How to use framing to shape messages effectively

How to use framing to shape messages effectively

Framing is used to construct, refine, and deliver messages. How information is presented (the ‘frame’) influences and changes decision making and judgment about a subject. Frames consist of the words, images, metaphors, comparisons and presentation styles to communicate on a matter. Developing the right frame is the key to effective messaging in a communication strategy. Find out in this article how to use framing to shape messages effectively.

Essentially, we absorb new information by fitting it into the framework of something we already understand. People use mental shortcuts (heuristics) to make sense of the world. These mental shortcuts rely on ‘frames,’ which are internalized concepts and values that allow us to give meaning to new developments and information. These frames can be triggered by various elements, such as language choices and different messengers or images. These communication elements, therefore, have a major influence on decision making.

Even a simple choice of words influences people’s interpretation. For instance, do you have an old car or a vintage car? Have you made mistakes, or learnt lessons? Are you heading into your twilight years or your golden years? (Read the FrameWorks case study at the end of this article about the reframing of aging.) The choice of your words creates a frame or theme on which to base the message.

Rubin vase as example of alternate imagesYour viewpoint or frame will influence whether your mind perceives the image at right as a vase or an outline of two people. This helps to show that people can perceive exactly the same scene or scenario in different ways. Frames help them to perceive from one particular viewpoint.

Image, right: Rubin vase

Language is not neutral

At its most basic level, communication is about sharing information. In recent years, researchers have found that language used in communication is much less neutral than it may appear. It is mainly a way for influencing people to agree with an opinion or at least to act in line with it. Even when we think we are simply describing something, we are actually using language that influences people towards thoughts consistent with our view. For instance, when describing something simple like a news event or a movie, we use terms that reflect our own view – it is extremely difficult to be totally neutral in simple descriptions, much less more complex and emotive subjects found in issues and politics. Professor Robert Cialdini discusses this further in his book, Pre-suasion.

Frames are all around us

Communication expert, Professor Matthew Nisbet of Northeastern University, states:

There is no such thing as unframed information, and most successful communicators are adept at framing…Accounting for framing should be a part of your overall content strategy.

Frames provide people a quick and easy way to process information. People use mental filters to make sense of incoming messages. This gives the sender and framer of the information enormous power to focus attention and influence how the receivers will interpret the message.

Frames provide meaning through selective simplification, by filtering people’s perceptions and providing them with a field of vision for a problem. Frames help us to interpret the world around us and represent that world to others. They help us organize complex topics and issues into coherent, understandable concepts. It is a form of agenda-setting.

Framing can be found in the viewing of things over different time periods or in relation to a specific past event, or in many other ways. Even if you are not aware of the concept of framing, you actually frame all the time. Even if both outcomes are the same, people tend to make different choices based on how a situation is framed, so learn to use framing to shape messages effectively.

Each frame below can form the basis for a whole communication piece consisting of one or more components based on that frame:

  • When buying two packages of meat, most people would pick the one labelled, ‘80% lean’ over the one labelled, ‘20% fat.’
  • A skincare product may have a 90% effectiveness rate. A competitor can use the same statistic to (correctly) claim that the product fails to work in 1 out of 10 cases.
  • Describing drug addiction as a ‘law and order’ problem or a ‘public health’ problem.
  • Motivating people to register for an event before the deadline by pointing out a $50 late payment penalty or a $50 discount for being on time.
  • “With (XY car insurance company), it will only take you 15 minutes to save money.” The positive of this message is: save money quickly. The negative of the message is: you’re spending too much money on insurance with someone else.
  • People tend to more often agree to surgery if risks are presented in terms of survival rates (eg “94% survive this procedure) rather than death rates (“6% of people die from this procedure”).
  • A Stanford University study asked respondents if they support or oppose allowing an extremist group to hold a rally. When posed in terms of freedom of expression, the majority supported the group’s rights; if framed in terms of risk of violence, the majority opposed permitting the rally.

On a lighter note…

Framing in the South African Parliament, 22 April 2018

Honourable Madisha: Half of people in this parliament are stupid!

Speaker: Hon. Madisha, please withdraw that statement.

Hon. Madisha: I withdraw that statement. Half of the people in this parliament are not stupid!

Speaker: Thank you. Let’s proceed.

Use of framing in your communication

Framing is used in both internal and external communication. Organizational development consultant Leandro Herrero says, “I put framing at the top of the list of ‘leadership tasks’,” and he gives an example of a pharmaceutical firm. How do you decide on the key messages about organizational purpose from all the ones available, such as:

  • Enhance shareholder value
  • Solve health problems
  • Improve quality of life
  • Transform the way medicine works
  • Enhance life
  • Provide innovative medicines
  • Discover new treatments
  • Make drug treatment affordable
  • Save lives

All of these frames could be relevant and compatible. But they are all different, and each one could take the organization to different places strategically. They describe the purpose, priorities, and staffing differently. The key thing would be to work to closely support the stated mission or purpose of the organization to determine how best to use framing to shape messages.

What’s more, Herrero also classifies behavior as a framing activity within organizations:

…there is plenty of repeated experimental data showing, for example, how being helped (eg to fix a computer problem) increases the level of collaboration of that particular group of people with the people helping them. The helped-group increases collaboration with any other group afterwards, about any activity, compared with a control group that has not received help. ‘Helping’ is copied and spreads. It frames the future.

Many studies also show the difference between people in a group who receive a clear ‘thanks’, versus members of a control group who receive a neutral acknowledgement. The thanked group behaves more positively afterwards in ways that have no direct connection with the previous reason-for-the-thanks. [This is a classic example of the power of employee recognition.]

Using metaphors

US linguistics expert George Lakoff says metaphors are contained in most of the concepts of everyday life and should be used in framing for communication activities. He gives the example of an environmental group whose research found there are large numbers of toxic chemicals in our bodies, and they tried to publicize this in terms of statistics. The media response was minimal.

Lakoff said the program should have been reconceptualized [reframed] in a campaign called ‘Be Poison-free’. ‘Poison’ is a strong, emotive word that implies someone must be the poisoner. It makes you look at who is doing the poisoning – the companies that allow humans to be exposed to chemicals.

You can think of your words in terms of metaphors to add strength to the frame. For instance, legendary US journalist, political commentator and former White House Press Secretary Bill Moyers (right) said in his email newsletter of 12 July 2020 that:

Joseph Campbell once told me: “If you want to change the world, change the metaphors.” That is, help people understand what’s new and strange by describing it as comparable to what they already know. Examples are: “A mighty fortress is our God.” “The city is a jungle.” “Chaos is a friend of mine.” “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.”

These comments are a wonderful reminder of the power of metaphors, and how easy they are to use in your messaging frames. The conclusion is to use framing to shape messages effectively.

Identify a frame for your messages

The following 7 types of frames most suitable for PR use were identified by Kirk Hallahan in his paper, “Seven models of framing: implication for public relations.” I have rewritten the content and added the messaging examples in the right-hand column below:

seven models of framing relevant to PR

Typical frames

Many frames are based on the following:

  • Values-based. We know that people make decisions based on more than just the facts alone. Values-based frames access users’ underlying values to motivate them to engage in a desired behavior.
  • Financial benefits. This frame highlights the financial benefits of engaging in a particular behavior.
  • Gain. This focuses on what users will gain from engaging (or not engaging) in a particular behavior.
  • Loss. A loss frame focuses on what users will lose from engaging (or not engaging) in a behavior.

When you want use framing to shape messages effectively, you can develop framing conveyed through:

  • Metaphor – to give an idea a new meaning by comparing it with something else.
  • Stories (myths and legends) – to frame a subject by anecdote in a vivid and memorable way.
  • Traditions (rites, rituals and ceremonies) – to use to define and reinforce organizational cultural values.
  • Slogans, jargon and catchphrases – to frame a subject in a memorable and familiar way.
  • Artefacts – to illuminate corporate values through objects that strike a chord with employees.
  • Contrast – to describe a subject in terms of what it is not.
  • Spin – to talk about a concept in a way that gives it a positive or negative connotation.
  • Behavior – to imitate the behavior of individuals or groups who are influential in their actions.

Messages within your selected frame

When you use framing to shape messages, take account of these message within the frames you have selected:

  • Decide the main goal of your messages.
  • Document the organizational goal/s each message supports (as a reminder to you, and in case you need to defend the message if it is criticized within your organization).
  • What is the framework, the context, the bigger picture, in which you are sending the messages?
  • Have you included all the relevant message variables, ie who, how, why, what, when, where, and how much (cost)?
  • Identify your target audience/s. You can’t expect your message to relate to every single individual, so decide on the audience segment most important to you.
  • What do they already know? You don’t want to focus too much on information they already know.

Framing is used in many professional disciplines including psychology, behavioral economics, sociology, government policy-making, business management, and organizational decision-making and negotiation. Framing is central to the communication profession in areas such as employee communication, media relations, marketing communication, issue management, crisis communication, public health communication, and political communication.

It is difficult to generalize about using frames because they can exist in so many forms for so many purposes.

Essential to review and test

Organizational development expert Leandro Herrero reminds us that frame testing should be mandatory – because so much depends on it being done well. In practical terms, you can easily use framing to shape messages, but not enough thought is given to this in internal communication.

The number of people you involve in testing your message will depend on the importance of the outcome you wish to achieve. Start by asking your team members to review the words to see if they can detect any possibly confusing words or phrases. Then test the text on as many others as you feel is useful.

If it is an internal message, test among employees from different areas of the organization. Externally, try to find some representative members of the target audience.

You don’t have to go overboard with testing, but it should always be done to some extent. If 10 representative people all give you similar responses, this will be a good guide. Their feedback will help you avoid confusion or misunderstanding of your messages. If the responses are varied, then your message is probably not coming across clearly. Take account of the feedback, and then retest the new message. This can take time, so allow time in your planning.

It is surprising how common words or phrases mean different things to different people, especially those people from a non-English speaking background. In teaching classes at university, I had to be very careful in writing questions for assignments and exams to allow for people from those different backgrounds who either would not fully understand the words or who would be likely to misinterpret them.

You can test messages in other ways as well. For example, you could pose the same questions listed above to a focus group. A/B testing will also reveal which of two (or more) messages your target audience members prefer. The outcome is that you can use framing to shape the messages that are the most effective.

Ask these questions to check your message effectiveness

Once you’ve developed each message, ask potential recipients these questions, especially when significant issues are at stake:

  • Does this message make sense?
  • How does this message make you feel?
  • What do you think this message is asking you to do? (Ask this even if the message isn’t asking for anything.)
  • Who do you think this message will resonate with?
  • What would you change about this message to make it clearer?
  • What would you change about this message to make it speak directly to you?
  • What do you feel this message does well?
  • Which message do you think resonates the most? Why? (Ask this if you are intending to use several messages.)

Strategic framing of public issues

If you would like to address a significant public issue, it is worth looking at the information available at frameworksinstitute.org, which suggests that strategic issue framing cover these elements:

  1. Context
  2. Numbers
  3. Messengers
  4. Visuals
  5. Metaphors and simplifying models
  6. Tone

Reframing to reduce the bias against older people

An example of framing intended to change attitudes in society is the FrameWorks Institute project aimed at reframing the concept of ageing in the United States. Most people think of aging as deterioration, decline and dependency. Older people are perceived as being “over the hill,” and there is a whole cosmetics industry devoted to marketing products claimed to slow the aging appearance of people, eg “anti-aging” creams. Overall, Americans are subconsciously biased against older people, eg older job candidates (“old dogs can’t learn new tricks”).

Extensive research by FrameWorks has led to a new metaphor as a frame to reduce bias against older people. The researchers found that comparing aging to a process of “building momentum” changes how people understand aging.

Image, right: Smashing Magazine.

By showing aging as a dynamic and forward-moving process, and in emphasizing the accumulation of “force” and “energy” – the momentum we gain as we build-up experience and insights – we can help people see aging in a more positive light.

Expect to see the metaphor in this frame successfully reducing people’s unconscious bias against older people in the future.

Further reading

  • You can read more about messaging in my helpful article: “How to use framing to communicate strong messages.”
  • My ebooks on developing successful communication plans offer you a generous amount of valuable, practical insights. Tremendous value – just like having your own comms coach immediately available by your side!

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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