An economic recession is a moment when change is inevitable – for better or for worse. We can use our communications power to shape this change.
On the road to economic recovery, we can anticipate some of the framing challenges that we’ll encounter. We’ll meet fatalism: when things are bad, we’ll be told they can’t be any different. We will encounter zero-sum thinking in the form of the idea that since there isn’t enough to go around, tough choices must be made and some needs just can’t be met. Some voices will fuel division and discord by emphasizing winners and losers, casting economic policy choices in us vs. them terms.
If we don’t strategically counteract these ways of thinking, they will undermine the very idea of a more inclusive, more equitable, and more sustainable future.
This means that the way we talk about the economy is of vital importance.
We need to be prepared to disrupt these toxic narratives without rushing in to rebut them. When we rebut toxic narratives, we repeat and reinforce them. Rebutting also traps us within limiting frames that others have put forward. This forfeits opportunities to advance our most important ideas.
The alternative is to offer compelling frames that advance our long-term policy goals, even as we respond to immediate conditions. Periods of economic distress never end soon enough – but they do end. As we make choices about how to position our issues during a difficult moment, we must also think about the long term effects of our frames.
This is easier said than done. Fortunately, framing research can help steer us away from traps and toward stories we want to inherit after the economy recovers.
Traps are communication practices that seem plausible and logical, but that actually fall flat, or worse, have the opposite of our intended effect. Here are three traps in framing social issues during a period of economic distress.
Trap #1: positioning “the economy” as an end in itself.
We are all immersed in a running stream of messages about “the economy.” The sheer repetition of this phrase makes it easy to think of “it” as an overarching goal that deserves our exclusive attention and can command whatever measure of pain or sacrifice “it” requires.
We shouldn’t accept – or suggest – that our choices must always and only be in service of the economy. When we talk about the economy as the thing we’re trying to improve, we hide the people it involves. This makes it hard to focus on how our collective choices affect people, and affect different people in varying – and often inequitable – ways.
Trap #2: positioning “the economy” as a force beyond our control.
People think of the economy as a natural system – evolved over time, indifferent to human concerns, and outside of human control. With this comes the idea that “free markets” can’t, and shouldn’t, be influenced by policy. This makes it hard to see that governments, through intentional policies, already and always shape economic activity.
During a true crisis, there are certainly events beyond our collective control. Yet, in such a moment, it is dangerous to reinforce the idea that the economy is disconnected from human decisions. When this narrative flourishes, it hides what the powerful do to maintain their position.
Avoid language that suggests that the economy is a force that operates on its own. Natural metaphors like cliffs, waves, and aftershocks are likely to reinforce the idea that what’s happening in the economy is wholly beyond our control. Avoid passive-voice phrasing (such as “the jobs numbers went up” or “housing stocks are in decline”); it leaves the impression that institutions and trends move on their own.
Take care, too, when translating economic data visualizations into language. Most people can’t picture – or don’t understand – graphs that experts take for granted. For the public, talk of spikes and plunges bring a roller-coaster to mind. This undermines the idea that we can actively manage the economy.
Trap #3: suggesting we must choose between “the economy” and something else.
Don’t pit the economy against other issues, like the environment. Given that humans are hard-wired to put immediate concerns over longer-term ones, the environment won’t win. Take care, too, when framing policy options as choices. Mutually-exclusive contrasts (like right vs. wrong) force people to choose a side. This type of framing runs the obvious risk that people might choose the “other” side. Also, most people want to stay out of rhetorical conflicts, preferring discourse that is inclusive. When we frame issues as stark either-or options, we alienate many people from the conversation altogether.
In better times, there is little reason for the public, policymakers, or the media to unpack our economic set-up or its impacts. During an economic downturn, however, stimulus packages, budget choices, and related policies put the economy at the center of public conversation. This salience gives us an opening to reframe the issue – to change the way it is presented so that people make new or different connections, and our policies make new or different commitments. Here are three ways we can match our messages to a moment of economic distress, and move through it to a more inclusive, more equitable arrangement of resources.
Reframe #1: Make the story about what people need, not what “the economy” needs.
To gain support for people-first recovery polices, we must foreground people’s needs – for wellbeing, for security, for dignity – and talk about how collective decisions affect those outcomes. Instead of making the economy an end in itself, we can show that the economy is a means to an end – a way to meet people’s needs.
As we center people’s needs, we can also center people’s voices. The experiences of people affected by policy decisions are important and powerful contributions to the conversation. But the way stories, experiences, and voices are presented is enormously important.
We have a built-in tendency to attribute the outcomes of a story to actions of the main characters in it. This makes it easy for us to see happy endings as the result of individual willpower and to blame hardship on bad choices. To avoid having personal stories activate judgement or perpetuate stigma, we need to include signposts that point people to the meaning we hope they’ll take away.
There are many ways we can signal how people’s experiences are connected to a broader context. We can include an explicit statement that a particular person’s experience reflects shared, widespread conditions. We can identify root causes when we highlight unacceptable effects. And we can clearly show where sources of information or support were available, or where they were absent.
Reframe #2: Highlight the policy-level decisions that shape economic outcomes.
As social change communicators, we have an important role in helping people understand the interplay between larger forces and their everyday lives. To fulfill it, we need to make the role of public policy and government decisions more vivid and concrete – especially when it comes to the economy, which we tend to picture as moving in mysterious ways.
We can demonstrate that economic arrangements are planned, created, and continuously maintained through human decisions and actions. One way to do this is at the level of word choice and sentence structure: make people, not the economy, the subjects of sentences. Name specific types of people who participate in, and shape, economic activity (workers, investors, leaders, company owners, lobbyists, lawmakers, researchers, regulators). At the level of examples or stories, show how policy decisions affect what people or organizations can or can’t do. Show how past economic policy decisions are creating problems now, leaving more people more susceptible to harm than if we had designed the system differently. Talk about what we can do, through policy, to manage economic problems and to meet people’s needs.
Firmly link abstract concepts to people’s lives and experiences by using down-to-earth vocabulary to discuss economic activities. Talk about interactions people recognize – work, wages, buying, selling, saving, loaning – rather than expecting expert terms like labor markets or consumer activity to carry meaning.
Reframe #3: Show that change is urgent, necessary, and possible.
In a moment of economic distress, we need to inspire immediate action and foster a far-sighted, generous response. To do this, we need to balance urgency (“we have a problem”) with efficacy (“we can solve it.”) In this way, we offer people both a reason to engage in collective action and hope that it will work.
Explaining problems is essential to solving them – but dwelling on them doesn’t work. When talking about problems, we should spend more time on their causes than their effects. This helps people see why policy intervention makes sense, and where to target action.
Make the possibility of solutions come alive. Explain, in clear, step-by-step fashion, how policies being considered now would help create an economic system that better meets people’s needs going forward.
To make the case for major policy change, we need to talk about it in terms that put it within reach. Take care with words that imply a complete break with the past – like overhaul, transformation, or revolution – as people struggle to believe that change at this scale is realistic. Use motivating “hands-on” verbs like remaking, remodeling, redesigning, and reprogramming.
This article is adapted from two previous FrameWorks publications: a 2009 article titled Strategic Messaging Framing During the Economic Downturn: Remembering the Long View and a 2020 newsletter, ‘Framing the Post-Pandemic Economy.’