The FrameWorks Institute: Changing the Conversation about Policy Problems

Traditional communication campaigns seek to raise awareness, change behavior, or change policy. The FrameWorks Institute, in contrast, seeks to fundamentally reframe how Americans understand social issues, and through this new understanding change institutional actions and policies.


Tiffany Manuel, director of Institutional Impact and Evaluation at the FrameWorks Institute, spoke last week at American University about the organization's unique and ambitious approach to research and strategy. Trina Stout reports in a guest post.--Matthew Nisbet.

What is Framing?

When people think of framing or reframing, said Manuel, they typically think of spin, or wordsmithing -- manipulative semantic trickery whereby a group uses whichever words will get the most people to agree with their position.

Wordsmithing and spin are not framing, Manuel stressed. Effective framing is about much more than words; it’s about cultural values.

FrameWorks defines a frame as “The way a story is told -- its selective use of particular values, symbols, metaphors, and messengers -- which, in turn, triggers the shared and durable cultural models that people use to make sense of their world.”

Yet traditional thinking and approaches still dominates most polling and messaging efforts, argued Manuel. Communication campaigns use polling, focus groups, and surveys to identify favorable topics or trends, and then create their messages around those trends.

The advantage of this method is that it can provide ways for the public to connect to your message top-of-mind. The disadvantage is that it’s reactionary; you have to wait for a trend to come along. It’s also superficial and temporary -- people can be distracted or easily steered in the opposing direction by focusing events and rival campaigns. Values-based framing is more permanent and enduring, argued Manuel.

How to Frame an Issue Effectively

FrameWorks draws from the cognitive sciences in their work, taking advantage of how the brain naturally works.

 A well-framed issue should move from the abstract to the specific, because that’s how the brain processes information.

  • Start with a value: What is at stake?
  • Describe the issue: What is this about?
  • Introduce the solution: How would policy help?
  • Manuel outlined FrameWorks’ six steps to reframing:

    1.      Explain the issue in a way that redirects people away from the default cultural model(s).

    2.      Identify values that make societal, not individual goals, obvious.

    3.      Create simplifying models that better explain how your issue works.

    4.      Provide metal shortcuts for ease of comprehension. Mental shortcuts include values, context, metaphors, numbers, visuals, tone, and messengers.

    5.      Explain the consequences of inaction.

    6.      Show how policy can be a solution.

    An Example: Breaking the Early Childhood Bubble Frame

    A cultural model is the way the public thinks about an issue. In the example Manuel gave, the issue was early childhood development, and the dominant cultural model was the “family bubble,” the idea that for children under age five, development is the responsibility of the parents. People operating from this model will not support policies like subsidized pre-kindergarten programs.

    The model that FrameWorks wanted to activate was “brain architecture,” the idea that from birth to age five, the human brain is developing the foundation upon which all future learning and function will rest, impacting academic performance, employability, and ultimately, the competitiveness of the national workforce.

    A framed message activates a cultural model in a person’s mind, creating a train of thought that shapes opinions and judgments. This process happens in milliseconds, so it is important to know what the cultural models are, and to stay away from the troublesome ones. It is therefore necessary to conduct research to discover the cultural models around your issue.

    Can the FrameWorks Model Work for Every Issue?

    Manuel observed that nonprofits often approach social change using an individualized, episodic strategy, which tends to result in individualized solutions, instead of more effective systemic solutions. FrameWorks, rather than targeting different audiences for short-term behavior, political, or legislative goals, looks for shared cultural narratives to completely reframe how Americans think about social issues.

    What do you think? Can all issues be framed in a way that transcends our differences, especially our political differences? Are there times when individualized, episodic solutions are the best we can do?

    --Guest post by Trina Stout, a graduate student at American University's School of Communication. Before graduate school, she worked for the environmental news and humor site Grist.

    See also:

     Study: Re-Framing Climate Change as a Public Health Issue

    Study: In Communicating about Nano and GMOs, Do the Frames or the Facts Matter?

    Researcher Reflects on Political Communication and Why Frames Are More Powerful Than Facts

    AGU Workshop on Communicating Climate Change: Media, Dialogue, and Public Engagement

    Available Articles and Resources:

     Frameworks Institute: Changing the Conversation about Social Problems: A Beginner's Guide to Strategic Frame Analysis

    Nisbet, M.C. (2009). Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter to Public Engagement. Environment, 51 (2), 514-518. (HTML).

    Nisbet, M.C. & Scheufele, D.A. (2009). What's Next for Science Communication? Promising Directions and Lingering Distractions. American Journal of Botany, 96 (10), 1767-1778. (PDF)

    Maibach, E., Nisbet, M.C. et al. (2010). Reframing Climate Change as a Public Health Issue: An Exploratory Study of Public Reactions. BMC Public Health 10: 299 (HTML).

    Nisbet, M.C. (2009).  Knowledge Into Action:  Framing the Debates Over Climate Change and Poverty.  In P. D'Angelo & J. Kuypers, Doing News Framing Analysis:  Empirical, Theoretical, and Normative Perspectives.  New York: Routledge. [Link]

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