Building a Better Frame

*I’m still on maternity leave, and, so, reposting some of my favorite posts from the last two years of Classroom to Capitol. I’ve tried to pick out a mix of those that attracted a lot of attention at the time and those that are just personally meaningful to me (and, I hope, to some of you!), and I’ve also updated them, in some cases, with some new questions and information. Thank you for your patience as I dedicate myself to full-time motherhood for a few more weeks!

Speaking two languages has been very helpful to me in many aspects of my life, and my social work practice. Certainly I could have never been an organizer and advocate within the Latino immigrant community without being fluent in Spanish. And now, even removed from that community on a daily basis, I find abundant opportunities to use my Spanish, not just to interpret while waiting in line at the pharmacy to pick up medicine for a sick kid (although that happens quite regularly), but also because there are so many things that can be said more eloquently or emphatically in one language than another. My husband, who doesn’t speak much Spanish, has fully accepted these idioms in our family life.

But speaking another language has also been helpful for me in my thinking about language itself, how we communicate, and how messages gain resonance and power. It helps me to think about how people are excluded from power by virtue of what their history or social place hasn’t provided them in terms of context. And it helps me to think about how we can use language to accomplish the kinds of shifts in public opinion and understanding that we need in order to push forward a social agenda more consistent with social work values.

A few months ago, I participated in an advocacy training session on media and messaging. While they are connected for the sake of calendar simplicity, they’re of course quite separate exercises (or should be!). In order to succeed in messaging, we must learn to see media coverage as just what it is–the media through which our established frames can seek dominance in the realm of ideas. Those health care advocates, and, indeed, many of us, are sometimes baffled by the ways in which our accepted frames fail to gain real traction in the common discourse about a certain issue. Often, it’s because we haven’t paid enough attention to how people are already talking about something, or because our messages aren’t framed in such a way as to resonate beyond our own circles. I strongly believe that we have to get better at this. Those of us who are committed to redressing such ills as growing income inequality, rising child poverty, sustained pockets of economic desperation, entrenched injustices for women, people of color, and other groups in society are still not winning the critically important battle for ideas, and this is where we need to focus our energy, in the same way that those opposed to our interests have invested decades and millions of dollars in shaping the way that we think, and talk, about the social problems we face.

An example to convince you of the importance, and then some lessons on framing.

If I would have mentioned ‘the death tax’ 20 years ago, you would have had no idea what I was talking about. “Taxing death?” “Who would do that, and why?” “What on earth do you mean?” Here again, if you were not familiar with English, you would be similarly confused–trying to translate ‘the death tax’ into Spanish is an unsatisfactory exercise. But, indeed, ‘the death tax’ is precisely how the conversation was shaped about the tax on the largest U.S. inheritances, giving this very rational, and modestly progressive, public policy a taint that suggests that the long arm of the U.S. government is reaching into the pocketbooks of the dead and grabbing their last dimes in a final insult. A truly successful adventure in framing, and one that should serve as a challenge for us–how can we ensure that social work values similarly pervade public discourse on a host of issues, from tax policy to economic support for low-income families to child welfare to health care to HIV/AIDS to immigration?

Some of my thoughts, some of which have been sparked by my reading of expert framers like George Lakoff:

1. Don’t use the ‘other side’s’ language—it picks a frame
2. Framing=using language that fits your worldview (so you have to know what this worldview is)
3. Framing has to be about ideas, not just words (if not, you’re just coming up with soundbites, and that’s always going to come up short–our challenge is to use words to shape how people think, not just how they talk–although changing how they talk is a good place to start)
4. People think in frames, not facts—if your facts don’t fit your frame, they won’t believe your facts, but once your frame is accepted, everything you say within that is ‘just common sense’—the battle is won!
5. With framing, your goal is to activate your model/frame among those in the middle (you’ll never convince your extreme opponent, and with your nearest allies, all you need is media to carry your message to them–they’re already predisposed to believe it!)
6. When we lack a clear frame (especially progressives), we overcompensate with extra words—this is a sign of weakness and partially explains why we lose; social workers are particularly notorious for this, because we can always ‘see all sides of an issue’–that’s nice, but framing is not the time or the place for nuances; we need to pick a frame and stick with it!
7. We win when we talk about values and connect with others’ core values without having to sacrifice our own frame in pursuit of common ground. If they get you to abandon your frame, they will have won even if you win the tangible victory (b/c frames shift thinking and attitudes, which is what wins over the long term)
8. Start with values, not facts or issues–we have to find a place to connect (family, liberty, justice…and then how does your particular frame on this issue fit those values?)
9. Repetition, repetition, repetition—people won’t remember where they heard it, but they’ll remember it! (Think of the Doublemint Gum commercials or any parallel from your youth–in framing as in marketing, you get no bonus points for innovation, only for dominance)
10. When interacting with media, always reframe to your perspective before answering—if you answer in their frame, you won’t even have a chance to communicate your real message. Midwesterners have a particularly hard time with this, so you may need to practice this so that it doesn’t feel rude or unduly awkward. Remember, they have to print/quote/use something, so if you only say things that are consistent with your frame, then that will come through by default!
11. Build stocks of effective stories with your frame built in, and work them into every opportunity to talk about the issue–every example you give and every picture you paint with your words needs to be pulling people towards the same, common frame.

I want to hear–what, in your opinion, are the most important frames in public discourse about the social problem(s) that are your particular focus? Who is responsible for driving them? How might you reframe where needed? Do you have a social problem with which you’re especially struggling with a frame? Leave it in the comments and we’ll think together about how you might frame it!

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2 responses to “Building a Better Frame

  1. Pingback: Four Years in Retrospect | Classroom to Capitol

  2. Pingback: Anniversary Week: Your favorites! | Classroom to Capitol

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