When we teach we learn

Fifteen years ago, I had this epiphany that multimedia storytelling no longer needed to be the exclusive preserve of Hollywood and journalism. That the explosion in accessible digital technology and online distribution platforms would create both opportunity and obligation for organizations to create their own digital media channels. It seems obvious now, but it was controversial in the early 2000s’ – I had to experiment with these ideas myself by quitting a well-paying job in national television reporting, putting my dwindling savings into a documentary film project with my wife, promoted through a “blog”, and craft a proposal for a university program that I thought urgently had to come into existence.

Funny how things work out — yet not quite how you expect them to.

When I was asked to lead the Master of Communication in Digital Media (which I promptly rebranded to MCDM) in 2007, I re-imagined it as a vehicle for this premise: organizational storytelling that leveraged the digital revolution could lead to new opportunities of trust and persuasion. The timing was perfect, as social and mobile platforms exploded on the scene. I wrote a book about it, engaged some of the industry’s top leaders on these issues on-camera and on-stage, consulted for Fortune 100 companies, and the program prospered. The MCDM was the first to truly leverage social media in its classes, offer digital storytelling curriculum and even advise the University of Washington on its online strategies. In 2009, I was approached by a National Public Radio reporter who wanted to do a story about how “Wikinews” was providing an alternative online version of breaking news to what traditional outlets were offering. I asked her if she had heard of “Twitter.” And that’s how we helped spread that story.


As these startups grew up and went public, their scrappy user-generated content ethos mutated into an insatiable appetite to monetize user data. If the highwater mark of social media was the 2011 Arab Spring, then the 2018 Cambridge Analytica data scandal symbolized how much things had truly changed. In between those two mileposts, my university colleagues and I conceived the Communication Leadership (“Comm Lead”) program, adding a Masters in Communities and Networks to the MCDM. We were clearly marking a space for a people-first approach to trustful connection.

Three years ago, I decided that we needed to model our unique approach by creating a Declaration of Communication Leadership. It would serve as both manifesto and blueprint for decision-making in a time of accelerated change and outright upheaval. When everything begins with the qualifier “unprecedented,” it’s hard to find a textbook answer. We can only look to our values and ethics and align the decisions we make on behalf of our constituents with that publicly-available list.

And now, truth and trust feel even more elusive as everyone crafts their own realities, as misinformation and disinformation proliferate. Just as they did in 2007 with storytelling, do organizations today have the opportunity to create trustful refuges, especially when it comes to making decisions around technologies and larger trends? The past year has only underlined the connection between a global crisis, the adoption of technologies to manage this crisis, and the social upheaval it has provoked. How do organizations navigate in such a context? How can we lead?

That’s why we’re offering this course. It’s also the pilot to what will also be the cornerstone to a new Comm Lead for-credit certificate launching this fall. So just as I collaborated with my students in 2007 to prototype the storytelling curriculum that has been our program’s claim to fame, we will learn together yet again as we author something new! Fundamentally, we’re trying to develop a new methodology for organizations to follow, so that they can help chart a near-future that we can almost say with certainty, will look VERY different from today.

We’re all in a necessary, uncomfortable state of perpetual learning. As I read this passage by opinion writer Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal recently, it made me think immediately of our students, faculty and alumni:

“We’re in a transformational time. Some things might have changed inch by inch over the next few decades were transformed in one large, incredible, 12-month shift. So many institutions will have to be nimble and farsighted now, or they won’t survive. They’re going to have to be creative and generous and leave old intransigencies behind. To lead in times like this will require the eyes of an artist who sees the broad shape of things, not an analyst who sees data points…. We’re in the After Times, and every stakeholder is going to have to be generous, patient and farsighted in a way they’ve never been before.”


Our primary vehicle for learning and exploration will be a “declaration of principles and values” for an organization that is meaningful to you. It’s to be modeled on our graduate program’s own such document – with a short video preamble (the “why?” and “why now?”) and the written list that follows. In such a transformational period of accelerated change, an organizational roadmap such as this can a foundational bedrock for decision-making. Leaders are increasingly asked to act and respond forcefully in the face of technological, social, economic and political upheaval. These demands can be sudden and unprecedented. But a good declaration can serve as a template that aligns the latest situation with what matters most to an organization and its stakeholders. In this way, we can lead with authenticity and trust, especially when there’s no textbook answer for the challenge-at-hand.

To craft such an effective document first requires literacy in what has made our current situation so “emergent” – as technologies and trends collide. We’ll acquire that literacy in three ways: (1) In live conversations with our weekly expert class “consultants;” (2) Through the assigned readings and multimedia; (3) As you do the research for your own declaration.

 What we’ll model:

  • Sense-making around technology and trends
  • Trusted conversations with people on sensitive topics
  • Leadership by curating and synthesizing issues of importance to people within an organization or a community
  • A clear expression of principles and values for future decision-making and outreach