Framing framing

I’ve sensed lately that how people understand the role of framing in our communications has got a bit confused, and that I’ve probably helped bring some of that confusion about.

What is framing? One of leading proponents of framing, Professor George Lakoff has said that:

‘Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry out policies. To change our frames is to change all of this. Framing is social change.’ 

Hence how we talk about the issues we care about and the change we seek has a profound effect on what people understand, imagine and feel to be important, desirable or feasible. It pays therefore to pay attention to framing in the way we communicate. If we don’t, our messages can actually direct the way people think and feel away from the ideas, change or values that we need them to support, including by confirming the way our ‘opponents’ (or people who do not share our views and ideas) presently frame the issues.

Based on extensive evidence, one established rule of communicating persuasively is to match our articulation of current problems with a sense of viable solutions. When we fail to do this we risk fostering despondency and fatalism. While the sense of urgency and gravity we create might help foster a sense of ‘something must be done’ in the short term, a lack of possibility can quickly see that dissipate in a resigned ‘nothing can be done.’ Yet charity campaigns and communications still tend towards ‘catastophising’, absent any sense of the possibility for change.

The important point here though is that framing is not about just being positive. We can frame the way we talk about problems and an important part of doing so successfully is to talk about how things would look if the problems were fixed and the solutions that will take us there. Compare the following advertisements by the NSPCC, the first part of its famous ‘full stop campaign’, the second, Alfie the Astronaut, following framing research:

What’s notable about Alfie the Astronaut is the way it still brings into view child abuse, but it places the accent on recovery and NSPCC’s role therein, while using a universal frame of children having big dreams (and of recovery allowing them to dream again). It is a positive message, but it does not shy away from describing the problem. Does it make us care more, or less than watching the graphic violence depicted in the full stop ad? Does it leave us with a greater or lesser sense of agency? What feelings have the two videos left you with?

The point about framing is first and foremost to make sure that the stories people hear from us – through their own perception, understanding and feelings – match those we intended for them to hear, see, understand and feel, and crucially that they motivate people to do the things we want them to do, or to support. As well as giving a sense of possibility, clearly framing the causes is crucial too, otherwise we leave people to their default thinking, which often misattributes social problems to bad luck, lack of individual effort, or in the case of disability or people living with health conditions, to their bodies and minds alone, not the world in which we live.

The content we create based on framing still has to be creative, novel and engaging. It has to reach our audiences and move them to do something. It is competing for attention, whether we are trying to raise donations or advocate for policy reform. Framing is just one part of the process, not the process.

But it does challenge us to ask what it is we want people to believe, think, feel or do before we concern ourselves with the potentiality for clicks, shares, mentions, opportunities to see, sign ups and so on. As Anat Shenker Osorio has said, effective communication:

‘isn’t about saying what’s popular. It’s about making popular what needs to be said’

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