How can we frame communications so that they drive social change? This question underlies the work that we do every day as researchers and practitioners who support nonprofit organizations. The good news is that this is an empirical question—one that we can answer through social science research. At the FrameWorks Institute, we conduct this kind of research to help nonprofits use the resulting strategies in their work on a wide range of issues—everything from early childhood development to aging, from addiction to equity, and climate change to immigration. Over nearly two decades, we have uncovered a set of framing truths. Here are a few:
1. Understanding is frame-dependent.
The way we frame our issues—the values, metaphors, examples, and tone we use in our communications—determines how people think about them. Appealing to certain values—cultural beliefs and ideals—encourages people to think about social problems in new and productive ways. Metaphors can help people understand how a complex social or scientific issue works. Messages that explain how problems and solutions work elevate support for policy change. We can study how frames affect public thinking to improve our work.
2. You are not your audience.
We have found empirically what communications professionals know intuitively: The public does not respond to scientific, fact-based, jargon-filled arguments. Environmental experts may respond to statistics about threats to the spotted owl, but the public doesn’t give a hoot. Facts alone do not help the public understand social problems or drive them to take action.
3. Facts do matter.
Do facts work at all in our “post-truth” world? The answer is a qualified “yes.” Facts do matter, but only if framed well. We have found that facts, when used in isolation, do not change how the public thinks about social issues. But when they are framed around empirically tested values or are followed by discussions of solutions, facts can have powerful effects on public thinking.
4. Correcting misunderstandings does not correct misunderstandings.
Communications that take on and discredit myths do not correct misperceptions. In fact, these logical rhetorical strategies have a paradoxical effect: They reinforce people’s existing positions and beliefs. What does work? Communications that explain why social or scientific phenomena matter, how they work, and what needs to be done to address them.
5. Crisis messaging leads to crisis fatigue.
The public is numb to crisis thanks to “emergency inflation;” focusing on the gravity and severity of problems to generate more clicks and higher ratings actually makes people see issues as less salient and positive change as impossible. We have found that messages that focus on crisis turn people off and depress their support for solutions. So instead of framing issues around phrases like “the immigration crisis” or “the silver tsunami,” create messages that balance an explanation of the problem with solutions-oriented discussions. We’ve found this to be a much better way to engage the public in social change.
This article was originally published in the Public Relations Society of America Nonprofit and Association Chapter newsletter.
Nat Kendall-Taylor is CEO of the FrameWorks Institute, a communications think tank in Washington, D.C. Allison Stevens is FrameWorks’ senior writer/editor.