A Crisis of Context
I’ve been paying close attention to the Shirley Sherrod coverage. Not so much from a political angle; I’m not knowledgeable enough about Sherrod or her circumstances to weigh in credibly on debates re: race and politics. What interests me more is the coverage itself and the warning bell it sounds for anyone (individuals, companies, communities) in the media’s line of sight. It underscores society’s obsession with sound-bites vs. storylines – and the media’s growing tendency to favor content over context.
Part of the problem, of course, is media fragmentation. Americans get their news today from many different sources – traditional journalists, professional bloggers, citizen journalists, political pundits and social web creators. This makes it hard to piece together a coherent, non-partisan story. Compounding the issue is our sound-bite culture. News cycles have been reduced to hours. Editorial staffs have been downsized. And, reader attention spans have narrowed significantly.
The result is a culture of headlines and hype – a culture in which it’s easy to pull a quote out of context.
One knee-jerk response to this ‘crisis of context’ is to stay clear of the media. Lie low. Don’t make any formal announcements. Fly under the radar. The problem with this response is that – in a world of bloggers and citizen journalists – it’s nearly impossible to fly under the radar (at least if you’re doing something worthy of attention). Every meeting, every speech, every public appearance can be captured and posted by critics or competitors.
A better line of defense is to take control of the storyline – to proactively define and communicate the big picture. When we know and tell others what we stand for, we make it harder for detractors to hijack public thinking. “If you don’t stand for something,” Peter Marshall reputedly said, “then you will fall for anything.” And so will the public.
There are many ways to develop and communicate your storyline. Among the basics:
- Meaning: Identify what you want to be known for – i.e., what do you do better than others?
- Point-of-View: Identify how you are different from others in your field. What new twists or insights do you bring?
- Plotline: How have your values, actions, words and alliances changed over time? How are they likely to change in the future? How do these changes fit with your story?
- Supporting Details: What proof points back up your story? What future actions can you take to give your storyline credibility and sticking power?
- Narration: Where, when and how do you want to tell your story? In what formats? Through what channels?
Of course, telling your story publically won’t silence all critics. In fact, it may cause some nay-sayers to sit up and take notice. What your story will do is create a context for discussion – and help you proactively frame the terms of debate.
What are your ideas for closing the content-context gap?