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In my opinion

Why university marketing/communications offices need to hire critical race theory experts

Marketing/communications offices need to ensure the voices of BIPOC faculty and students are represented and amplified, not tokenized or misrepresented as they are now.

BY LEAH HAMILTON, IRENE SHANKAR & MOHAMMED EL HAZZOURI | MAR 26 2021

The Black Lives Matter Movement and the resulting calls for institutional changes to enhance equity, diversity and inclusion within postsecondary institutions (PSIs), have laid bare the ways in which universities continue to ignore the scholarship and expertise of Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) faculty and students, and staff.

Marketing/communications offices, run by staff members, are responsible for building the brand of their universities. This includes featuring the work of academics and exemplary students. While these offices are quick to use profiles of the BIPOC community to demonstrate the imagined inclusiveness of their campus, many seem reluctant to profile BIPOC members’ scholarship, particularly advocacy work. Marketing/communications offices’ systematic erasure of BIPOC members’ scholarship illustrates the need for these offices to be staffed, and ideally directed, by professionals with expertise in critical race theory, preferably experts who identify as BIPOC.

PSI’s branding campaigns, particularly when it comes to recruitment, have increasingly focused on portraying their campuses as inclusive and accessible spaces. Despite BIPOC students’ significant overrepresentation in these recruitment materials, the institutions’ inclusiveness remains fictional, particularly for Black and Indigenous faculty and students. Many PSIs intentionally overrepresent, misrepresent and tokenize BIPOC students and faculty in their recruitment materials.

For example, we witnessed a marketing/communications office use a racialized faculty member’s photo to promote a conference on immigration without the member’s permission. The profiled faculty member was completely unconnected to the conference. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Other documented practices include digitally altering images. In one such case, a PSI inserted a photo of a Black student into an image of a campus football game featured on the cover of their application booklet. The student never attended the game.

Equally problematic to tokenization and misrepresentation is the erasure of BIPOC faculty and students’ scholarship. Often this erasure is due to an intentional dismissal of advocacy work that is perceived as not building the brand of the university. For instance, faculty members from underrepresented groups are more likely to be community-engaged scholars who participate in public discourse and advocacy work. Community-based scholarship and advocacy work is perceived as less valuable by the university and thus, it is no surprise it is actively ignored by marketing/communications offices. When marketing/communications offices erase this political scholarship, they create and perpetuate significant barriers these faculty members already experience when navigating systems of tenure and promotion, or seeking leadership positions in the academy. This institutional invisibility of BIPOC scholars and their work has long-term ramifications, particularly with universities and funding agencies increasingly encouraging scholars to work with community partners, engage in public discourse and adopt broader conceptualizations of impact, measuring, for example, faculty members’ reach on social media outlets such as Twitter.

The erasure of BIPOC faculty and students’ scholarship is also accomplished by more systemic exclusions. For instance, on Jan. 5, 2021, the University of Calgary published a story highlighting the “top research stories of 2020.” The next day they rebranded the story as the “most-read news stories” and the vice-president, research issued an apology indicating that, because the list was compiled based on readership analytics, it did not “fully represent the diversity of [their] campus community or the diversity of [their] university’s domains of scholarship.” This incident highlights the limitations of relying on analytics-based approaches, and the need to have critical race theory experts as key decision makers in marketing/communications offices.

Marketing/communications offices need to stop ignoring the scholarship and expertise of BIPOC faculty, staff and students, and avoid the practice of tokenizing and over/misrepresenting BIPOC members. Hiring marketing and communications professionals with expertise in EDI will help to ensure the voices of BIPOC faculty and students are represented and amplified, ultimately increasing members’ impact.

In her 2020 “year in review” email, Vinita Srivastava, The Conversation Canada’s senior editor of culture and society and critical race, stated, “As the critical race editor in the meeting, I am regularly embroiled in the hot soup of newsroom discussions, fighting for equity, representation and a different way to do journalism. This battle dominates many of my days.” We hope that one day critical race editors don’t need to fight daily battles for equity and representation. Until that time comes, we need to ensure marketing/communications offices in PSIs hire and empower critical race editors, directors and staff who can advocate for and amplify the voices of BIPOC faculty and students.

Leah Hamilton is a professor in the department of management & human resources at the Bissett School of Business at Mount Royal University. Irene Shankar is an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Mount Royal. Mohammed El Hazzouri is an associate professor of marketing at the Rowe School of Business at Dalhousie University.

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  1. James B. Waldram / March 31, 2021 at 13:31

    My university recently sent out an employee “pandemic engagement survey” that they purchased from an independent company. In its first iteration it asked us to “select your Indigenous person.” Seriously. There were complaints, of course, so they changed it to “Select your racial identity.” In this question the options were “Yes, No, Prefer Not To Say.” Sigh. Universities like ours have experts in survey research and critical race theory. Why do university administrators ignore this expertise and waste money on offensive surveys like this that offend employees and embarrass the institution?