Strategic framing

Consider a workshop on framing your issues to win

Strategic frame analysis refers to one of the most critical parts of political communication, one which is often ignored by progressive groups in their efforts to persuade the public that their cause is just. It has been developed in the US through collaboration between linguists, behavioural scientists and other disciplines to explain social issues to the public. According to the Frameworks Institute, one of the key organizations practicing this science: “By framing we mean how messages are encoded with meaning so that they can be efficiently interpreted in relationship to existing beliefs or ideas. Frames trigger meaning.” Framing refers to the “construct of a communication” – the way it signals to an individual “how to interpret and classify new information.”

Framing is not “spin” – it refers to the strategic construction of messages in order that they connect with people’s deeply held world views and assumptions. Framing involves a lot more than “just the facts.” Progressives passionate about their issues mistakenly believe that if people “just knew the facts” they would support our issues. But framing points out that communications is much more complex: it involves metaphors, messengers, visuals, stories, and context – as well as facts and numbers.

When people hear new information – facts – they use mental shortcuts to make sense of them. Frameworks describes this process by suggesting that we have in our heads vividly labeled storage boxes filled with images, stories and past experiences with a given issue. Framing an issue from our values perspective aims at getting people to identify our message with the storage box that contains our values – to say to themselves, yes that’s what I believe. Some existing frames are so strong that people, on hearing contrary information, will reject that information rather than reject the frame they are comfortable with.

Strategic framing also focuses on alternative framing. Policy questions are always the focus of political and ideological battle and each side will frame its arguments based on the values it espouses. The political right in the US and Canada have been very successful in framing the issues in such a way as put progressive forces on the defensive. So for the left, framing the issues usually involves reframing – that is, “changing the context of the message exchange.”

A good example of framing and reframing a critical public policy is the fight over taxes. You may have noted that the issue is often referred to in the media as “tax relief.”  This is not an accident – it is the result of right wing politicians like Stephen Harper taking the advice of framing experts working for the Republican Party in the US. The phrase frames the paying of taxes as an affliction that needs relief. Those who offer relief care about you, those who would deny relief by opposing tax cuts, are automatically framed as well: the bad guys who would keep you afflicted.

To fight this framing of taxes as negative, framing experts point out that you cannot “fight the frame.”  George Lakoff, the most prominent progressive framing practitioner in the US, wrote a short book on the subject entitled “Don’t think of an elephant.” The reasons for the odd title is simple: trying to fight an existing frame is like telling someone not to think of an elephant – as soon as you say the words, the listener immediately thinks of an elephant.

The same is true of “tax relief.” If you try to fight the frame – by saying “I am against tax relief” – you immediately invoke the frame and reinforce its effect – connecting the listener with the “storage box” that looks favourably on tax cuts. You are playing the game by your opponent’s rules. To reframe the debate you shift ground to the positive and tap into the values (a different storage box) that most citizens share – the need for tax revenue to pay for the things we need. So you could start a conversation about taxes with the statement “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” or you could use a metaphor – Canada is one of the best places in the world to live – like an exclusive club. But like all of the best clubs, the membership fee is not cheap; you get what you pay for. Or, you can reframe taxes as an investment in our children’s future.

When talking about issues we always frame them – it’s impossible not to. But if you want to win the debate, you have to frame the issues consciously and strategically, rooted in the values on which they are based. Otherwise it is like playing game with an opposing team who made up all the rules based on their strengths and your weaknesses.

If you think your organization might benefit from a workshop on strategic framing, get in touch with Murray at: mdobbin[at]

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