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.
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:
Dr Herrero says:
“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.”
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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Examples of how to use framing to communicate strong messages:
Also, you need to consider additional elements when framing a message:
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.
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.
Once you’ve developed your messages and designs, ask potential users the following seven questions:
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.
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.
By Silvia Arto, Vice President of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, Chair of the European Regional
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