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Six Common Framing Habits We Should All Seek to Break

What would it look like if we adopted a more evidence-based approach to talking about social issues? Among other things, we’d realize that a set of our communications practices should fall by the wayside. Here are six framing habits that keep us from making space for productive public dialogue.
June 1, 2017

Staying on the hill.

Focusing communications efforts narrowly on elected officials and policymakers leaves important framing tasks undone. Public thinking plays a critical role in changing policies. Unless an issue is on the public’s agenda, it’s not likely to get addressed by our representatives. In other words, we can’t win the “inside game” of direct legislative advocacy without running up the score in the “outside game” of public will-building.

To break this habitBring a broad base of the public into the conversation.

Sticking to the facts.

Offering a “just the facts” review of a social issue to convey impartiality rarely has the intended effect. This approach can take the form of a set of statistics, a list of affected groups, or a timeline of landmark legislation – but all without big ideas, value statements, or interpretation. This way of presenting information assumes that with enough information, or the right information, people will see what we want them to. What actually happens, however, is that people rely on their existing perceptions of the world to makes sense of the information we’ve presented. The data actually don’t speak for themselves. The more sparse the information, the more room there is for people to interpret it to confirm what they already believe.

To break this habitBuild people’s understanding of an issue by interpreting relevant facts.

Confronting (and repeating) oppositional views.

Directly challenging other people’s opinions is a frequently used tactic, but rarely a successful one. People are not easily shamed into changing their minds, especially when they know their views are shared by others in their social identity group. And when we repeat the thing that people already think in order to get them to move to a new idea, we are working against the way that our cognitive systems work. We can’t repeat the thing that people already believe and expect to correct it in the next sentence. When we do this, we end up strengthening the very ideas we seek to move people away from. If our goal is to widen the conversation and shift public attitudes, getting into a heated debate is not the way to go.

To break this habitInstead of repeating what you want people to forget by debating on opposing idea, stick to your message. Focus on what’s most important for people to know.

Focusing on “resonance” as our ultimate goal.

Connecting with our audience is a priority touted by public relations experts. “You have to meet people where they are,” the logic goes. When we want to redefine an issue, however, reinforcing what people already think is not an effective strategy. It may help us connect, but it hurts the goal of encouraging people to view things differently. There are plenty of way of connecting and resonating (fear for example) that actually lead people to places (fatalism, disengagement) that we don’t want them to go. Communications need to resonate in order to work, but they need to resonate in a way that aligns with our strategic goals.

To break this habitBegin with a carefully chosen point of commonalitya shared valuethat not only helps you connect, but opens people’s thinking to the new perspective you bring.

Focusing on behavior change.

Selling people on socially responsible decision-making is a technique borrowed from commercial marketing. The theory is that communicators can persuade people to quit smoking or donate blood in the same way a company persuades people to buy its brand of soap or shoes. An essential task for social advocates, however, is to help people see a problem in public, collective terms – to show that an issue can’t be solved by private, personal actions alone. Social marketing tactics aren’t designed for this, and instead often undermine the public policy conversation by keeping issues stuck at the individual level where better individual choices are all that is required to solve complex social problems. We know that this is not true and we should stay away from communication techniques that further entrench our already strong senses of individualism.

To break this habitFocus on collective actions and policies we can implement by coming together, which aren’t possible for us to achieve by making better individual decisions.

Splitting the frame.

Creating different messages for different audiences can consume a tremendous amount of energy, resources, and time. More importantly, it dilutes the impact of an effective frame. One of the strongest predictors of what people believe is the number of times they have heard it. Thus, repetition is powerful, and consistent framing is critical for large-scale social change.

To break this habitConcentrate your communications efforts on an overarching frame—one that works across multiple contexts and groups.

Some of these six habits have their roots in academic research, for example, where fact-based assessments are rewarded and it’s standard practice to engage in debate. Others were developed in electoral politics or consumer marketing – both contexts in which communicators have a finite time period in which to drive a highly specific decision. These approaches are not effective for reframing social issues, in which the timelines are long and the goal is to help an ever-widening circle of people see an aspect of our public life in a new way. By adopting an intentional, evidence-based framing strategy, we can break the habits that don’t serve our purposes – and replace them with practices that do.