Most advocates say their top communications priority is to motivate the public to get involved in solving a pressing social problem. Given this goal, it is remarkable how much social change communication is spent describing social problems in great detail, citing dire statistics and highlighting stories of struggle – and how little is spent on solutions.
Sometimes a problem is introduced in deliberately grim terms to evoke powerful emotions, like shock or fear. The use of punctuation, tone, and imagery may even direct the public to feel alarmed, disturbed, or deeply troubled. The thinking is that strong reactions will surely motivate change. Words like “epidemic,” “emergency,” and “catastrophe” are used to convey that the stakes are sky-high, and our nation, our planet, and our integrity hang in the balance. The takeaway in such cases is unmistakable: Things are bad, and if we allow them to continue, we are bad too. This is what we call “crisis framing”, and examples abound:
The United States is failing its children. In the most recent graduating class, three out of every 10 young people didn’t make the grade. Yet for African-American, Latino, and Native American populations, this number is dramatically worse, with just over half graduating on time.
A changing climate, a destabilized ocean, and depleted natural resources are looming crises we must face. Failure to act means millions more people will die and suffer due to poverty, food shortages, harsh storms, and increasing political instability.
We tend to assume that crisis framing works like a wake-up call, signaling people to spring into action to prevent the worst. Studies that have examined the effects of this approach, however, demonstrate that it is more likely to dampen engagement than to drive action.
Painting too vivid a picture of impending doom typically leads to one of two things. People either dismiss the claim outright or conclude that tragedy is inevitable no matter what we do. This is fatalism in a nutshell: the assumption that problems are insurmountable and that change efforts are bound to fail. It is easily evoked through our communications because it already looms large in the public mind.
Randomized, controlled framing experiments – conducted by FrameWorks researchers and other social scientists – have consistently demonstrated that crisis framing feeds fatalistic thinking, and routinely backfires. A dismal narrative about an infant who nearly died of measles led parents to become more wary of vaccine-related side effects – though the intent of the message was to demonstrate the importance of vaccines.  People exposed to a message about the range and severity of tobacco-caused health problems became less convinced that tobacco control policies could make a difference and thus less willing to support them.  We’ve documented similar effects on issues ranging from affordable housing to aging and climate change to poverty.
There’s also a harmful cumulative effect that a steady diet of crisis messages wreaks on the health and wellbeing of our civic body. When the airwaves are flooded with dire predictions, from different advocates focused on different issues, a kind of defense mechanism known as “compassion fatigue” kicks in. Basically, people become saturated with bad news and desensitized to hearing about trauma. They quickly tune out. Most people remember the story of Chicken Little, who one too many times told the other animals that, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” The message got attention at first, but eventually the other animals went about their lives and stopped listening to the predictions of catastrophe.
We can’t – and shouldn’t – stop talking about social problems. Explaining the nature and scope, and especially the causes, of current challenges is essential to solving them. But balancing problem statements with proposed solutions – in level of emphasis as well as detail – is key.
When we balance urgency (“we can see a problem ahead”) with efficacy (“there’s a way to steer around it”), we offer people both a reason to engage in collective action and hope that it will work. As part of this balancing, it helps to adopt a “can-do” tone, and to offer concrete examples of the kinds of actions that will make a real difference.
Crisis framing has, over time, caused a decline in public engagement and eroded people’s confidence in our civic and social institutions. As a result, the greatest communications task for most advocates these days is not to convince people that a problem exists; it’s to convince them that it can be solved. We must stop feeding fatalism, and instead encourage forward-looking, aspirational thinking about how to strengthen our social systems and public structures. Let’s tap into motivating and instructive stories about our collective capacity to come together, work together, and strategize our way out of even the biggest problems.
 Nyhan, B., Reifler, J., Richey, S., & Freed, G. L. (2014). Effective messages in vaccine promotion: a randomized trial. Pediatrics, 133(4), pp 835-842.
 FrameWorks Institute. 2020. Justice in the Air: Framing Tobacco-Related Health Disparities. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute.