I can’t imagine being a history teacher right now. If the news is the first draft of history, how do you begin to wrangle and interpret the news of the past few days? How do you teach it?
My challenge as a teacher is different. For the past four years, I’ve guided students as a lecturer in a graduate program on content strategy. It’s based in Graz, Austria. My students come from across Europe and work in marketing, publishing, creative direction, and content design. Through my classes and curriculum, I strive to bring the real world into the classroom. I want my students to learn about content strategy and how we make the modern web through the lens of budgets, constraints, presentation, and tough decisions. I share industry trends and perspectives from recent conferences and conversations. We might look at the news with personal interest, but it doesn’t need to come into the classroom—until it does.
Before class on Thursday, I gave students leeway. Though we are gearing up for final presentations, I posted on our course Slack group that some people with ties to the US might be reeling and need some emotional space; they were free to sit this one out.
No one took me up on it.
Class convened over Zoom with the usual greetings, then moved to some deeper questions. One student asked how far I lived from Washington. (Boston, so it’s a drive.) As I looked across the screen, students were sitting up straight, paying close attention, so we dug in deeper. I wanted to talk about the role of content strategy and clear communication in fighting gaslighting, disinformation campaigns, and cynical responses to content and marketing. Most students work far outside of government or the political arena, but the issues that began there affect every industry now. Without bringing partisan politics into it, I thought it was important for my students to hear how audiences across every industry have been affected—and how content strategy can respond to these problems.
On January 6, we saw the most visible sign to date of how people can be motivated by disinformation and stirred to violence over what they learn from dubious sources and amplified in echo chambers. That’s the impact of gaslighting: after learning to ignore the evidence of their own senses, independent research, and other media sources, people become more susceptible to perspectives that defy logic and objective facts, like the strength of election security and accuracy of vote counts.
Our work can renew people’s ability to evaluate information, weigh expertise, and ground decisions in logic. We discussed how content strategy can shape a consistent voice and content types for a volume of detail that respects the topic and audience, to empower them to do their own research. We also talked about the strength of vulnerability, of helping brands talk about how they’re continuing to learn and evolve, and how these points of focus can rebuild trust in a more effective way than false bravado. (These lessons echo the framework I present in Trustworthy.)
While the events in Washington are horrifying, we would be remiss to ignore the “teachable moment.” Students of content strategy, marketing, and design should know their work is incredibly relevant and can be a force for good. Beating back cynicism by renewing the skills of trust is no small thing, but neither is the conviction and capability of our industry.