Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash
June 5, 2019

Are your internal communications values-driven?

Elizabeth Toledo

Elizabeth Toledo, President of Camino Group and former Vice President of Communications at Planned Parenthood, is a crisis communications expert.

She discusses the biggest internal communications challenges she’s seen and how strong values alignment can help nonprofits communicate more effectively internally and externally, especially about social issues and controversial topics. Plus, she shares recommendations for nonprofits looking to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.


Sarah Durham: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. I’m your host, Sarah Durham. I’m joined today by Elizabeth Toledo. Hi, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Toledo: Hi Sarah.

Sarah Durham: Elizabeth is the President of The Camino Group, an award-winning strategic communications firm that specializes in controversy and social issues. She’s the former Vice President of Communications for Planned Parenthood and has an MBA from MIT and a certificate in risk communication from the Harvard School of Public Health.

Elizabeth has been a regular voice in the media for decades, addressing pressing issues such as sexual harassment and women’s health on top media outlets including NPR and CNN.

Recent awards for her firm include Crisis Agency of the Year, Best Small Agency for Corporate Good Works, Diversity Communications, and Campaigns on a Shoestring. You can find her firm at

I’m really excited you’re here today, Elizabeth, because we are both, I think, passionate about the importance of internal communications. Why are you passionate about it? What is your take on it given your world view?

Elizabeth Toledo: Well, I’ve always been passionate about trying to apply communications to controversial issues and to really important social issues that are somewhat hard to solve. In my experience working in this arena, internal communications are really the scaffolding for being successful with external communications when you are dealing with tough issues. Often when you’re not dealing with tough issues, it matters. But in particular with technology and just the way communications has advanced, we love to start working with our clients on internal communications first and then move to external.

Sarah Durham: If you’re not communicating well internally, you’re probably not communicating well externally, do you agree?

Elizabeth Toledo: Exactly. Those firms that somehow are pulling that off, those organizations, nonprofits, for profits, sometimes they can pull it off. Eventually, they’re going to skid into a crisis.

Sarah Durham: Well, a lot of the organizations you work with and you’ve worked in-house at are advocacy organizations dealing with issues that are under serious political fire. They’re working in an almost war-like climate. Are the stakes higher for those organizations and how do you start to get your internal alignment and your internal messaging organized in that environment?

Elizabeth Toledo: I think you hit on a really important. It’s those organizations that are the most values-driven and in some cases, those organizations that are really embracing some of these internal challenges the most aggressively—they are often under the most pressure to get it right. The people who trust them, believe in their work, love their brand that they’re building, those people have a higher level of expectation for those values-driven firms.

It’s extremely important for those firms to think about how much strength or risk they have in a whole range of internal communications matters when they’re thinking about where to invest their resources, how strong their brand is, what campaigns are likely to be successful or not successful ties very much into that internal landscape.

Sarah Durham: You at the Camino Group do a lot of work helping your clients get better at internal communications. What kind of internal communications do you see as the biggest challenges for organizations?

Elizabeth Toledo: Well, one thing that has shifted that a lot of people haven’t noticed is the need to do message training for people beyond your spokespersons. It used to be a decade ago, we would go in, we would find the one or two spokespersons, and we would do some pretty intense message training. Now you need to have message competency at every level of the firm and that’s both in the way that people personally communicate, the way they vocalize their work and their opinions, but also the way that they are communicating on social media and a whole lot of other channels.

When we work with organizations on strengthening their internal communications, we often start with training and coaching and then we start with this concept of leading with your values so that when you’re talking about your work, whether it’s internally or externally, you’re not just talking about a particular subject area, you’re talking about why you’re interested in that subject area. What the point of you working in that arena? That helps everybody understand the context of your work.

Sarah Durham: You’re finding the values alignment between your activists or your donors or your external audiences on values, but I think you’re also saying internally, we have to connect on our values, right? If we’re working within an organization where maybe we’re facing unusual challenges or tension or we disagree between different departments, it’s that connective tissue that those shared values bring that helps us collaborate.

Elizabeth Toledo: Right. You’re creating a culture of values internally and externally. I think most people know that you should have a statement of values to umbrella your work, but everybody who is making a persuasive argument or presentation of who is suggesting a particular strategy for an organization should think about how the values of the organization and the values that you hold as a professional are driving that recommendation.

For example, if you recommend that your workplace needs to have sexual harassment training, people might wonder, “Are you recommending that because you’re just interested in complying with the law and not getting in trouble or are you recommending that because this is a workplace that truly embraces nondiscrimination, equity, and diversity for everybody?”

Sarah Durham: I’m glad you brought up diversity, equity, and inclusion. These are really important topics that I think are becoming more and more areas of consciousness for nonprofits. Although, my experience with these issues is that it’s a journey. It’s a deep journey and that people are at very different places on this journey. How do you see diversity, equity, and inclusion emerging in terms of these issues of internal communications?

Elizabeth Toledo: There have been some very concrete changes that everybody should be aware of and likely at some level is over the last couple of years. For example, the Me Too movement has motivated all kinds of companies and nonprofits to rethink how their HR and policy compliance, operations, work in today’s climate. Something might have been acceptable five or 10 years ago, but today if a journalist is writing about some sort of internal conflict at your company or your organization and you are using some of these tools that now maybe sound a little bit outdated and are not as globally accepted, you might have harsher treatment by the media for example, as well as lose the trust of some of your stakeholders. Everything is at play again in terms of those standards.

The other thing that is quite different are the rules of the road in terms of journalism and diversity in a workplace. It used to be that most journalists would go to your spokespersons and go to your media office and be somewhat compliant in how you wanted them to receive information. That’s really not true anymore. If a journalist really wants to know what’s going on in your organization, they might be just as likely to go to LinkedIn and find out who works there or who used to work there or what do they think about what’s going on inside their workplace.

Sarah Durham: Or maybe Glassdoor.

Elizabeth Toledo: Or a glass door, exactly. It’s probably not that hard to get your internal emails and memos and policies and all kinds of other things that you might have assumed were behind some sort of privacy pane.

What we’re helping a lot of people with now is doing a risk audit, a communications risk audit, from external issues that your organization might be facing uniquely to policy and HR compliance.

Sarah Durham: For an organization that hopefully has not yet come under fire for compliance issues or maybe is at a lower level of risk, are there any basic recommendations that you would make or suggestions you’d give to a smaller organization to set themselves up for success and avoid some risk proactively?

Elizabeth Toledo: Absolutely. Organizations need to have a culture of compliance and a culture of respect for diversity, equity, and inclusion. One to the things that coworkers, journalists, all kinds of people think about when they hear that there has been some sort of incident at a company, they wonder, “Is this an isolated incident or is this representative of bigger and deeper problems at this workplace?”

Sarah Durham: Is it the tip of the iceberg?

Elizabeth Toledo: Exactly. They’re going to dig far enough to try to answer that question. If you’ve done a lot of things to create a culture where it’s a culture of respect, a culture of equity, a culture of inclusion, when all those signals are there, if a problem emerges, then you use best practices to solve the problem and you move on and you keep your trusted relationship to your coworkers, to the people who you engage with your organization, but if the signs just keep emerging, if new problems, if new sparks keep coming, then you’re beginning to erode the trust that you have with people.

Sarah Durham: I see how that circles right back to the values piece, right? That if fundamentally, the beliefs that drive your organization or the guiding principles are grounded in doing right by your employees and celebrating diversity, equity, and inclusion, you might be much more likely to have the track record that sets you up for success.

Elizabeth Toledo: Exactly. It really doesn’t take a lot for an outsider to come in and begin to get at the truth of your culture. Even if you have written down your values, but your staff members have no idea what they are or they can’t speak to them or they begin to come up with example after example of the values not being meaningful in their day-to-day work, that’s going to come out.

Sarah Durham: I’m always a stronger advocate for values being articulated in a way where they’re used both externally and internally. I’ve heard about organizations who sometimes craft values more as an external statement and that’s never quite made sense to me. It feels like if you’re going to advocate things like respect or collaboration or caring, you should be doing that just as much internally with your staff as you do externally with a peer organization or clients.

Elizabeth Toledo: Exactly. I think sometimes people confuse the values around the product or the issue that they are advocating for with the internal values that you need in an organization. Now, sometimes they can be the same thing and there should be overlap in all of those spaces, but sometimes you need specific values that are about the work that you’re doing and that can’t be substituted for your external strategic plan type value.

Sarah Durham: If an organization is just beginning to think about these things and they’re trying to set themselves up to have hopefully an environment with minimal conflict and minimal risk, one thing I’m hearing from you is articulating your values and really not just doing it as a statement or as lip service, but as something that’s really integrated in a deep way into your practices institutionally, that’s a great place to start.

With diversity, equity, and inclusion, where would you encourage an organization that is trying to tackle those issues thoughtfully, but maybe doesn’t know where to begin?

Elizabeth Toledo: That’s a great question. Understanding the workplace environment that exists today, not simply looking at your aspirational workplace, but your workplace as it exists today, is a great place to start. Depending on the size of your organization, you can do different surveys and just find different ways to figure out what your current culture actually is with the lived experiences of the staff that work there. I wouldn’t stop at staff. I would also go to board and other people that have a critical role to play in the organizational decision making.

Then you’ve got to write out a plan. I’m a big planner. I’m a big advocate of assessing where you are, assessing where you want to be, and then actually just drawing a roadmap from here to there. Now, that’s going to change. You’re going to have to have a mechanism to update it as you go, to do regular reports, to hold yourself and others accountable, but if you don’t actually put pen to paper and have something that everybody agrees on and that you can see and feel, it’s really tough for you to keep the momentum or to actually measure what progress you’re making.

Sarah Durham: Here at Big Duck, this is something that we’ve spent probably about three or four years digging into. Our journey has been a multiple year journey. One of the things that we did that has been very helpful here is we put together almost like a revolving committee, an ad hoc committee, that everybody has to serve on, but we rotate representation on this committee, that we call Team Equity. Team Equity is responsible for keeping this work alive and active and integrating it into everything. Not just hiring because I think a lot of times there is this misnomer that if you’re hiring diverse people you’ve somehow solved this problem. That’s certainly not the case.

In our experience, Team Equity provides a way to raise the consciousness of everybody, help us identify what are the challenges that are going on, help us circulate resources that emerge. We also did a training with Race Forward. Their URL, if you’re not familiar with them is and they do trainings on systemic racism. There are a number of great places out there. There’s a place in North Carolina called The Racial Equity Institute I’ve heard very good things about it. For us, just having this team that is not just the leadership team or one person who is accountable for thinking about this work and keeping it alive has been central.

Elizabeth Toledo: Yeah. That’s a great example. Sometimes those relatively simple structures that you put in place for diversity, equity, and inclusion can actually drive a lot of the culture in the organization. For example, in my office, since we’re a fairly small team, there’s usually about a dozen of us, we start every morning with an all-staff meeting and every morning, everybody comes to the table and before we start talking about our work, everybody talks about their one good thing. It could be anything from your train was not late for the first time in months coming in a New York office or it could be something political. Something happened in the news and it made you excited or concerned.

One of the reasons that we do that is that if you’re going to have a workplace that truly is inclusive, you can’t assume that everybody else in your workplace has the same concerns when they come into work that day or the same distractions or the same reaction to things around us. We need to learn from each other. We need to make the space for people to come into our workplace with different types of concerns and focus and to connect with others in our workplace where they are. We’re just as concerned with what the person in the next desk is bringing into their work day than we are with our own experiences. That helps interrupt some of the assumptions that we’re making about each other’s lives.

Sarah Durham: One of the other things I love about your one-good-thing daily practice is that it’s a vehicle through which all voices are equally important and in conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion, you pretty quickly get to the idea that not all people feel empowered or feel they have the agency to speak up.

Creating a question or a context where all voices are equal, everybody speaks, is also a nice way I think to start to overcome some of those, sometimes internal pressures that have to do with power dynamics.

Elizabeth Toledo: Right. Learning how to speak to each other, how to be in conversation in a way that lifts up diversity and equity and inclusion, is not something that people usually come into a workplace with a lot of training or capacity. It’s something that we learn and we practice every single day. That’s one of the reasons, to go back to the training piece, that we have encouraged a lot of organizations to rethink message training.

If you think about yourself in a workplace and having someone nearby in the hallway say something that you find offensive, think about how stressful that would be to confront that person who you’re supposed to have a good relationship with or who maybe is more senior than you in the organization and say, “Hey. I find that offensive for these reasons or that’s old language that today, people just don’t use because it’s offensive.”

That’s a really tough thing. If you think about yourself being the person that someone approaches and says something you just said is offensive, that’s also a very difficult thing to take emotionally. Practicing how to have difficult communications actually helps workplaces not need to have difficult conversations, right? Because people are reluctant to do confrontational messaging, it actually lets a lot of things simmer in a workplace that otherwise could just quickly get resolved.

Sarah Durham: When I hear you talk about messaging, I think about external messaging, but you’re really also talking about internal messaging or internal communications and how to constructively and positively wrangle with your peers, is that correct?

Elizabeth Toledo: That’s right. If you were in my workplace, you might say something like, “At Camino, we all know we have a commitment to using language that’s inclusive and what I just heard you say doesn’t fit for me and here’s why.” It’s a marriage of the values that you were just talking about and strategies for speaking in a way that encourages inclusiveness.

Sarah Durham: That’s awesome. Elizabeth Toledo, thank you so much for joining me.

Elizabeth Toledo: Thanks for having me.