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Global Interdependence Initiative
CONTINUOUS PROGRESS Better Advocacy Through Evaluation
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“We are constantly revising the messages, in terms of what seems to resonate with people at a given time.”
— Kolleen Bouchane, RESULTS

EXAMPLES

Sometimes an entire organization can “re-frame” itself, with great results for its advocacy. The World Federalist Association had worked for decades to promote a better United Nations. The organization's leadership and members re-examined their mission and vision and re-launched themselves in 2004 as Citizens for Global Solutions, “a nationwide organization that inspires America to engage the world." Read more »

Message Framing

Frames are the lenses through which people view and receive information. According to the Communication Consortium Media Center, “The way issues are packaged by means of carefully designed words and phrases, visual clues, and selection of symbolic communicators, affects how the public thinks about issues. Framing influences the perception and interpretations of media consumers and politicians alike.”

The wrong frame can make it hard for the public to see the policy solutions you support. Successful advocacy depends on how well advocates can understand how issues are currently framed by policymakers and the media, by your opponents and by your constituency. With this understanding, you can affect these frames, and in turn affect the public discourse about these issues.

Evaluating how to frame your advocacy issue

Remember that the public, media and policymakers may not be able to see the information you want them to see. As Susan Bales, president of the FrameWorks Institute, has said: “If the facts don't fit the frame, the facts get rejected, not the frame.” You may need to “re-frame” the debate or at least ensure that your information is framed as effectively and consistently as possible. And you'll want to monitor your success in framing the debate as part of your ongoing evaluation. Start by reviewing your communications with key stakeholders and analyze how your messages resonate with existing frames.

Frames communicate a great deal about their subject, and on many social issues, the ordinary listener uses the frame to draw fundamental conclusions. While a complete discussion of framing could (and frequently does) fill a book, there are some key ideas about framing that can help you move your work forward.

First, many people use frames to understand who or what is responsible for a problem. Take the phrase "tax relief," for instance. Politically, the term is regarded as masterful framing by a movement interested in reducing taxes, because it succinctly paints the difficult to erase picture of ordinary Americans suffering under the weighty yoke of taxes, and the feeling of eased pain when that burden is removed. The blame in this frame sits squarely on the shoulders of 'government.'

A short-sighted frame can cause problems. For instance, if humankind is the problem (say, in a discussion of endangered species), it is easy for some listeners to assume that you want them to choose between animals and people. Often when the public faces this kind of choice, they aren't open to your appeals.

Second, frames help a listener understand the credentials of the speaker. These are simple but powerful conclusions. People are more likely to listen to a veteran talk about military issues, and they are more likely to an educator about school issues. A speaker's credentials signal to listeners that they are talking from experience rather than just reading a script.

The most important -- and difficult to master -- aspect of framing may be what some call the "values frame." These are important signals from a messenger that say, 'I believe in these values, and I think you do, too.' Civil rights messengers can use a values frame to strike a note of inclusion and connectedness by talking about 'equal rights for all Americans.' Messages on environmental issues can speak of the importance of preserving our planet for future generations. These values-framed messages are hard to refute.

The GII has several reports available to help you with message framing.  The U.S. in the World project draws on GII research, among other sources, and offers additional detailed and practical messaging resources.

It is not simple to change people's frames in general. But you will have come a long way if you understand the frames that dominate your issue currently in use by the media, by your constituents and by policy makers. You will be on your way to planning your own messages accordingly.


TIPS

  • Make sure the message resonates! If you cannot find much research on U.S. public opinion regarding your issue, conducting a survey could be a simple and low-cost way to understand how your constituency responds to a message. If colleagues will be promoting your organization at a conference, for example, ask if they could pass out surveys to passers-by.
  • Online tools are making it easier to understand how your message resonates. For instance, many online advocacy site providers have robust tools for testing multiple messages with a subset of your constituency, allowing you to determine which messages best trigger action from your members. Using such a test will allow you to send the best message to your full list and will also help you better determine which messages you should use in the future.