are ignoring or dismissing the issue.
  • Be accountable. Ensure that someone, including yourself, is prepared to appropriately address complaints and frustrations shared on social media.
  • Know when to move conversations offline. Social media and email are great communication methods, but they are rarely best for conflict resolution. Ask if you can take the conversation offline to speak privately. This may allow you to forge a deeper understanding of the issue and better work toward resolution.

Campus resources

Additional Resources

Justified Anger: Black History for a New Day

Over nine sessions, the Black History for a New Day course revisits the American past with justice in mind. The purpose is to understand how the African American experience has shaped the world we all live in, and how allies can find roles supporting racial justice today.

Justified Anger, an initiative of the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development, brings you stories and conversations from staff and the community that inspire, educate, and engage toward justice action. The goal is to eliminate racial disparities by provoking moral conscience and directing collective action at the grassroots and systemic levels.

City of Madison Racial Equity & Social Justice Initiative

Madison is known for its commitment to livability and sustainability, yet not all people, families, and neighborhoods share in this experience. The Racial Equity & Social Justice Initiative provides learning resources and tools to help the city support a sustained shift towards fairer practices throughout its institutions.

Resources for White Allies

Curated by DDEEA, these external resources are intended to help white colleagues educate themselves about systems of racial oppression and to prompt constructive conversations.

Professional Development at UW–Madison

UW–Madison Diversity Forum

Hosted by the Division of Diversity, Equity & Educational Achievement (DDEEA), the Diversity Forum is a two-day, conference-style event. Attendees get the chance to hear from authors, community organizers, activists, researchers, and others working in the areas of diversity, equity, social justice, and inclusion, as well as participate in engaging workshops and small-group discussions to further their personal and professional growth and development. Sessions from past programs can be found on the DDEEA website.


Inclusion@UW courses are designed for employees to learn and practice skills that build their capacity to promote UW–Madison’s commitment to “value the contributions of each person … and create a welcoming and inclusive community for people from every background.” Through interactive workshops, shared discussion, intentional practice, and researched strategies, each course aims to empower you with knowledge and skills that support healthy, inclusive, and engaging practices.

  • Perspectives: “Perspectives” invites you to listen and learn through the lens of another. Each session, facilitated by subject matter experts and organized with campus partners, offers intentional space — through information sharing, exercises, dialogue, and inquiry — and for UW employees to build capacity for individual awareness, curiosity, and appreciation of the infinite and valuable differences that make up our campus community.
  • Bystander Intervention: Stepping in With Care and Confidence: This interactive workshop will introduce you to important intervention skills for building healthy, inclusive, and engaging workplaces. You will have the opportunity to practice multiple intervention options in real-life scenarios and will leave equipped with options to interrupt and improve concerning workplace situations when they arise.
  • Bystander Intervention: Refining Your Skillset: Intended for individuals who have completed the Bystander Intervention: Stepping In with Care and Confidence workshop, this learning lab is designed to reinforce skills and continue to build confidence stepping in as a means to build healthy, inclusive, and engaging workplaces.


Thrive@UW–Madison courses are the beginning of a journey where individuals seek answers to: “What does it look like to be a thriving employee at UW–Madison?” Courses provide space for participants to see their role in creating a healthy, inclusive, and engaging work environment.

  • Understanding Your Experiences and Identities: In this course, participants are invited to explore their identity and lived experience. We will learn about the cycle of socialization to better understand how our identity affects our worldview. Participants will develop skills to notice when we start to make assumptions about our observations.

Searching for Excellence & Diversity: A Workshop Series for Faculty Search Committees

Each fall semester, UW–Madison’s Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI) provides a workshop for faculty search committees. This workshop aims to help faculty conduct effective searches and to recruit and hire excellent and diverse faculty. The workshop is typically offered as a two-part series.