How to use framing to shape your messaging strategy
“…this very expensive Witch Hunt…” Twitter, 3 June 2018.
Donald Trump has been using these words famously to frame the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections and related matters.
He could have used many terms to describe the official investigation from his own government into his activities, but he chose this frame because it is so striking and accusatory. Calling the official investigation a witch hunt is an extreme, pre-emptive frame intended to cast doubt on the validity of the process. The frame is influencing the attitudes of millions of Americans: The New York Times reported on 7 June that ‘three-quarters of Republicans embrace his claim that the investigation is a politically motivated “witch hunt.”’
[Coincidentally, a week after writing this article, I came across a major article in The Guardian newspaper by linguistics experts George Lakoff and Gil Duran (“Trump has turned words into weapons. And he’s winning the linguistic war“), published on 13 June 2018. They offer important advice about avoiding the trap of repeating Trump’s words when criticizing those words – because it only makes people remember them and believe them more.]
Developing the right frame
Developing the right frame is the key to effective messaging as part of a communication strategy. So how do you make the best messaging decisions?
Your viewpoint or frame will influence whether your mind perceives the above image 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.
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.
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 an issue.
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? Are you heading into your twilight years or your golden years? Have you made mistakes, or learnt lessons? This choice of words creates a frame or base for the whole message around it.
Framing can be 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.
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 public relations 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.
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.
Examples of framing:
- 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 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 2004 study conducted by 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 for violence, the majority opposed permitting the rally.
Use of framing in public relations
Framing is used in 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.
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.]
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 tried to publicize this in terms of statistics. The media response was minimal.
Lakoff said the program should have been reconceptualized 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.
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:
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.
Messages within your selected frame
Take account of these message factors within the frame 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.
Testing is essential
Organizational development expert Leandro Herrero reminds us that frame testing should be mandatory – because so much depends on it being done well. In internal communication not enough thought is given to this.
The number of people you involve in testing your message will depend on 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.
Review 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 frameworkinstitute.org, which suggests that strategic issue framing cover these elements:
Elements of strategic frames
- Metaphors and simplifying models
You can put framing to great use when you implement a communication plan as outlined in my ebooks on How to write a strategic communication plan and How to write a winning communication campaign plan.