Warning: This episode deals with sensitive subject matter, including school shootings, sexual harassment, and racism. Listener discretion is advised.
Is there a good way to deliver bad news?
We all have to deliver not-so great information at some point, but is there a right way to do it? A way that reduces harm to the receiver, and softens the blow? In this episode, we're going to try to figure out how to make conversations about bad news...better.
First, we will speak with Tangia Renee Estrada, Co-founder of BIPOC Podcast Creators and Amplify BIPOC, about her experiences as a crisis comms professional, her learnings, and her regrets.
Next, we'll speak with Robin Stickley, a former Global News Canada journalist, who has delivered the news (good and bad) to broadcast television audiences for years — including the devastating events in the Sandy Hook.
Finally, we’ll sit down with Janet Stovall, author of “The Conscious Communicator: The Fine Art of Saying Stupid Sh*t”, about her experiences delivering hard truths and her methodology for helping organizations determine if they should weigh-in on the difficult issues of our times.
Kyla Sims: Hello, lovely people. I want to give you a heads- up that in today's episode we will be discussing some very heavy material. The team and I set out to create today's episode with the aim of detailing how to handle crafting and delivering difficult communications.
But as we dug into this topic with our guests, it became apparent that this subject matter is extremely tough and emotional. The situations and bad news that our guests have had to navigate and deliver in their respective fields is a lot. So, rather than gloss over these situations and try and be more lighthearted on the topic, we decided to embrace the discomfort and complexity. Even though the experiences of our guests are unique and particularly challenging, they are communication professionals in their own right and their experiences and stories have a lot to offer us.
All that is to say this episode may be triggering for some listeners. To state it explicitly, we will be hearing from our guests about reporting on the Sandy Hook School shooting, stories of communicators who've had to handle sexual harassment cases, and we'll be talking about racism. So, if that's not something you feel like you want to get into today, that is totally understandable. Take care of yourself. You can save this episode for a time when you're feeling up to it, or go ahead and skip this one entirely. We've got lots of great other episodes that you can get into instead. So, without further ado, this is the Bearer of Bad News.
Janet M. Stovall: These two things, they may seem completely opposite: the moral case versus the business case, but they're inexorably linked. There's no way you can achieve the business/ commercial case without the moral/culture peace.
Kyla Sims: You are listening to Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staffbase, and I'm your host, Kyla Sims. Hard conversations are not new. Humans are complicated, and so is our world. The reality is bad things happen. Hard things need to be communicated. There's really no way around it. Whether it's communicating layoffs or lockdowns, crafting apologies or preparing statements amid controversy, or even having to call out bad behaviours or optics in your own organization, being the bearer of bad news is never easy. It can certainly take its toll, but in the end, it is a part of the job. Though we may not be able to protect people from the bad things that are happening, we may have the power to mitigate some harm in the way we choose to communicate and deliver this news. So, that's what we're going to dig into today. We're going to try and figure out how to have these conversations better, how to navigate the messiness, and what we can do to reduce harm and how we can prepare for these conversations and situations so they don't leave us curled up in a ball on the floor. To get a handle on all of this, I went looking for communication pros who are experts on navigating and delivering these difficult truths.
Tangia Renee: I'm sorry, my son, I didn't realize... Oh sorry.
Kyla Sims: Of course.
Tangia Renee: My computer.
Kyla Sims: For avid listeners of the show, you may recognize this voice from our episode on mental health called How do You Really Feel?
Tangia Renee: I'm Tangia Renee. I mean, that's what people call me online. Tangia Renee.
Kyla Sims: Aside from being a podcasting powerhouse, Tangia has spent many years as a communications professional working in complex, highly visible, high stress environments. So, she's had her fair share of dealing with difficult situations and delivering bad news. I want to talk to you a little bit about your experience in crisis comms. I imagine with campaigns and in organizations and all of these things, crisis comms probably came up quite a bit.
Tangia Renee: Oh my god, there's so many. In every role, there's a crisis. I've handled everything from a school " riot." It was two kids got into a fight, but it was a huge deal, it was all over the news, to somebody getting arrested within an organization I worked with, to somebody getting your private photos and puts them on the internet to embarrass you. Revenge porn.
Kyla Sims: Oh, that's awful.
Tangia Renee: It was a horrible thing that happened to her. But an ex- boyfriend had broken into her account, somehow he figured out her passwords, and did the whole revenge porn thing.
Kyla Sims: And Tangia, still pretty new in her career, had to navigate this awful situation in real time.
Tangia Renee: And you have to realize, I graduated from my undergrad in 2006, so this is early 2000s, and it was a situation that I had never heard of before. I went to my advisors, I went to my boss, I was like, " What do I do?" They were like, " What?" Nobody had ever heard of it. Facebook was still new. So, it was a very, very new situation that even my mentors and people that I knew didn't know how to deal with it because it was all over the internet. There weren't any laws yet about doing this. And this person stole these photos and sent them to her professors, to her boss, sent them to my professors, my boss.
Kyla Sims: That makes me feel sick.
Tangia Renee: It was awful. It was really, really awful. In the end, everything was fine. We released a statement. I followed all of the steps. There's seven steps that you follow in a crisis. I followed the textbook steps and I did what I was supposed to do. But one thing that a textbook can't teach you, the thing that you learned on the fly and in the experience is how to take care of people. This was a really tough situation, and at the time I was really focused on how do I protect the organization and not so much how do I protect the person? And that's my biggest regret about what happened is I didn't know how to do that. After that happened, she left the organization. And at the time, somebody advised me from within the university system, that was what was best for everybody if she just left the organization.
Kyla Sims: Oh, that's so unfair.
Tangia Renee: Looking back, I have regret about how I handled that just out of pure inexperience. I had no idea. I was just like, " Okay, I understand. Anything we can do to help..." Which I was sincere about, but what was I going to do, really?
Kyla Sims: What are you supposed to do? Tangia was new to this world and didn't have the same nuanced understanding of these issues that she does today. Even the laws relating to how to deal with cases these, weren't fully established yet. She did what she thought was right. But even today she still has regrets about how she handled the situation. Tangia's story got me wondering, what if these situations weren't just one- offs? What if your job required you to deliver bad news all of the time? How would you change your approach?
Robin Stickley: Hi, Kyla.
Kyla Sims: Hello. It's nice to meet you.
Robin Stickley: It is nice to meet you.
Kyla Sims: I invited someone whose entire job is literally to deliver the news, not just to one person or one company, but to a whole country and sometimes the whole world.
Robin Stickley: My name is Robin Stickley, and I'm currently the CEO to a five-year-old boy. I think that's how I'm known in the world right now. But in terms of my broadcasting career, Kyla, yeah, I have worked in TV news for over 20 years, kind of a spectrum of different jobs.
Kyla Sims: Robin Stickley is a veteran broadcaster who spent most of her career as a journalist with Global News in Canada.
Robin Stickley: Mostly my background is reporting and then being on the anchor desk. That's kind of who I am professionally, I guess. Yeah.
Kyla Sims: The realm of broadcasting can teach us a lot about how to deliver hard truths. Talking with Robin, I wanted to understand what it's like to embody the role, bearer of bad news, in front of an international audience on live television, and what wisdom we can take from those experiences that might help us become better delegates for sharing life- changing information. So, I want to start by helping our listeners step into your shoes a little bit. How did you get started in this world of broadcasting?
Robin Stickley: I can remember being a little kid, but I think Canadian listeners might know the name Barbara Frum.
Barbara Frum: The Journal with Barbara Frum.
Robin Stickley: And she was an anchor who worked for the CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Barbara Frum: Good evening. 1989 has been an extraordinary year.
Robin Stickley: When I watched her, I thought to myself, " Gosh, every night she's talking about something different."
Barbara Frum: Tonight, we begin our program with a special review of 1989.
Robin Stickley: And I thought that job seemed so cool. It was kind of one of those things where all along the way when I would go and shadow journalists and spend a day trying to get an idea for what it was like, you'd hear these kind of veterans and people who'd been on the job a long time saying, " Well kid, don't do this unless you got a real passion for it," king of thing. It was almost that warning of, "This is a tough gig and there's not a lot of jobs out there and you're going to hate it a lot of days." Fire in your belly, I remember, was the words of my first boss, "If you don't have the fire in your belly, don't do it."
And I thought, "I have got the fire for it." You can be out one day doing something that feels really good, and the next day you're out at an event that is got some level of tragedy to it. One day you're out doing the murder and the next day you're at the local elementary school because they've raised funds to buy their teacher a car and it's really cool.
So, when I say every day is different, you're now knocking on the door of a mother who lost her sons. You've got to figure out for yourself your internal moral code on how you're talking to that person and how you're addressing them feeling, quite frankly, kind of feeling like a jerk when you're doing it, but it's part of the job, and there's lots of parts of the job that are our unfun, tough.
Kyla Sims: How do you prepare for a conversation like that?
Robin Stickley: That was one, honestly, Kyla, that I was never great at. Looking back on the professional stuff where it was, I can think of a double murder suicide and we're trying to talk to family, and honestly I always kind of started by apologizing because you feel like there's an intrusion, and for me personally, it always felt like knots in the stomach, not great, but you start by saying, " I'm sorry. This is who I am. This is who I work for. We know you've suffered this tragedy. We'd like to hear your version of the events or your story," and open the platform then for them to say yes or no. And sometimes in times of crisis, people really do want to talk. It always surprised me a little bit. I'm going to use an example of a case where it's a child that's that's died.
Sometimes they really just want to tell the world how wonderful that person was so that the headlines aren't just about the event that happened, but also about the human being and the life and how they're going to remember that person. And those opportunities always made me feel incredibly privileged. You're walking into someone's living room and you're being taken into their life and they're sharing a snippet of a very... just a brutal time in their lives and they're opening it up to you and saying, " I'm going to tell you about this." I mean, it's a professional privilege that very few people get, and I never took that for granted.
Kyla Sims: Through her experiences, Robin witnessed how important it was to hold space for those who'd received difficult news and how cathartic that experience could be. Which brings me to the next part of our interview, which I think is worth giving you a little heads up about. We're going to be talking about an infamous school shooting in the United States, which may be too overwhelming for some listeners. Please skip ahead if that's you, and we'll meet you on the other side. All right. For those of you who are coming along with us, this story took place early in Robin's role as a foreign correspondent for Global News in Washington DC.
Robin Stickley: DC's kind of mecca for a journalist, right? I mean, my particular role was really to cover whatever was happening in the US. So, picture that as your job on a day- to- day basis. It was kind of crazy because you'd get the phone call in the middle of the night, you're getting on a plane, you're going to this next thing that's happened. Legitimately kind of going from crisis to crisis. I went from Hurricane Sandy in New York City... The night hurricane Sandy hit, he believed he might die here.
Speaker 1: Yeah, we pretty much came to terms with the fact that we're most likely going to die tonight.
Robin Stickley: To the marathon bombings in Boston. While 15 blocks of Boston's downtown was turned into a crime scene, video and photo evidence... I mean, we were in a military lockdown state. Tanks everywhere in the city. It was something I'll never forget. But again, that was kind of my first few months on the job. It was heavy duty.
Kyla Sims: And in mid- December of 2012, some breaking and truly tragic news came from a small town in Connecticut.
Robin Stickley: But just after classes began, a gunman walked into a Connecticut school where it's believed his mother was a teacher. There are reports he shot and killed many of the students in her kindergarten class and the school principal. I remember getting the phone call, "We're going." My flight is full of... I'm literally sitting behind Wolf Blitzer on the plane, and you're trying to think to yourself," This has already happened. So, I have to find a way to tell people what has happened," and it feels so unbelievable that it could happen that I wasn't sure how I was going to keep it together. I wasn't sure how I was going to do my job, which is to explain.
And we descend on this beautiful little town and the world's media is just crushing into this place. Satellite trucks line down the main street of this little community and you can just see the people just look like they've been... They're just all overwhelmed, nevermind the families of the children. And I didn't know where to start. I didn't know what to say. I remember calling my mom from the taxi on the way to the airport in DC and saying, "Where am I even going to begin on this? What am I going to say about this? What context is there to give this story? I cannot imagine how I'm going to do this.”
We got on the ground and now it's about finding out the names of the children and getting photos of the children and trying to talk to family and doing the job. And I guess there is a piece that is similar to a police officer or a paramedic where you do honestly have to put your head down and choose to do the job the best that you can do it. Not without emotion, not without compassion, but you do have to find a place that you go to that it does kind of compartmentalize it. The interesting piece of this, Kyla, to me, was I was there and I got myself into a place where I was just determined that, "Okay, be a professional. This story's not about you. They never are." So, we're doing live hits across the country, starting on the East Coast, moving through Toronto, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta. When we get to British Columbia, which is where my colleagues are that I've worked with for 20 years in Vancouver, and the morning show anchors come on, and I know them both well, they're friends, Sophie and Steve, and I hear their voices in my IFB, and that was the moment... where it was different because it was telling family.
I mean, this is 10 years ago and you can still hear the emotion, right? That's how real it was. And I remember thinking, " Oh shoot. That's Sophie and Steve." It's almost like getting on the phone with a parent or a family member and telling them what you're doing. And that was the closest I came to really not being able to get through that. That was really brutal. And I remember saying to them that I really wanted to talk about the children and a little bit more about what we were learning about who they were and the families. It's very raw for me still to this day. We've both got our Kleenex out.
Kyla Sims: We're both just having a little cry. Thank you for sharing that. It's obviously a difficult memory. How do you protect yourself and your mental space when you have to report on something difficult?
Robin Stickley: Yeah, I still carry... It's funny talking to you so much. If it comes back up, I really do still carry a lot of it with me. And I think honestly, most journalists would say the same thing, that you carry some of these stories with you forever. I remember after the Sandy Hook shootings, there was a memorial with candles and stuffies and flowers, and it was growing, as you can imagine, every day. It was doubling and tripling and it was huge by the time we finished our work there and we're getting ready to leave. And on the last day, I wrote a note and I put it with a little candle that I had purchased and went over and sat for a little while and a Red Cross worker came over and put her hand on my shoulder. I was kneeling, and she put her hand on my shoulder and said, "Are you okay?" And I looked up and I said, "I'm just a reporter. I've been here covering the story, but I'm just a reporter." So, I was basically saying to her," I don't need to be taken care of because I'm just the journalist here invading your space to do this story. It doesn't matter how I feel." And so to hear someone say, "It's okay for you to feel those things and it's okay to feel them even 10 years later," feels good to me. It is okay to still feel those things.
Kyla Sims: When you reflect on these experiences of delivering difficult news to the public or reporting on these tragedies, what have you learned about the best way to deliver this information?
Robin Stickley: Let me start by saying, I think there's something about delivering news to a camera that is a bit of a double- edged sword. I'm not an individual who's showing up on someone's doorstep to deliver news to another person face- to- face. I'm somebody who's looking down the lens of a camera, talking to usually tens of thousands of people. It's impersonal. So, you can get too comfortable there or you can risk kind of forgetting that you're talking to people about something really awful, something really difficult, something really personal that's happened. And so I think you have to use the tools. In television broadcasting, you have facial expression, you have tone of voice. You have, even to some extent, a bit of a body language, which is just a delivery style and that I'm treating it with respect when I talk to you. I always felt it was very important to use language that is the way you would say it if you were talking to a friend or a family member and keep it there, right?
Kyla Sims: What advice would you give to communicators who are in the position of having to deliver "bad news"?
Robin Stickley: If it's a face-to-face scenario, I think it's about putting yourself in the shoes of the person who's receiving the news, a little bit. I know that sounds maybe a little bit simple and cliche, but my husband said to me several months ago that a friend of his had lost his job, I think been fired. And he said, "I don't know." I said, " Well, would you want to hear from this person if you'd lost your job?" He said, " Yeah, absolutely." I said, " Well, then that's the right thing to do. You should reach out."
It can be awkward is the thing, right? Oh, how do I say this? How do I do this? I think it comes with a load of all the things I just kind of finished talking about: tone, facial expression, concern, empathy, compassion, and again, kind of speaking very kind of clearly.
Kyla Sims: Thank you so much for being so open and vulnerable to talking about it. I know that yeah, it's tricky and sometimes these conversations can leave you with a little bit of a hangover. So, I appreciate you going there with us.
Robin Stickley: It was a real pleasure, Kyla, thank you so much for having me.
Kyla Sims: You're listening to Infernal Communication, a podcast brought to you by Staffbase, where we dive into the deeper conversations happening behind some of the biggest comms problems and puzzles that impact organizations and beyond. If you're enjoying the show so far, and I didn't make you cry too much, make sure you follow us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to listen. Please leave us a review and let us know what you think. You can also check out transcripts from this and other episodes, as well as bios and links to our guests on our website, InfernalCommunication.com.
In today's episode, we are talking about being the bearer of bad news. As communications professionals, there will be a point in all of our careers when sensitive, timely and difficult conversations will need to happen, and we're going to have to be prepared. So far, we've talked about dealing with controversy and difficult situations within organizations and on an international platform, but sometimes being the bearer of bad news isn't about addressing individual tragic events. Sometimes the difficult conversations we need to have, have been sitting under our noses the whole time. They're not necessarily about one- off events, but rather systemic issues that need to be addressed. These conversations can be even trickier to navigate and harder to do in a meaningful, non- performative way.
Janet M. Stovall: My name is Janet M. Stovall.
Kyla Sims: That's Janet Stovall.
Janet M. Stovall: In the world, I'm a couple of things.
Kyla Sims: She's a speech writer, a consultant for Fortune 500 companies.
Janet M. Stovall: It's part of what I do.
Kyla Sims: An author, and what she likes to call a diversity pragmatist.
Janet M. Stovall: Which is a term I've given myself.
Kyla Sims: Tell us, where does the title of diversity pragmatist come from?
Janet M. Stovall: For years, I mean longer than I'd like to remember, I've been in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space. I was in the space before it had a name and before I even knew that I was doing the work. And one of the things I've seen over these many, many years is that we talk about diversity, we talk about equity and inclusion in these very aspirational, fuzzy logic ways. And not surprisingly, we very often don't get the results that we want because they're too subjective and these are sensitive issues. I've always been a person who looks at things, kind of wants to cut through the subjectivity and get to the objectivity.
So, when I started looking at being in a diversity space for my own and wanting to see results and seeing those results weren't happening, I sort of reverted to type and said, " Okay, so how do you cut through the fuzzy logic? How do you make it something that is actionable? How do you make it something that's objective?" And I thought you just have be pragmatic about it and go to what really matters because that's, to me, how you get things done.
Kyla Sims: And you've co- written a book that I see in the corner of your room there.
Janet M. Stovall: Yeah.
Kyla Sims: When I learned about her book, The Conscious Communicator: The Fine Art of Not Saying Stupid Shit, I knew that we needed to have her on this episode.
Janet M. Stovall: Thank you.
Kyla Sims: So, can you tell us where did the idea for this book come from?
Janet M. Stovall: Well, I have to give full credit to my co-author, Kim Clark, who is a DEI communications expert. Our paths crossed at a meeting in DC several years ago, and she had seen my TED Talk and was actually talking about my TED Talk and my assistant was there in the audience. I hadn't shown up yet. And she was just there talking and she did it as part of her presentation. She said, "I've seen this TED Talk by this woman who says this and this and this." And my assistant told her, "That'd be my boss, and she's on her way here."
And so really, about the time that George Floyd was murdered and she saw all the black boxes going up across everybody's LinkedIn feeds and just could not believe how performative some of it was. And then you suddenly had the Stop Asian Hate that came in, and you suddenly have a world that is up in arms essentially, but against these social injustices. You also have, over the past few years, a huge push of the corporate world to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion. All this comes together about 2020. And what we saw were a whole lot of performative communications. She reached out to me and she said, "You know what? We should write a book." I said, "Okay, we'll write a book."
Kyla Sims: Janet has been on a mission to fight racism and inequity since she was just 19 years old.
Janet M. Stovall: I was definitely diversity before diversity was cool. I went to a small school in the south. It's a highly selective college, some really bright kids. And when I was there, there weren't but 50 Black people on the entire campus. There were no Black professors, there were no Black administrators. A small town that was sort of isolated, divided with a railroad track right down the middle, where the Black people lived on one side of the tracks and the college and the white professors and administrators and the white students and us, as Black students, lived on the other side of the tracks. And there was just not a great relationship there.
I voluntarily chose to go to this college. But once I got there and saw what that dynamic created in terms of the experience that I was having and the experience that other Black students were having, I sort of got activated. I started being an activist my freshman year on campus. That was the year that having Martin Luther King Jr's birthday be a national holiday was under discussion nationally.
Kyla Sims: Yeah. I can imagine the response.
Janet M. Stovall: When I got to Davidson and suddenly our social worlds are together. We're living together, we're eating together, we're in classes together. You don't go home to a place that is a different neighbourhood. That's when I started seeing things that I'd never seen before. That's when I started having the microaggressions that I'd never had to deal with before. And we had some folks who had some issues, and I had to follow, "That what pisses me off," and so went after them, and somebody didn't like it and they came after me.
Kyla Sims: Someone actually put a smoke bomb in your room?
Janet M. Stovall: Oh, yeah. That smoke bomb was what allowed me to move off campus. I'm suddenly in classrooms with professors who don't want me there, and they have my academic future in their hands and I can see things that I never saw before. Once again, when you follow what makes you mad, the minute you get mad, you're on a path.
Kyla Sims: Yeah, no kidding.
Janet M. Stovall: And spent three or four years just basically raising hell about everything and being upset and being unhappy. And then decided to heed the words of a very wise gentleman who came and spoke to us at Davidson College. And he goes, "You are the angriest little Black woman I've ever met in my life." He goes, "Why don't you stop getting mad and start getting meaningful?" It eventually clicked, and that's when I think I became a diversity pragmatist because at that point I said, "Okay, I'm unhappy. A lot of people are unhappy. There are things that could be done differently here. What can we tell this organization, this university, what can we tell Davidson to do? How can we stop talking about what is being done to us and tell Davidson what to do so they can stop doing what has been done to us?" And so I wrote something there called Project 87. It was an article in the student newspaper and had this snarky beginning. It's like, " We are tired of this. We don't want to do this anymore." Because I'm 19.
Kyla Sims: Of course.
Janet M. Stovall: "And so therefore, this is what we need you to do." But that plan was the first time, in my understanding, that Davidson had ever been given an actionable way forward on these very difficult issues. And it was met with mixed reaction, to say the least. There were some people who were excited to see it. There were some people who were very not excited to see it.
Kyla Sims: Why were people objecting so much to your recommendations?
Janet M. Stovall: There's some people, and I think this is valid not just to what happened back then on the college campus, but I think this translates into how this plays out in corporate America today. There are those who don't like the idea of you talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and what they feel are very transactional terms to say, "This is specifically what you need to do." Those are the people that in the corporate world, you will hear them say things like, "Well, we do diversity because it's the right thing to do."
It's the moral case versus the pragmatic business case. It's the culture case, in corporate America, it's a culture case versus a commerce case. So, the people who are on the culture and the moral side tend to be turned off by the idea that you talk about what they believe is a very heartfelt passion, warm, fuzzy, spiritual thing. The whole idea of diversity and doing the right thing for people, when you talk about it in these very concrete terms.
So, you get pushback there. Yeah, I got pushback from people who don't really want to see change, and what they saw then was a way not to wiggle out of it anymore. The kinds of criticisms that were thrown at it was, "This is unrealistic." It wasn't. "This is demanding too much." I didn't. "This is asking us to move too quickly." It wasn't. So, I mean, those are the kind of things you could push back.
Translate 35 years later, here we are. You get the same pushback in the corporate spaces that anytime you come up with policies in most organizations that are very direct, that are very specific, that have numbers attached, that have things you can measure, that make people accountable. Because that's the huge thing that gets folks. When there's accountability involved, all of a sudden the folks who have to be accountable, generally get a little nervous about that. You've got skin in this game, all pun intended, but you do. And so I think at Davidson, that's what it was then. And at the time, I didn't recognize it. It's only been over the years that I've seen this behaviour repeated outside of that, that I realized that was a microcosmic world.
Kyla Sims: I just want to add a little disclaimer here. Since Janet attended college in the 1980s, her school has made much more of an effort to be inclusive and did eventually take her suggestions seriously, just not when she originally pitched them 35 years ago. So, let's fast forward to today and take a look at the book Janet co- wrote with Kim Clark, The Conscious Communicator: The Fine Art of Not Saying Stupid Shit.
Janet M. Stovall: Because I also am very analytical, I built a model, and it's what the book is wrapped around. It's called the DEPTH model. DEPTH is an acronym for deliberate, educated, purposeful, tailored, and habitual. The five things you need to think about in terms of when you start communicating in the DEI or the social justice space. These are the five domains that you need to pay attention to.
If you take yourself through this model as a communications department or as an individual, if you do that, it gives you a way to recognize whether or not what you're stepping into is something that you should be stepping into in the first place. And then if you continue to do it, what you should be able to say or not say, so you don't say stupid shit in that space, making the subjective, objective.
Kyla Sims: Do you have an example of where the DEPTH model has worked?
Janet M. Stovall: An organization that I was working with wanted to speak out when Roe v. Wade was overturned.
Speaker 2: The 1973 decision, giving a nationwide constitutional right to end a pregnancy. The decision is expected to-
Janet M. Stovall: And the question is, should we speak out about this? And my response was, "I'm guessing no." And they said, "Well, why not?" Microsoft and some of the big ones who came out, had a statement and said what they were going to do. And so this company wanted to do something like that. I said, "Let's apply the DEPTH model here. If you make this statement, if you step into this space, is it deliberate? Are you doing it for a specific reason? What is that reason? Is it educated? Do you know everything you need to know about this topic, about what your proposed response is? Do you know everything you need to know? Women of colour are disproportionately affected by the loss of Roe v. Wade. Do you understand the male perspective on this? And do you even understand what the actual legislation does and what it's going to mean? Is it purposeful? How would stepping out into this issue align with this organization's mission, vision, goals and everything it says it's about? Does it align? Is it tailored? Does this particular topic in any way intersect with this particular organization's core competencies? What industry are you in? What business are you in? What can you, based on who you are and what you do every day, can you move the needle forward on this? And then finally, is it habitual? Have you ever spoken about anything like this before? And do you intend to continue speaking about this? Or are you jumping on a bandwagon?"
And so I said, "Let's take that." And I showed him, "Take each one of those categories, ask yourself that question. Rate your answer, your degree, for/ against, yes/ no. Rate it on a scale of one to 10, and then average those numbers. What's your number?" If your number is one to four, don't step into it because you're not strong enough in any one of those dimensions that you need to step into it. If your number is a five, then figure out how you can get stronger in one of those domains. If you're in a six to a 10, it's probably an issue and a topic that as an organization, it is safe, smart, and valuable for you to step into. So, when I took the company through that sort of analysis, they were like, "Yeah, we need to leave that alone." I said, "Exactly." So, they had an action item, and they could talk about it internally, but they kept their mouth shut externally. That was a DEPTH model.
Kyla Sims: What advice do you have for comms professionals who want to start having meaningful dialogue both internally and externally in their organizations about uncomfortable topics?
Janet M. Stovall: The first thing I think you have to do is, if you're the communications person, is not kid yourself to say that this will be anything other than uncomfortable for a lot of people, for a lot of different reasons. You're going to be poking in some very sensitive areas. So, think about it that way and don't approach it with any sort of misconception to the contrary. The second thing, the advice I give most communications folks, try not to make it personal. The DEI space operates on an interpersonal level, but the issues that make DEI necessary are systemic: systemic inequity, systemic racism, systemic sexism, systemic homophobia. They are bigger than any one team, any one conversation, any one organization, any one industry. On the one hand, that may make people look at it and go, "Well, then what can I do about that? That's bigger than me."
It is big. But as communicators, what we can do is we can narrow things down. We have the ability to make things specific and to make things applicable to the audiences that we engage. So, you have to balance that space between what the speaker wants to talk about and cares about, what the audience needs to hear, and bringing those together so that there's some behaviour change or mind change or thought change or something. So, that's sort of a tricky space. As communicators, I think the best way to deal with these issues is to go into it with an understanding that's uncomfortable, the realization that is systemic, but then figure out, "How can we talk about this in a space that everybody can relate to?" When you make that connection to the business goals of the company, you take it out of the realm of people having to personally get behind this. When people do it because an organization says, "This is necessary to our profitability, this is necessary to our sustainability," then you do it. That's a role communicators can play and help organizations do that. I am solving for dismantling systemic racism, dismantling systemic inequity. Because I believe the business world is uniquely and exclusively positioned to make the biggest change.
Kyla Sims: There's no easy way to wrap up these conversations, and there is much more to be said, but I still think there's a lot we can take from our conversations with Janet, Robin and Tangia. Even though it can be a thankless job, being the bearer of bad news can test the limits of your communication toolkit and push you to grow as a professional. Though we may be tempted to avoid this role or shy away from the hard conversations that need to be had, leaning into this position, practicing and building your resilience in crisis communications could be one of the most transformative experiences of your career and life. So, whether you're breaking tragic news, handling sensitive topics, or communicating jarring systemic shifts in your organization, there is one thing I want you to take away from our conversations today. It's not personal, but you do need to consider the person or persons on the receiving end if you want to get through to them. Good news or bad, it's that connection between communicator and audience that can make the difference.
Today, our guests were Tangia Renee Estrada, co-founder of BIPOC Podcast Creators and Amplify BIPOC, as well as principal consultant with Tangia Renee Consulting. Veteran journalist and former Global News broadcaster, Robin Stickley. And Janet Stovall, global head of DEI at NeuroLeadership Institute, diversity pragmatist, speechwriter and author. I'm Kyla Sims, and this is Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staffbase, with production support from JAR Audio.
Make sure you join us next time when I'm going to take you on a grand adventure beyond the borders of this recording studio, this city, this country, even this continent, to ask a few questions about how to communicate beyond our borders. We're going to be exploring how communication gets lost in translation and how to connect beyond our native tongue.
Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia: It's a very interesting phenomenon because then you have English in contact with hundreds of languages, something that has not been seen before in the history of language.
Kyla Sims: Don't forget to hit Follow on Apple Podcast or wherever you get your shows. And if you liked today's episode, please leave us a review. We would love to know what you think. Until then, thanks for listening.
Kyla is a writer, content creator, speaker and host of Infernal Communication.