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The U.S. Constitution: Content Strategy for Democracy


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In 1787 the Founding Fathers drafted the U.S. Constitution, but what they really created was the original content strategy for democracy. They faced struggles strikingly similar to the modern content strategist, such as managers unsure about change (the Continental Congress), silos with clashing priorities (North vs. South), and a complicated stakeholder approval process (ratification). And the people who have fueled the evolution of the Constitution have lessons to teach us as well.

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The U.S. Constitution: Content Strategy for Democracy

  1. 1. @HollyMunson // // Content StrategyPhilly // Jan. 19,2017
  2. 2. THEN = content strategist + museum educator + program coordinator + web writer @ National Constitution Center NOW = freelance writer + editor + content strategy consultant Image source: National Constitution Center
  3. 3. * Disclaimer: Throughout this presentation, I only speak for myself,not my former employer.
  4. 4. 1. Why the Constitution is a pretty rad content strategy 2. Content strategylessons from the Founding Fathers and other folks in constitutional history
  5. 5. ● Not content governance ● How to effect radical organizational change ● Rethink role of government in society or content in organization ● How to navigate politics to make that change
  6. 6. • A body of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is acknowledged to be governed • The highest law of the land; the last word; the standard against which government laws and actions must be judged
  7. 7. • Plan for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content (Kristina Halvorson) • The planned use of content to achieve a goal (David Thomas) • The things you do at 3 o’clock on a Tuesday to delight a reader or viewer, reinforce an important message, or help another human being get something done in this world (Lori Packer) • Developing content that meets user needs, supports business goals, and reflects the organization’s identity and values (me)
  8. 8. ● A plan and framework for creation and maintenance ● A standard against which all activities are judged ● Setting intentions and limits around what you will do, whether you’re starting a website or a nation
  9. 9. Messaging architecture ● Who we are and who we are not ● What each branch of government can do and what it cannot Information architecture ● Checks and balances ● More than a “parchment barrier”;the built-in structure achieved core strategy
  10. 10. ● Each branch of government has defined, distinct duties ● Outlines process for ratification and amendment
  11. 11. ● Popular sovereignty ● Federalism ● Government powers are specific and limited ● Preserves essential rights of the people
  12. 12. ● Compelling vision: freedom, uniting and empowering the people ● Informed by past experience (Revolutionary War, tyranny, weak/divided nation) ● Founded on existing values, yet aspirational and open to the future
  13. 13. ● Oldest and shortest = not a coincidence ● Justice O’Connor: “neither so rigid as to be stifling, nor so malleable as to be devoid of meaning” ● The ultimate core strategy: humanfreedom
  14. 14. ● History, people, even sacred civic texts: none are perfect ● History = winners + white dudes ● Primary documents need context ● Can’t truly reverse-engineer success ● Can’t focus on everything
  15. 15. The Declaration of Independence ● Where: Independence Hall in Philly ● What: a list of grievances against the king of England intended to justify separation from British rule ● When: drafted and signed in 1776 ● Who: drafted by Thomas Jefferson; signed by a bunch of dudes
  16. 16. The Articles of Confederation ● Where: Independence Hall in Philly ● What: a charter to create a government for the fledgling nation, particularly for directing Revolutionary War efforts ● When: drafted in 1776,ratified in 1781, in effect until 1789 ● Who: John Dickinson* and Continental Congress committee * “Penman of theRevolution”;president of PA and DE;lived in Germantown,Wilmington,and at6th & Market;also at ConstitutionalConvention
  17. 17. The Constitution of the United Statesof America ● Where: Independence Hall in Philly ● What: the fundamental framework of America’s system of government ● When: drafted and signed in 1787, ratified in 1788* ● Who: drafted in part by James Madison; written and signed by a bunch of dudes * North Carolina and RhodeIsland tooktheir time and waitedtill 1790.
  18. 18. FYI: Thomas Jefferson,John Adams, John Hancock were NOT at the Constitutional Convention
  19. 19. 1. Draft strategy like James Madison 2. Launch strategy like George Washington 3. Advocate for strategy like Hamilton & Madison 4. Maintain strategy like Ruth Bader Ginsburg 5. Evolve strategy like Wayne Wheeler and Rosa Parks
  20. 20. ● What challenge they faced ● Why it sounds familiar ● What they did ● What we can do
  21. 21. ● Ineffective government ● Paying taxes wasoptional ● Congress couldn’t pay soldiers or foreign debt ● Congress couldn’t engage in war, enter into treatiesor alliances, coin money or regulate its value ● Congress could barely handle civil unrest
  22. 22. ● U.S. becoming “the sport of transatlantic politicians of all denominations” ● John Jay: during the war, “Justice was with us,” but now “we are going and doing wrong” ● “in a state of mortalstupefaction or lethargy”; “a half starved, limping Government, that appears to be always moving upon crutches, & tottering at every step”
  23. 23. ● Conflicting priorities, with every-state-for-itself approach ● Statesclashed over boundaries, land rights, trade, value and printing of money ● North vs. South, small vs. large states ● PIRATES
  24. 24. ● Managers want you to do your job without giving you the resourcesto do your job ● You’re stuck being reactive (putting out fires) instead of proactive (setting and meeting goals) ● You’re just trying to keep the peace between squabbling departments and silos
  25. 25. ● Wrote the rough draft of the Constitution ● “Father of the Constitution” ● A systematic examination of ancient and modern systems of government
  26. 26. ● Also the “work of many heads & many hands” with similar ideas: ○ Complex structure ○ Stronger centralgovernment ○ James Wilson knew “all the political institutions of the World” and could trace“the causes and effects of every revolution from the earliest stages of the Grecian commonwealth down to the present time”
  27. 27. ● Americans had been designing and redesigning their governments since 1776 ○ Statesenacted the world’s first written constitutions ○ PA had the strongest state constitution; direct democracy
  28. 28. ● But a national government wasnovel, too similar to monarchy ● Delivered what Congress needed… not what it asked for
  29. 29. ● Go ahead, have an existential crisis about your assignment! ● CarlSagan: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” (see: ScottKubie, “Claritythrough content strategy,” Confab 2016)
  30. 30. Find opportunities to: ● Question assumptions ● Temper hype ● Correctmisconceptions ● Warn of pitfalls ● Offer reassurance
  31. 31. ● Change the scope when it’s really needed (and when you have a relationship to support drastic change) ● Sara Wachter-Boettcher & Eric Meyer, Design in Real Life: “We’ll never gather every single perspective; we can’t interview the universe every time we build a website. … We don’t do open-ended research to get The Answers. We do it to see just how incomplete our questions were in the first place.”
  32. 32. ● Do the hard work to make things simple (GDS) ● Immersive subject-matter research ● Journalism as a service ○ Life is complicated and hard ○ Research + reporting + storytelling should make life simpler and easier
  33. 33. ● How to connect with SMEs: explaining workshop exercise ● Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe ● Limited to 1,000 most common words ● Elevator becomes “lifting room” ● Cells become “the tiny bags of wateryou’re made of” ● Tectonic plates become “the big flat rocks we live on” ● NASA’sSaturn V rocket becomes “Up-Goer Five”
  34. 34. ● How would you explain thissubject to a layperson? ● Are there any alternative or synonymous industrytermsto describe thissubject? ● How would you describe the typical usersfor this subject? ● What are their demographics? ● What are their motivations? What are the possibletriggersfor them to seek information about this subject? ● What istheir mental/emotional state when they seek information about this subject? ● What are their goals? Whatare their possiblenext steps?
  35. 35. ● No official authority ○ Convention delegates had been appointed to propose changes to the Articles of Confederation, not to design a new government
  36. 36. ● You work in an organization that doesn’t have a content strategy or hasn’t fully embraced and incorporated it ● You don’t have as much institutional authority as you would like or need ● Managers and stakeholders are skeptical or unaware of what you want to do
  37. 37. ● Public relations ○ Corresponded with John Randolph and Henry Knox to understand “prevailing sentiments”
  38. 38. ● Relationships ○ “His military service made Washington a hero; his retirement made him a legend” ○ Empathy, mutual respect with soldiers and ordinary citizens
  39. 39. ● Sneakiness + scrappiness ○ Militaryexperience: fight with the armyyou have, not the one you want ○ “Resolved unanimously” to transmitthe Constitution to the state legislaturesfor approval byconvention ○ “Unanimously” =decision to transmitthe document, not the substance of the document ○ Washington: “Not every one has opportunitiesto peep behind the curtain, and as the multitudeoften judgefrom externals, the appearance of unanimityin that body, on thisoccasion, will be of great importance”
  40. 40. ● Public relations ○ Presence of Washington and Franklin lent legitimacy to convention ○ Do your own polling ○ Talk one-on-one with stakeholders before group meetings ○ Try informal settings
  41. 41. ● Relationships ○ Relate, not justinteract ○ Show genuineinterest in stakeholders—motivations, passions, priorities, fears, sensitivities, history ○ Tap intoinstitutional memory ○ Connect with frontlinestaff ■ No project should be an exclusive, privileged effort ■ Invite all to submitsuggestionsto the core team
  42. 42. ● Sneakiness + scrappiness ● Be subtle, not sneaky; be assertive, not dogmatic (see: Sara Wachter- Boettcher, “Newforms, old places,” Contents magazine, 2012)
  43. 43. ● Content tactics (see: Lori Packer, “Nocontent strategy? Trycontent tactics,” Confab Higher Ed 2014) ○ Tactic = a device for accomplishing an end ○ Prioritization: focus on the thingsthat you dobest ○ Implementation: do those thingsreally, really well ○ Promotion: tell everyone about the cool thing you did ○ Evaluation: measure the results ● Unsexystuff: tagging, reorganizing info on a key page, coordinating an editorial calendar
  44. 44. ● Make the case ● Convince the people to ratify the Constitution ● Ratification ○ Pauline Maier: “one of the greatest and most probing public debates in American history”; “politics was in a realsense the first national game” ● Madison: the Constitution was “nothing but a dead letter, until life and validity were breathed into it, by the voice of the people”
  45. 45. ● Get alignment ● Madison: “The difficulty of uniting the minds of men accustomed to think differently can only be conceived by those who have witnessed it.”
  46. 46. ● Management/stakeholder buy-in
  47. 47. ● Foster a sense of urgency(Hamilton) ● A good leader never lets a crisisgo to waste ● Ultimatum: “justtake it as itis; and be thankful” ● “with all its faults,” “the best that was to be attained” ● Federalist No. 1: “Ithas been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of thiscountry to decide, bytheir conduct and example, the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.”
  48. 48. ● Connect with skeptics/derailers (Madison) ● Intaking and synthesizing amendments that became Bill of Rights ● Richard Henry Lee:approving the Constitution was “little better than putting oneself to death” with an expectation that “the doctor, who wished our destruction, would afterwardsrestore us to life” ● Madison was “constantly haunted with the ghost of Patrick Henry”; had anxiety dreams about amendments
  49. 49. ● Foster a sense of urgency ● Scott Kubie, Confab 2016: “The strategy will never speak for itself. Content strategy is a plan, yes, but it can’t talk, it can’t sell itself, it can’t persuade people on its own, you have to be focused on clarity and understanding to do that in the organization.”
  50. 50. ● John Kotter (Leading Change, A Sense of Urgency, Buy-in, The Heart of Change Field Guide) ○ Sense of urgency = single most important step ○ Skills and resourcescan’t make up for complacency ○ False urgency = fear,anger, franticness
  51. 51. ● Tips for communicating for buy-in: ○ Develop a compelling story; provide context for the change
  52. 52. ● Tips for communicating for buy-in: ○ Develop a compelling story; provide context for the change ○ Use metaphors and analogies ○ Keep it simple and jargon-free ○ Reinforce messaging and educate at every opportunity
  53. 53. ● Connect with skeptics/derailers ○ Meghan Casey: “Objectionsare needs or concerns in disguise” (like Washington and relationships)(see: “Givecontent strategy a fighting chance,” Brain Traffic blog, 2011)
  54. 54. ● John Kotter, Buy-in: ○ Don’tshut out the critics—invitethem in ○ Respond clearly, simply, earnestly, and with common sense ● 24 attacks +24 responses ○ “We don’tneed your idea, but the “problem” it“solves” doesn’texist.” ○ “OK, aproblem exists, butyour solution isn’ta good one.” ○ “OK, aproblem exists and your solution isa good one, but itwill never work here!”
  55. 55. ● She is sometimes a lone voice arguing for equality
  56. 56. ● Sometimes we area lone voice arguing for usability, quality, or strategy
  57. 57. ● She dissents when it matters
  58. 58. ● Dissenting isnot ideal: itmeans you lost ○ Butyou can lay the groundwork for the future ○ Justice Harlan, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) ○ Chief Justice Warren’smajorityopinion, Brown v. Board of Education (1954) ○ Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tireand Rubber (2007) ○ Days later, Congress amended TitleVII ○ 2009: LillyLedbetter Fair Pay Act
  59. 59. ● She plays the long game ● “Anyway, hope springs eternal. If I lose today, there’s hope that tomorrow will be better.” ● “I will continue to give voice to my dissent if, in my judgment, the court veers in the wrong direction when important mattersare at stake.”
  60. 60. ● Collegial ○ BFFs with Scalia ● Reasonable minds can disagree
  61. 61. ● Dissent when it matters ○ Anne Peterson:HiPPO = Highest Paid Person’s Opinion ○ “Let’sput this headshotand letterfrom our CEO on the homepage” ● No lifetime appointments,so do it gently
  62. 62. ● Make it clear whena request departsfromstrategy/standards ● Constitution/contentstrategy= setting intentionsand limits around whatyou will do in your project ● Use your strategyand standards/best practicesto makeit less personal ● Preventative approach:build preclearanceintoyour process ● Use it as an opportunityto clear up confusion and makethe case (again) for thestrategy ● See:Ahava Leibtag,“Navigating challenging contentstrategyconversations,” Confab 2016;“The people puzzle:Making the piecesfit,” Kerry-Anne Gilowey, CSF Conference2014;Hilary Marsh, “Managing the politicsof content,”GatherContent,2015)
  63. 63. ● Collegial ● Don’t burn bridges ● Look for common ground
  64. 64. ● The Constitution/law wasn’t working for them.
  65. 65. ● We have a strategy, but it needs some updating.
  66. 66. ● Wayne Wheeler ○ Anti-Saloon League ○ The forcebehind thetemperancemovementthatculminatedin the19th Amendment ○ “Wayne B.Wheelercontrolled six Congresses, dictatedtotwo presidentsof the United States,directedlegislation in mostof the Statesof the Union,picked the candidatesfor the moreimportantelective stateand federaloffices,held the balanceof power in both Republican and Democraticparties,distributed morepatronagethan anydozenothermen, supervised a federalbureaufrom outside withoutofficial authority,and wasrecognizedby friend and foe alike as themost masterfuland powerfulsingle individual in the United States.”
  67. 67. ● Single-issue advocacy, by any means necessary ● Racists, nativists, progressives, suffragists, populists ● Pressure politics: mass media, plus intimidation and threats ● Find a unifying vision ● Charles Duhigg, The Power ofHabit: “Social habits are what fill streets with protesters who may not know one another, who might be marching for different reasons, but who areall moving in the same direction.”
  68. 68. ● Rosa Parks ○ Not thefirst to refuse giving up a busseat ○ Enmeshedin her community
  69. 69. • Secretaryof localNAACP • AttendedMethodist Church • Involved in youth programat LutheranChurch • Volunteeredat a shelter on weekends • Memberof a botanicalclub • Wednesdaynight women’sgroup knitting blanketsfor a hospital • Volunteer dressmakerfor poor families • Gownalterationsfor wealthywhite debutantes
  70. 70. ● Strong and weak ties ○ E.D. Nixon—NAACP ○ Clifford Durr—civil rightsattorney ○ Jo Ann Robinson—educator and activist ● Peer pressure ○ Studies show people we are slow to respond to strangersin need butquick to respond to friendsin need ○ Montgomery BusBoycott
  71. 71. ● Look for allies in unexpected places ● Strong and weak ties ● Stand up for the stress cases ○ Design in Real Life, Sara Wachter-Boettcher & Eric Meyer ○ Stress cases = the moments that put our design and content to the test in reallife
  72. 72. Don’t try these at home: ● Lock your stakeholders in an unventilated room in Philadelphia in the summer ● Lock a state congressman in a closet so you can vote without him
  73. 73. Add to your reading list! • Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution, by Richard Beeman • Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788, by Pauline Maier
  74. 74. ● We the content strategists do ordain and establish this content strategy to make a more perfect Internet and world.
  75. 75. THANK YOU!