Context Shapes Content

By Ivy Cohen, Ivy Cohen Corporate Communications

Never before has the importance of context been clearer than over the past couple of years. News about climate change, supply chain interruption, the COVID Olympics and billionaire space races are just a few of the stories that, without context, can lead to wildly different conclusions by the reader, depending on where, how and who is providing the news.

A storyteller can report that a visiting prince abducted the queen, or alternatively, that the queen ran away with a prince from a foreign land. What’s the big deal? The consequences of these two different perspectives on the same story led to the Trojan Wars.

While extreme examples like this do not come up often, our interpretations of news reports and narratives are shaped every day by the way they are told, and the context offered.

Why care about context?

Without context, it’s impossible to know if the information we’re receiving and relying on to make day-to-day judgments is factual, exaggerated or pure fiction. Such information and understanding impacts decisions for individuals, organizations, families – in short, everybody.

 

In business, biased contextualization harms reputations, damages relationships and hampers the ability to communicate with others. It undermines collaboration and makes it difficult to mobilize employees, affecting workplace culture, production and efficiency.

Attracting and retaining customers, appealing to new talent or securing investment is difficult without an understanding of the context of a product, service or brand’s usefulness, competitive landscape or timeliness.

Two examples of context and perception

What’s responsible for the Surfside, Florida, condominium collapse?

Was it shoddy construction, procrastination on structural repairs, or climate change? Well, that depends on where you get your news, what you hear, and who you trust.

Right after the 12-story tower fell, TV networks, newspapers and magazines all over the world were quick to report that consultants saw cracks, breaks, and crumbling in the building’s concrete as far back as 2018, but by April 2021 the condo board’s president was still warning residents that “concrete deterioration is accelerating” and begging for the estimated $16 million cost of repairs.

Yet a few, like TIME, put the structural failure in the broader context of climate change. “… Experts have warned that real estate in Miami is vulnerable to climate-induced rising sea levels and increasingly stronger storms.” Zillow, the real estate website, quantified it this way: “According to studies conducted by the Risky Business Project, between $15 and $23 billion of property in the city [Miami] could be underwater by 2050.”

The investigation continues, and it is likely that there will be multiple causes for the tragic fatal collapse.

What’s to blame for supply chain disruption?

The U.S. is experiencing unprecedented shortages of products ranging from chips and consumer electronics to cars and cat food. Is it because of inflation? Fewer cargo ships and planes returning to the US during the pandemic? Droughts in the Midwest or tropical storms in the South? Parts production slowdowns in China?

During the pandemic, factories around the world slowed or even ceased production for worker safety. Many municipalities enforced some form of quarantine, disrupting retail trade. Ships were stuck for days in floating traffic jams as the pandemic limited the availability of dockworkers and truck drivers – stretching and slowing down the supply chain almost to the breaking point.

Put that in the context of manufacturers’ just-in-time inventory management to acquire materials only as they are needed, the pandemic threw the supply chain into chaos.  Manufacturers ran out of inventory too fast and couldn’t request more as upstream suppliers were struggling themselves.

So, it’s no one’s fault, and it was not anticipated by anyone.

Providing context to content

Content creators are vulnerable to context issues as they present their client’s points of view while balancing other factors that go into this kind of writing. The way words are used, consciously or unconsciously, creates realities, shapes public opinion and reinforces cultural norms.

The best way for content creators to put information into context is to vigilantly ask questions throughout the research and writing process, fact-check all third-party information to validate your client’s positioning and periodically examine yourself for unconscious biases. Are you getting too close to the “inside” or the narrative?

If you know what to look for and how to manage it, context ensures fairness and accuracy as you shape a narrative for your audience.

So, did the prince abduct the queen, or did the queen run off with the handsome prince? It depends on who you ask…and understanding their agenda.

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