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Framing in the field: A case study

This case study of FrameWorks Institute's ten-year engagement with the Kids Count Network illustrates how child and youth policy advocates are using Strategic Frame Analysis to craft effective messages that support their policy goals.

Diane Benjamin
May 7, 2010

Framing in the field: A case study

CHILD AND YOUTH POLICY ADVOCATES are constantly called on to craft messages to support better policies for children and their families locally and nationally. Whether working on health improvements, early childhood education, child abuse and neglect prevention, after-school programs, juvenile justice reform, or poverty reduction, they share a need for strong, effective messages that support their policy goals. Strategic Frame Analysis can inform the day-to-day practice of child policy advocates by bringing an evidence-based communications approach to their work.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation acknowledged this need among its national Kids Count Network and has partnered with the Frame Works Institute for more than ten years, bringing the lessons of Strategic Frame Analysis to this national network of data-driven projects that track the status of children.

Don Crary, Kids Count state coordinator at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, says that advocacy groups traditionally have considered the mechanics of communications (how to write a press release, how to host a press conference) but have given little con­sideration to developing awareness of how people will understand and process the information they are receiving: “Everything an advocacy group does is impacted by what frame you’re working within. However, every issue will be framed; either you give it a frame, or people will frame it out of their own thinking.”

Ten years of affiliation with the Kids Count Network has allowed the Frame Works Institute a rare opportunity to focus on expand­ing, over time, the communications competence of a stable network of child advocates. For the first few years of this engagement, FrameWorks did what is typical of most communications firms: workshops on issue-based communications research, the creation of framing digests on topics of interest to the network, and one-­on-one technical assistance focused on Strategic Frame Analysis theory, technique, and application. We then moved to providing Kids Count projects with examples and analyses of framing chil­dren’s issues in the news as a way of demonstrating the role com­munications could play in their own advocacy work, and offering opportunities for discussions of communications research and fram­ing practice between the network and FrameWorks staff. Over time it became clear that we had developed a core group of committed communications practitioners within the Kids Count Network who, as veterans of FrameWorks trainings and resources, could begin to form an informal peer network to address common communications challenge. We then instituted a multipronged approach that our technical assistance evaluations suggested was necessary to expand the core capacity of the network as a whole and continue to advance the Strategic Frame Analysis curriculum for those more consistently engaged in applying strategic framing to their advocacy work. A further challenge was that staff turnover within state projects required us to regularly revisit framing fun­damentals with some while continuing to offer advanced training to others. We continued to provide workshops and Webinars to acquaint the entire network with new framing research pertinent to data-based child advocacy, but also assisted a handful of state projects that had long-term policy initiatives under way in more coordinated and extended technical assistance engagements with FrameWorks’ field-building staff.

What follows are examples of the application of strategic framing from two of the state projects that have had the opportunity for extended technical assistance and have made the commitment to strategic framing practice across their work as child advocates.

Linda O’Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth and the Tennessee Kids Count grantee, has used FrameWorks materials and technical assistance for more than a decade. When asked what is most valuable from this approach, she states that it helps her “focus on the common values that peo­ple have on outcomes for children, whether we’re conservative or liberal, that we all can agree on.”

The Tennessee Commission has depended on framing research for its annual Kids Count reports. For example, while writing the 2006 “Blueprint for the Success of Children in Tennessee” report, staff were aware of FrameWorks’ research showing that people have difficulty understanding the environments that either hinder or support child and youth development (a finding reported in the articles in this volume by Kendall-Taylor and by Manuel regarding the institute’s research on public understanding of early childhood issues).[1] Thus, they chose to incorporate this research by focusing the text of the report on the infrastructure, systems, and structures that make the state successful. This is in contrast to simply report­ing on a set of dismal facts about child and youth problems and let­ting readers draw their own conclusions about solutions. They also incorporated values and simplifying models from FrameWorks’ research on child and youth development to offer readers a clari­fying story of how stable, responsive early environments help chil­dren grow. They continued this focus in subsequent publications, including the next year’s report, “Opportunity for All Children in Tennessee,” and in recent newsletter articles addressing state bud­get cuts. O’Neal notes that as her project has become more con­sistent about using this research-based approach, the public communications of the commission have reflected this research-­based approach.[2]

A new Kids Count Network member, the Social Science Research Center at Mississippi State University, completed inten­sive technical assistance with FrameWorks staff in early 2009 to better frame its statewide data book, promotional video, and kick­off event associated with the release of the data book. The center originally conceived of the data book and accompanying video as a chance to showcase individual projects throughout the state that were making a difference in the lives of low-income children and youth. As is true of many fact-based reports, its data cataloguing problems and trends were not well aligned with the policy solutions staff sought to promote. The final product began with an intro­duction that laid the groundwork for understanding child and youth development as essential to the future prosperity of the state.[3] Since FrameWorks’ research also shows that the public tends to view parents as solely responsible for either the success or fail­ure of children and youth,[4] the accompanying stories were rewrit­ten to highlight structures and environments as much as possible and the video was edited to reinforce those messages. Linda South­ward, Mississippi Kids Count director, had this to say about the experience: “FrameWorks has given us a new perspective on deter­mining the best ways we can use data. They really helped us zero in on the interconnectedness of various systems and how those sys­tems working together can create positive results for children and communities. We were able to highlight success stories around our state and frame those in ways that we think can begin to get trac­tion for some positive movement.”

Southward believes that incorporating strategic message fram­ing into the work of child advocacy is absolutely critical: “If you don’t get the message out there in the ways that decision/policy makers can understand how critical these issues are in children’s lives, then you are going down the wrong road.”

With the continued support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, FrameWorks has created a large body of resources to meet the needs of child advocates, including a series of written framing guide­lines, a workshop on framing basics, downloadable Webinars on specific frame elements, a comprehensive issue framing manual, and a series of online framing digests on various framing challenges and strategies. These tools reach far beyond the Kids Count Network itself to benefit many additional local and national advocates, policymakers, funders, and community. leaders. But it is certainly the individual technical assistance opportunities, which the foundation supports each year, that offer the best examples of how hands-on teaching and framing pedagogy can change the course of advocates’ communications practice. And it is precisely FrameWorks’ experi­ence with the Kids Count Network, and our constant assessment and evaluation of the resources and tools we provide, that supplied the data allowing us to reflect on how and what to teach, how and what works, and why it works. These data were invaluable in Frame­Works’ creation of a core curriculum for framing practice (see Fein­berg’s article in this volume).

With the continued support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Kids Count projects are making the best use of evidence-based communications opportunities to improve the well-being of Amer­ica’s children and families and have provided a consistent commu­nity of learners that have significantly informed FrameWorks’ evolving field-building practice.

  1. See FrameWorks Institute. (2005). Talking early child development and exploring the consequences of frame choices: A FrameWorks message memo. Washington, DC: Frame Works Institute; Frame Works Institute. (2001). Reframing youth issues for public understanding and support: A Frame Works mes­sage memo. Washington, DC: Frame Works Institute.
  2. See, for example, O’Neal, L. (2009). Partnerships boost family policies. Retrieved August 24, 2009, from­IONOl/908120365/1008/Partnerships+boost+family+policies.
  3. Manuel, T. (2 009). Refining the core story of early childhood development: The effects of science and health frames. Washington, DC: Frame Works Institute.
  4. See Aubrun, A., & Grady, J. (2003). Two cognitive obstacles to preventing child abuse: The “other mind” mistake and the ”family bubble.” Washington, DC: Frame Works Institute; Frameworks Institute. (2001, 2005).