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How to use framing to communicate strong messages

13 Nov, 2022 Messaging, Writing and layout

A message frame is a guide. It informs people where to look, but more importantly, helps them interpret what they see. Every message – whether written, spoken, illustrated, or signed – is presented through a frame of some kind, according to the UK FrameWorks Institute in 2020. Simply put, every communication is framed. This view is consistent with the view expressed by Kirk Hallahan, Professor in Journalism and Technical Communication at Colorado State University, who said “Framing decisions are perhaps the most important strategic choices made in a public relations effort.” Dr Leandro Herrero, who heads “an international firm of organizational architects” [change consultants] believes the same: “I would put framing at the top of the list on ‘leadership tasks’”  In view of this, it is vital that you know how to use framing to communicate strong messages.

In practical terms, what does it mean to ‘frame’ or ‘reframe’ an issue? An analogy is the scene observed when looking through a window frame, as in the photo above. Also, a frame of a painting focuses attention on the painting it surrounds. Moreover, different frames draw out different aspects of the work. Putting a painting in a gold frame brings out the gold and yellow colors in the work; putting the same painting in a blue frame increases focus on the blue.

Framing is an important technique of focusing the attention of people within a broad context. How something is presented (the ‘frame’) influences people’s attitudes and opinions. Framing is a form of agenda-setting – the process by which a communication source defines and constructs a public issue – and so framing is used to communicate strong messages. Matthew Nisbet, Professor of Communication, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, states that:

Framing – as a concept and an area of research – spans several social science disciplines. Frames are interpretive storylines that set a specific train of thought in motion, communicating why an issue might be a problem, who or what might be responsible for it, and what should be done about it…Audiences rely on frames to make sense of and discuss an issue; journalists use frames to craft interesting and appealing news reports; policymakers apply frames to define policy options and reach decisions; and experts employ frames to simplify technical details and make them persuasive.

Framing, it should be noted, is not synonymous with placing a false spin on an issue, although some experts, advocates, journalists, and policymakers certainly spin evidence and facts. Rather, in an attempt to remain true to what is conventionally known about an issue, as a communication necessity, framing can be used to pare down information, giving greater weight to certain considerations and elements over others.

Framing the organizational purpose

Dr Herrero also noted in a 2020 blog post that organizations “completely underestimate the power of (mental and behavioral) framing to trigger and sustain behaviors, emotions, ways of doing etc.” He understands the use of framing to communicate strong messages. Herrero then goes on to say, “What about framing of the overall narrative of the organization?” Here are some potential frames of a pharmaceutical company that illustrate its range of possible purposes:

  • 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.

Dr Herrero says:

  1. All of the above are theoretically compatible.
  2. But the frames are different, what you do is different, your priorities are different, the way you attract people is different. All the frames are like roads taking you to different places.”

“It’s not a simple question of ‘language’. It’s a view of the world, a concept of the world, in fact, a ‘space in the world’ (my preferred frame) that is different. Use the excuse ‘it’s all the same’ at your peril. It’s not.”

Dr Herrero then uses the same example of a pharmaceutical company to say, “I personally would like to hear how many lives you save, how many people are treated, how many kids are vaccinated, for example, as opposed to, say, how many R&D plants you have and how many people worldwide you employ. But that is just me.”

“These frames are completely different: solving, creating, building, modifying, inventing, providing, reforming, reorganizing etc.  Choose your frame before the frame, by default, chooses you. Then you are stuck with it.”

He says, “For me, ‘building’ always wins. I am genetically unable to get up in the morning to ‘reform’ or to ‘increase shareholder value’. Yet, these may be serious needs for many. I respect that. But don’t wake me up.”

Framing climate change

Image: NASA – “Global warming vs. climate change.”

A current important framing example is climate change. Some years ago, this term was discussed interchangeably as “global warming,” but global warming is long-term heating of the Earth’s surface, while climate change is long-term change in average weather patterns, according to NASA, so the terms became separated. However, many people still refuse to believe in or are uncertain about accepting the developing crisis of climate change, and so adept local officials in the Great Plains region of the United States, who are responsible for developing community responses to this trend are reframing it by changing the conversation. The titles of two articles summarizing this explain the officials’ communication strategy:

A team of researchers surveyed mayors in the Great Plains regions, finding that “in order to address the vulnerabilities facing their communities, many local officials are reframing climate change to fit within existing priorities and budget items.” They asked , “In your city’s policy and planning activities (for energy, conservation, natural resources management, land use, or emergency planning, etc.), how is climate change framed?”

“The results show that energy, economic benefits, common sense and sustainability are frames that are providing opportunities for local leaders to address climate change without getting stuck in the political quagmire. This strategy is being used across the Great Plains states, which include some of the most climate-skeptical areas of the country.”

Framing in public relations

Kirk Hallahan notes that public relations work fundamentally involves the construction of social reality: defining reality for organizations by shaping organizational perspectives about the external world through a framing process.

In developing programs, public relations professionals fundamentally operate as frame strategists, who strive to determine how situations, attributes, choices, actions, issues and responsibility should be posed to achieve favorable outcomes for clients [and employers].

“Framing involves processes of inclusion and exclusion as well as emphasis. For instance, reframing can occur any time a situation changes, eg as more information becomes available. The establishment of common frames of reference about topics or issues of mutual concern is a necessary condition for effective relations to be established,” Hallahan states.

Matthew Nisbet states (2009): “There is no such thing as unframed information, and most successful communicators are adept at framing, whether using frames intentionally or intuitively.” They successfully use framing to communicate strong messages.

How someone frames an issue influences how others see it and focuses their attention on particular aspects of it; framing is the essence of targeting a communication to a specific audience.

Framing of messages to employees

Framing applies just as much to an internal audience, such as employees, as to an external audience. The ability to frame an issue effectively is seen as a critical communication skill for managers in dealing with issues.

Although the concept of framing seems quite simple, most managers don’t do it well. Team members tend to focus on their own particular needs and on matters relating to their specific areas of expertise. But in so doing, they may lose sight of the details that matter for the project they are currently working on. In response, their manager can begin by isolating a problem issue and framing it so everyone understands it and its relevance to their work.

Here’s how framing can be used to communicate strong messages

  • Metaphor – to give an idea a new meaning by comparing it with something else that is not literally applicable to the topic, eg “This project is a breeze.”
  • Stories (myths and legends) – to frame a subject by anecdote in a vivid and memorable way. For instance, some managers tell and retell stories of how teamwork helped pull their organization through in tough times, eg remember that time when we had to work until midnight to meet the client deadline the following morning.”
  • Traditions (rites, rituals and ceremonies) – to use to define and reinforce organizational cultural values. For instance, certain activities (some humorous and some serious) traditionally done during annual strategic planning conferences.
  • Slogans, jargon and catchphrases – to frame a subject in a memorable and familiar way, eg “Think outside the box on this project to get a better outcome.”
  • Artifacts – to illuminate corporate values through objects that strike a chord with employees. For instance, a current best-selling product compared with an outmoded product from an earlier time.
  • Contrast – to describe a subject in terms of what it is not, eg “This project is not as difficult as the one we completed in May.”
  • Spin – to talk about a concept in a way that gives it a positive or negative connotation, eg “I hated this media relations campaign because it was so cumbersome to set up.”
  • Analogy – framing a topic’s parallel to another topic, eg “The media relations issues you are encountering are similar to what we are noticing with ours.”
  • Argument – This frames a subject in reasoned, rational terms, as in “It’s an important project due to the changing marketplace and a looming recession, as the data indicates.”
  • Feeling statement – This frames a topic in terms of felt emotions, eg “I absolutely look forward to tackling this activity each year.”
  • Category – This frames a statement in terms of membership or lack of membership in a category or group, as in “This project is overseen by our executive committee only.”
  • Three-part list (easily remembered by an audience) – it arranges a topic in easily remembered “threes,” as in “This project is cost-effective, as well as being safe, and climate-friendly.”
  • Repetition – it emphasizes a topic through parallel form, eg “This project is within budget. This project is in demand bby customers. This project is supported by all our key stakeholders.”

US linguistic expert, Professor George Lakoff, views the term ‘tax relief’ as a current frame conceived by the Republican political party. They had done their qualitative research and were using framing to communicate strong messages about tax. The word ‘relief’ implies that taxes are unfair and have been imposed on innocent citizens. The Republicans will be the ones who rescue taxpayers by lifting the burden on them. Yet taxes provide the means for governments to provide essential public infrastructure.

Seven models of framing

Image: From Strategic Public Relations, 2011, book by Kim Harrison. Source: Kirk. Hallahan, Journal of Public Relations Research, 11(3), 205-242. Published online in 2009.

Using metaphors for framing

Image: Framing the extent of global deforestation as a football pitches metaphor is intended to enable readers to relate more easily to the size of the problem.

Metaphors should be used in communication activities

According to George Lakoff, metaphors are contained in most of the concepts of everyday life and should be used in communication activities. He gives the example of an environmental group whose research found there are many 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 in a campaign called ‘Be Poison-free’. This shows how to develop framing to communicate strong messages. ‘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.

If you are working on media strategy, a speech or an issue, you should note the power of using metaphors and images in framing concepts for more effective communication. You can extend concepts into sub-concepts. For instance, if you frame your organization as a ship on a voyage, you can extend this frame or metaphor into related travel or progress sub-frames or themes such as steering the best course, avoiding the hazards (think Titanic here!), staying afloat, delivering cargo, keeping a good lookout for shoals and rocks, arriving safely at the destination, etc.

Framing COVID-19 messages

A study was conducted in 2021 by researchers from the Psychology Department at the Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia, to test the role of message framing for effective communication of self-care behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic, contrasting health and economic-focused messages. The 319 participants were asked to select the message they believed was more effective to increase intentions toward self-care behaviors, motivate self-care behaviors in others, increase perceived risk and enhance perceived message strength.

Results showed that health messages framed about gain increased intention to adopt self-care behaviors and were judged to be stronger. Loss-framed health messages increased risk perception. When judging effectiveness for others, participants believed other people would be more sensitive to messages with an economic focus. These results were helpful to guide government communication in media and social networks for the prevention of COVID-19 contagion.

How to decide which frame to use

US business consultant Melissa Raffoni recommends asking yourself the following questions before every communication:

  • What is the purpose of my communication?
  • What do I want listeners to think, feel, or do after hearing my words?
  • Have I incorporated what I know about the audience’s perspective?
  • What impact will my messages have on the audience?
  • Have I answered this question for every audience member: “What’s in it for me?”
  • Is the context important? What other contextual factors are shaping the way audience members think, such as the organization’s culture or the severity of the issue?
  • How credible am I to my audience?
  • How can I frame what I say to increase my credibility?

Include both the pros and cons in consumer framing

Some websites (such as shopping.com) organize each consumer’s feedback into pros and cons about the product. This is called two-sided framing. In contrast, other websites (such as Amazon.com) use one-sided framing – simply presenting user feedback without clearly structuring it into positive and negative information. While a two-sided frame makes it clear that consideration of both aspects has been encouraged, a one-sided frame lacks that emphasis.

Conclusions: the research indicates that outlining both the positive and negative aspects of a product may help consumers make decisions with greater certainty. This is more likely to inspire action, leading to increased sales. It also underlines that it is important to understand what consumers think about a product, and how certain those consumers are in their judgments. Gaining loyal customers may not simply mean promoting positive attitudes toward a brand or product; it shows the importance of creating attitudes of strong certainty as well.

How to effectively frame messages

US author, researcher and speaker Victor Yocco says (2014) What you say in a user experience matters. How you say it matters equally. The way you frame communication, or how you say something, could be extremely effective at persuading people to start using your service/product (or to use it more), or act on your message.

1. Identify your target audience

Be specific.

2. Identify a frame for your messages

Examples of how to use framing to communicate strong messages:

  • 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. Common Cause has a guide on values and framing.
  • 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.

Also, you need to consider additional elements when framing a message:

  • Urgency. Messages are more compelling when they contain ‘best,’ ‘worst,’ ‘first,’ ‘last’ and other words that create a sense of urgency.
  • Persistence. Users should encounter your message multiple times, in multiple places.
  • Simplicity. Users should be able to easily understand the message.
  • Use of metaphors. Metaphors make abstract topics more concrete or understandable. Political communication often uses metaphors.
  • Use of visuals. Visuals play a key role in framing messages. The Frameworks Institute notes that the importance of visuals doesn’t stop at the raw content. Message creators also need to consider the placement and sequence of visuals.

3. Make a strong and clear statement about the product, service or policy.

What do you want people to take away from your message? You can’t assume that you can bury this under an avalanche of witty euphemisms or roundabout references to what your product does. Be clear.

Use the following principles to create a strong and clear message

  • Use positive language and avoid negativity. Focus on how great the product is or how important the cause is, rather than how terrible the alternatives are (doing that would just make your product seem less bad, not more good). If you cast stones at the competition, expect nothing but the same in return.
  • Highlight personal responsibility and control: Empower your users. Your message should explicitly show how using your product, service or complying with your recommendation/s will give your audience members more control. For example, telling users that your financial management software will put them in charge of their financial future makes for a much stronger message than simply noting how many options the software provides for sorting transactions in different categories.
  • Avoid jargon. By avoiding jargon, you avoid assuming your audience has background knowledge of your product, service, etc. If your target audience is heavily involved in your field, then you might want to incorporate some industry-specific language to make a stronger connection with those users. You don’t always have to target the lowest common denominator – but doing so allows your message to be understandable to the broadest number of potential users.
  • Include a call to action: Tell users what you want them to do. Do you want users to purchase something, to get more information, to call their local politician? Be explicit and direct. If you have constructed an effective message, then be confident in stating what you want the audience to do with that information. Your message’s visual design is critical to this point. Are you clearly displaying what actions your users should take? This helps to ensure your framing to communicate strong messages is on target.

4. Test your message

Test your message before unleashing it on users. Don’t assume what people know or how they will understand something. By testing your message, you ensure that your frame comes across clearly.

Testing can be simple and not resource-intensive. Everyone on the design team should work together here. Ideally, you would use the frame(s) you are considering to formulate multiple messages. If you can, test what your team thinks are the worst one or two messages they have created. You’d be surprised by what resonates with users. This is the entire point of user research: You can’t assume what the user wants; find ways to get users to tell you what they want!

You can test messages the old-fashioned way by printing out the designs, laminating them and approaching people in scenarios that would be typical for your product, service or policy. Seeing how someone responds to a message can be eye-opening. Pictures are worth a thousand words, as are facial expressions.

You can also conduct research online. You can easily insert screenshots into survey questions using online survey software, such as SurveyMonkey or SurveyGizmo. Many testing services will also recruit participants according to your specific demographics. Testing through a service such as UserTesting is also very quick and inexpensive.

Ask seven questions

Once you’ve developed your messages and designs, ask potential users the following seven questions:

  1. Does this message make sense?
  2. How does this message make you feel?
  3. What do you think this message is asking you to do? (Ask this even if the message isn’t asking for anything.)
  4. With whom do you think this message will resonate?
  5. What would you change about this message to make it clearer?
  6. What would you change about this message to make it speak directly to you?
  7. What do you feel this message does well?

And if you are comparing multiple messages, then ask this question too:

– Which message do you think resonates the most? Why?

The number of people you get to test your message will depend on the outcome you wish to achieve. Test on only as many people as you feel is useful. If you speak to 10 representative users and they all give you similar responses, then you might be comfortable moving forward. Their feedback will at least give you insight into potential confusion or misunderstanding of the terminology in your messages. If the responses are varied, then your message is probably not coming across clearly. Incorporate the feedback above to make the message clearer, and then retest the new message.

Yocco said he tested his dissertation messages with visitors to a local art museum before deploying them in his studies. He tested each message on 20 visitors, asking them whether the message was clear. He asked participants to identify which frame they felt he was using (to ensure he had framed the messages clearly). He also used his committee of four, each with a PhD, to check the quality of the messages. Then, he conducted research using a number of survey questions to determine characteristics of visitors and how they perceived the messages. In this way he could be confident that his framing to communicate strong messages was successful.

Putting it all together

Outlined above is a process for creating and testing a message, which will help you communicate clearly and effectively with users. Your messages will resonate with them. Use this information to reassess your current messaging, and to move forward with future messaging. On the same topic, you may like to read my article, “Framing of messages is essential for strong leadership.”

Photo of the view across the valley from a villa in Sillicano, Northern Italy shows how the window has literally framed the view for the onlooker.

If you enjoyed this article, we recommend this book

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About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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