Toolkit for Change: How to Frame Your Message

Latest in a series on communications tips for concerned citizens.

By James Boothroyd 13 Mar 2015 | TheTyee.ca

James Boothroyd has worked as a journalist for national media in the UK and Canada, as well as on global public health campaigns for international agencies and as director of communications and public engagement for the David Suzuki Foundation. He now specializes in strategies for non-profit groups and agencies working at the intersection of public health and environmental protection.

On Monday, June 4, 2012, Stephen Harper scrambled leaders of his cabinet to fan out across the country and trumpet his government's commitment to "responsible resource development."

The goal of Harper's team was to sell the notion that resource development would create jobs and prosperity across Canada, while still protecting the environment.

The very same day, a disparate coalition comprised of environmentalists, human rights activists, unions and First Nations, also fanned out across Canada -- but with a starkly different message. Members of the coalition, dubbed the Blackout Speakout campaign, held news conferences in five cities, where they urged the federal government to withdraw its omnibus budget bill, C-38.

That bill, they argued, amounted to a frontal attack on Canadian nature and democracy.

The trumpeting ministers from Harper's government were a desperate attempt to cancel out the Blackout Speakout coalition's framing on Bill C-38. And, though the majority Conservative government would, within days, limit debate and ram the huge bill through Parliament without amendment, it soon changed its tack and tone.

Over the summer, it quietly backed away from other provocative environmental legislation and, to the surprise of observers, significantly strengthened a national strategy for the recovery of caribou populations in the boreal forest.

This U-turn reflected the heat ministers were feeling from constituents on the barbecue circuit that summer after losing a battle of duelling interpretations with opponents of the omnibus bill.

How, in a few weeks and on a modest budget, Blackout Speakout (Silence, on Parle, in French) helped win that battle and advance its arguments and those of leaders of the Opposition, illustrates how non-profit organizations and citizens can use strategic framing effectively -- even, on occasion, to challenge powerful governments and corporations.

Provides structure

In simple terms, frames of reference, or conceptual frames, are both mental structures that order our ideas and communicative tools that evoke these structures. Like the frame around a painting, they determine what information is left in and left out, and the meaning attached to messages encapsulated. Political frames, for example, affect the goals we set, the way we act and what we consider a good or bad result of our actions.

(For more on the nature of frames, a complex topic that overlaps with archetypes and metaphors, see cognitive linguist and Obama advisor George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.)

Some conceptual frames are deeply embedded in our minds, and can be applied to many different areas of knowledge. The nation as family is an embedded frame -- one few people think about -- that Hitler's National Socialists used to genocidal effect. The nurturing mother and disciplinary father are other embedded frames, or meta-frames, which can be activated to support messages across a wide range of issues.

Other frames are more obvious, specific. Death tax, greenhouse gas effect and trophy hunt are specific frames used, respectively, by fiscal conservatives, climatologists and opponents of the killing of grizzly bears. Note that trophy hunt opens a space for powerful messaging about the cruelty and disrespect of killing grizzlies -- and not eating what you kill -- more effectively than the once common frame sport hunting.

Corporations, governments and political parties spend huge sums on frames analysis, polling and focus groups to craft frames that appeal to their key demographic segments. Philanthropic foundations and major charities, to a lesser degree, also do this, because they know that however good their services or programs, they risk failure if not communicated within frames that key audiences recognize.

What, however, are penniless activists, or non-profit agencies with modest budgets, to do? The answer is "Don't despair: There's plenty you can do, without bankrupting your social enterprise or disappearing down a rabbit hole."

I'll focus on three activities: research, and self-appraisal; frames development and building capacity to use new frames; and testing and revision.

For research, begin by looking at media coverage of your issues and assess the dominant frames used. Ask your allies, funders and others for existing market research that examines the attitudes of your key audiences. Look at the frames you have been using. How well do they work for you? What core challenges do they face? Also, scrutinize your opponents' frames. How do they frame your issues, and you? Is this depiction fair and how successful is it? How could you alter your frames to weaken theirs?

Opinion researcher Angus McAllister says non-profit groups frequently confirm the frames used by their enemies. Right-wing groups often use a neglectful-parent frame in debating society's responsibility for child poverty and vulnerable youth. Too often, however, advocates play into this frame by drawing attention to heart-wrenching stories of individual children at risk. A more productive option, though this demands creativity, would be to point to systemic factors -- cuts to education and social programs, etc. -- with a systems-analysis frame, one that users of computers recognize (regardless of their political stripes).

"If your opponents portray you as idealists, reframe the debate in ways that declare you are the realists," McAllister says.

When developing frames use plain language, be brief, keep in mind the values you appeal to -- and stick to your principles. People's attitudes are shaped by the values they hold, and one needs to be careful to appeal to values that are consistent with the long-term aims of your cause. Environmental groups that speak only to a person's pocketbook -- buy this green product, win a cruise to the Antarctic! -- risk strengthening the materialist, self-centred values that undermine the cause. More on this in next week's column, about storytelling and messages.

When you have developed a new frame, don't forget to give your communications staff, and ideally all staff, an opportunity to practice using it, and fashion strong messages to fit. You might also want to look for powerful sponsors of your frame. This could be a single mother in your office with hard-won experience of your issue, or someone with a high profile. Clara Hughes, probably Canada's most distinguished Olympian, is a powerful sponsor of a "silence-kills" frame in the campaign against the stigmatization of mental illness.

Develop your frame

Testing new frames can begin simply. Invite six friends from a variety of backgrounds to supper and ask for feedback. Or test slightly different versions of your new frame and messages in your next digital or direct mail blast to supporters. Those with surnames beginning with the first 13 letters of the alphabet get version one, and so on. No time for this? Talk to allies, funders and others in the know for their take on your campaign frame? Such tactics will not generate scientific or representative data, but, blended with your own knowledge of audiences and issues, they should allow you to strengthen your frames, and connect with targeted groups.

The Blackout Speakout campaign did not benefit from any dedicated market research or frame development. Instead, it relied on existing research and the working knowledge of communications directors of eight leading Canadian environmental groups, and a good campaign-consulting firm. Organizers had six weeks to pull the whole thing off for under $40,000 (not including staff-time).

The first 10 days were devoted to finding a good frame. Above all, it would have to challenge, credibly, the federal government's "responsible resource development" rhetoric and highly negative framing of environmentalists. It was April, and for four months, the Conservatives and their allies in industry and the media had been hammering away at environmental groups, framing them as "foreign-funded, radicals," agents of San Francisco billionaires, enemies of Canada.

Taking a risk, the Blackout Speakout campaign framed Bill C-38 as an attack on core Canadian values: The protection of nature and democracy. Supporters were asked to black out their websites on "Black Monday," June 4, and direct all traffic to a campaign landing page.

Here, viewers were directed to background briefings on the budget bill, shown a list of hundreds of partners and invited to take action.

The main concern of organizers was that this mainly digital campaign might be perceived as too negative. Those that offer hope and solutions often fare better. Positive would not work for Bill C-38, however, so Blackout Speakout stuck to its guns, and worked to drum up support. An extraordinary coalition began to take shape: national trade unions, human rights and social justice groups, First Nations, artists and businesses. Eventually, more than 630 partners formally signed on.

This was newsworthy, and Opposition parties and national media soon echoed concerns about the negative impacts of the bill on nature and democracy. When a former Progressive Conservative fisheries minister, one of four former fisheries ministers to lend their voices, appeared at a Blackout Speakout news conferences on June 4, print and broadcast media turned out in numbers, and the campaign's framing of Bill C-38 trended in social media.

The victory was only partial, of course, as the government passed its legislation, and that fall passed another toxic omnibus budget bill, C-45. But its "responsible resource development" frame -- if not replaced -- ceded ground to a powerful emergent frame that emphasizes nature and democracy as Canadian values, which governments disrespect at their peril.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics,


We're proud to announce that James Boothroyd, the author of this series, will teach a Tyee Master class this spring. His class, "Strategic Frames and Messaging Demystified," will help campaign and communications managers understand how strategic frames and messaging work. James will show attendees how to craft frames and messages to reach target audiences -- and key media -- and advance social change, without spending a million on market research.Participants will also have time to workshop their own frames and messages and get feedback from James and fellow attendees. The class takes place Saturday, April 11 in Vancouver. Find out all the details here.

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