Changing the Public Conversation about Kids: Framing in the Field
Are your messages moving the needle?
This was the question posed by Lynn Davey, Vice President of Field Building for the Washington D.C.-based FrameWorks Institute, to the more than 50 advocates who filled a conference room at the Marriott Inner Harbor Hotel in Baltimore on September 19th. Davey’s presentation, “Changing the Public Conversation about Kids: Framing in the Field,” was part of the 2007 Kids Count Annual Conference, a gathering of the national network of state KIDS COUNT organizations across the country that are funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Davey was joined on the dais by advocates from two state KIDS COUNT grantee organizations—Voices for Vermont’s Children and Action for Children North Carolina—who shared what they learned during a year of intensive technical assistance from FrameWorks.
Davey began with what she called the “Evelyn Woods” version of Strategic Frame Analysis 101—an introductory course on the fundamentals of an interdisciplinary and multi-method field of communications research and practice. “Our work is different from what you get from a communications or public relations specialist,” she emphasized. “Their approaches are grounded in product marketing and individual behavior change.
By contrast, the goal of Strategic Frame Analysis,” Davey explained, “is to help people to see the “public-ness” of a social problem,” thereby helping to shift public priorities.
”We empirically investigate and test frames to move public understanding to be more in line with what experts know about a problem,” she said. “Further,” Davey added, “unlike many communications firms, FrameWorks Institute only recommends to policy advocates those “reframes,” that have been empirically shown to significantly and quantifiably move support for policies.”
A case in point is the American healthcare system. Davey briefly reviewed FrameWorks’ research on the public’s thinking about health care reform. To most Americans, health care is understood as a commodity that is purchased by consumers. ‘It’s not even conceived as a relationship between you and your doctor,” she said. “It’s between you and your insurer.” The consequence of such thinking: if health insurance is a commodity, it’s hard to see that the uninsured are part of a larger system. Moreover, a discussion about expanding benefits leads most people to think that any change will be to their disadvantage.
On the other hand, as FrameWorks researchers found, when people begin to understand how the system actually works, their thinking can change dramatically. A framing element that aids this new thinking is a “simplifying model”—or metaphor—that describes the weakness of the American health care system. It is referred to as the “Missing Infrastructure.” By helping people see that the U.S. has built a series of modern networks that are essential to our economy and quality of life, such as our power grids, phone systems, water systems, and interstate highways, they can understand why it’s problematic that there is not a comparable system for something as important as health care.
This research and its application proved invaluable to advocates at Action for Children north Carolina. Their goal: to provide health insurance to the 264,000 uninsured children in the state, at a time when an increasing number of families were unable to provide dependent coverage for their children due to significant losses in employer-based health care coverage.
Toward this end, ACNC created “Carolina Cares for Children,” a broad-based coalition of health care, business and civic leaders. They hoped to generate a set of messages that would change state policy, but quickly realized that they needed help. “Our original strategy was definitely in a consumer frame,” reflected Rebecca Clendenin, Director of Communications for ACNC. Through the Casey Foundation, ACNC was selected to receive a year’s worth of intensive technical assistance from FrameWorks, which began with a web-based seminar for all staff. “We were really energized by it,” said Berekely Yorkery, Director of Data and Publications. “We knew that what we were writing was wrong, but we wondered: ‘How do we fix it?’”
Over the next weeks and months, FrameWorks worked closely with ACNC on a series of documents: a proposal, an op-ed, and a supporters sign-on letter. In each case, ACNC submitted a document to FrameWorks, whose staff worked with ACNC to deconstruct, and then reconstruct, the work according to framing principles and practice. Among other things, ACNC said it learned to say “health care” instead of “health insurance”; to make their data and statistics more reader-friendly using “social math;” to talk less about government and more about a “broken system”; and to begin their documents with what FrameWorks calls “Level 1” values—or high-level American values that help people understand the larger importance of an issue, in this case the healthy futures of our children. “Our materials really evolved,” said Clendenin.
Eventually, she said, they were able to synthesize and distill their basic message considerably. They also said they were eventually able to bring together more than 600 organizations to disseminate the new messages. The media coverage shifted as a result, and perhaps most important, both the Governor of North Carolina and the North Carolina Legislature accepted the coalition’s plan to increase health care coverage for children. According to Lynn Davey of FrameWorks, ACNC’s success was attributable not just to their new messaging strategy, but rather to the fact that the organization had a strong sense of direction. “They had a strategic plan upon which to build a communications plan,” said Davey.
Davey also reviewed findings from FrameWorks’ research on improving public understanding of children’s issues. The problem in a nutshell, she said, is that the public and policymakers have no working model of how child development happens. “What the public sees is a black box, and what’s inside is largely invisible to people,” she said. “They know to some extent that children develop in stages, but they are unable to connect the bits of information about genes or the environment to a theory or organizing principle about development.”
Without a theory, she said, most people default to the frames that predominate in the media and popular culture: that families are singularly responsible for solving their children’s problems; that the goal of child-rearing is to raise an autonomous, self-reliant child who just needs to be filled up with knowledge; or that keeping a child out of harm’s way is the only thing that matters.
Each of these frames is problematic, Davey said. For example, the “family bubble”—or the assumption that parents are the only ones responsible for their children—ignores economic and social factors, and causes people to wonder why their tax dollars should solve other people’s problems. The self-made child evokes a mentality of “just leave them alone and let them play.” The safety frame presumes that the community is not a helpful influence, but rather something you protect your children against.
Even more important for advocates, these “default” frames conceal some of the most important factors in child development, Davey said. For instance, the environments in which children spend their time are left out entirely: housing, neighborhoods, schools, museums, libraries, other community resources. Their relationships—with caregivers, neighbors, peers, teachers, mentors, coaches—are also hidden by these frames, as are the need for age-appropriate opportunities and learning across the developmental domains. When these factors are concealed, the public and policymakers see no good reason for public investment.
Fortunately, FrameWorks research has identified “reframes” to move public opinion in the right direction. Working with the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, FrameWorks created what is referred to as the “core story” of child development, based on the newest research in the neurosciences. It also developed a simplifying model—or metaphor—referred to as “Brain Architecture,” which describes how early experiences influence the architecture of the maturing brain, establishing either a sturdy or fragile foundation for all of the development and behavior that follows. This model—one of 400 candidates tested by researchers—helped the public understand development in an entirely new way—as a physical and material process.
“This stuff is deep, revolutionary, and life-changing,” said Barbara Postman, Policy Coordinator, Voices for Vermont’s Children. “You’re not going to get it all at once.”
Postman described a response of one advocate to the Brain Architecture Simplifying Model. “She said: ‘that brain architecture thing doesn’t do it for me’. I told her that the model had been tested extensively and that it worked. I said, you need to have faith; they’ve done the research,” she said.
A self-described FrameWorks junkee, Postman talked about the work of Voices, the only child advocacy organization in Vermont, to embed pre-school funding permanently into the state budget. In 2006, Voices received a policy enhancement grant from the Casey Foundation, which enabled the organization to receive intensive technical assistance from FrameWorks. At that time, pre-school legislation had been passed only in the Senate. In addition, the state property tax—the hottest issue in Vermont’s 2006 election—was the proposed funding source for this legislation. And much of the media coverage on the issue was negative.
In this environment, FrameWorks conducted a day-long seminar for 30 advocates from across the state. “Some people were turned on, some were intimidated, and others just wanted FrameWorks to tell them what to say,” Postman said.
The epiphany moment for many came when they recognized that in order for legislation to pass, child care had to move from the private to the public realm in the minds of citizens, the media and policymakers. Before the seminar, advocates thought it was enough to say that most parents are not at home. “We had all these reasons,” said Postman. “But it doesn’t matter how good your reasons are unless the public begins to see childcare as a public issue.”
In the months following the first seminar, FrameWorks continued to work closely with Voices, reframing key documents: templates for letters to the editor, a set of talking points, and a fact sheet. These messaging efforts were accompanied by a massive grassroots mobilization campaign run by Voices’ ‘Kids Are Priority One Coalition.”
For Postman, perhaps the most triumphant moment of the campaign was when one of the state’s leading opponents of the legislation became one of its biggest defenders. In April 2007, the bill to expand publicly funded pre-kindergarten programs passed 99-45 in the House of Representatives.
In working with FrameWorks, Postman said she learned some key lessons. “Focus on a few things. That’s a biggie,” she said. “I also learned not to get caught up in other’s arguments, especially about who has the right data.”
A lesson well-learned by one of the many data-driven Kids Count grantees!