From the Framing Fail Files, or How to Reinforce Your Opposition’s Frame

This op-ed authored by a state representative running for re-election is absolutely delicious from a framing perspective. It might just be the best example I’ve seen of how not to frame. Period.

First, the author squanders an opportunity to advance her own frame by reinforcing her opposition’s. She doesn’t just briefly restate the claims she wishes to refute, she willingly relinquishes over 200 words of her op-ed space to quite vividly reconstruct what the opposition is saying about her.  Read the beginning few paragraphs and ask yourself, “What am I now thinking about this candidate and her views on the environment?”


SCARBOROUGH – Now I know how it feels to have your character assassinated.

On Sept. 18, the Press Herald ran an article describing how I was named to a national “Dirty Dozen” list by the League of Conservation Voters (“Conservation group names Scarborough lawmaker to ‘Dirty Dozen'”). The story declared that I was one of “the most anti-environmental state-level candidates in the country.”

Maureen Drouin, Maine League of Conservation Voters president, was quoted as saying, “Rep. Sirocki has voted to damage our environment and natural resources at every turn.”

Then she got to her real point, stating, “There has never been a more urgent need to defeat politicians who stand with corporate polluters and oppose vital environmental safeguards.” She has planned a direct mail campaign into my district.

Then Hannah Pingree got into the act. The former Democratic House Speaker sent out a fundraising letter to “help us hold right-wing Republicans, like Rep. Sirocki, accountable for these dangerous votes.”

Democratic candidates, she wrote, “are working hard to ensure that extreme members, like Heather Sirocki, don’t have the opportunity to vote to weaken environmental protections ever again.”

Given the near-hysterical tone of these comments, you might think I personally went around the state poisoning wells and bulldozing sand dunes.

She then goes on to argue with “facts” in a similarly antagonistic tone:

My real “crime,” however, was voting against the league on 10 cherry-picked bills they selected for its legislative “scorecard.”

She suggests the League has a “hidden agenda,” says their “motives are mysterious,” and characterizes wind and solar as (her quotes), “green” energy sources.

Perhaps the biggest fail is that she never clearly articulates what her views on environmental conservation are. Instead, she stays in the weeds for the remainder of the piece, clarifying her stances on particular bills and, in her closing paragraph, offering claims about collateral damage caused by wind projects.

If I’m a voter, I have a very clear picture of what a non-profit environmental conservation group has said about her views, have evidence of an argumentative approach, and am not exactly clear what she believes or values. She would have been far better off writing an op-ed that advances her views on important environmental issues facing the state. Classic framing fail.

Read the entire piece here


On framing for emotional connection: portraits v landscapes

I came across a delightful video of local musicians from Portland, Maine that was made in honor of Playing for Change Day, a global initiative promoting music education. In it, local artists and music students are filmed (by local filmmakers!) in different locations around the city, singing a beautiful and, if I do say so myself, terribly catchy tune. [the video is embedded at the end of the post]

Why am I writing about a music video on an advocacy communications blog?

Because it made me think about the power of emotions in forming impressions, something I spend a lot of time helping advocates sort out how to do effectively in their communications materials and campaigns.

A typical strategy in social issue communications is to “hook” people or get them to “emotionally connect” with an issue by telling a personal story of someone affected by, e.g.,  poverty, lack of health insurance, etc . As I’ve written before, this strategy tends to backfire because drawing a portrait obscures the landscape of situational and structural factors at play.

It struck me that this video has no problem with making an emotional connection, but it doesn’t depend on the portrait strategy. It certainly could have – it was crafted to honor a day of social action to bring music into the lives of children. One can imagine the creators opting for a personal story of a child who benefited from a particular music education program.

But the creators opted instead to characterize a landscape. The video emotionally connects by evoking values of creativity, collaboration, of mentoring young people. Further, by connecting these values quite explicitly to place, not just Portland writ large but its specific neighborhoods, parks, schools and local businesses, it communicates that these are the values we share, this is who we are. This is the landscape here.

Advocates often tell me they worry that widening the lens to show context will sacrifice emotional appeal. But landscapes aren’t impersonal, they can reflect culture. And culture is deeply felt.

I hope this video helps advocates think about other creative ways to frame the landscape – who we are as citizens and how we want to envision ourselves. Because that is really at the heart of effective issue communications.

Oh, and get this – this video was posted just a few days ago and has received over 11,000 views!

Shout out to the Maine Academy of Modern Music and its partners for this terrific work.

How not to tell a social change story: Make it personal!

Today on the front page of the NYTimes is the embodiment of how NOT to tell a social change story* about class:  Two classes: Divided by ‘I Do’.  The thesis? Unmarried households are increasingly the norm and may affect the future of children. Readers are told a compelling story of the personal histories and daily lives of two women, one married and doing well, one single and struggling to keep herself and her children out of poverty. For those framing social problems with the hopes of improving support for public policy, this kind of storytelling is not only ineffective, it is likely to hurt your efforts.

Why? Because we are far more likely to think about personal causes when making sense of others’  problems or behaviors.  In other words, we are more likely to blame individuals for their fates than we are to generate situational explanations for their actions or problems.  As Skitka et al. explain,

“personal attributions are the default or automatic inference people make for the causes of others’ behavior, and these inferences are only corrected when people have sufficient cognitive resources and motivation to do so…” p. 485.

So, when the only view into a problem we have is someone’s life story, it reinforces this tendency toward personal explanations.

And you want to know something else? There seem to be partisan differences in the tendency to make personal attributions about political issues, with conservatives tending to blame poverty on self-indulgence, and liberals tending to blame poverty on unjust social practices and structures (see Skitka et al., above; but also Haidt, J. 2012). This particular story aligns perfectly with values of individual responsibility and self-reliance, which are strongly endorsed by conservatives. There is virtually nothing explicit in the story to suggest anything structural is a cause – liberals might connect those structural dots in their heads given their tendency to consider social justice, but from a framing perspective, those dots are implicit, most people won’t see them.

What might issue experts who communicate about complex social problems learn from this?  You need to give your audience a reason to reconsider the default tendency toward personal explanations, and to think about situational explanations.

In the Times story, the author does not provide us with any motivation to consider situational explanations for the life course of this single mother. In fact, she is quoted as saying she blames herself for the “choices” she’s made. In addition,  the author makes little more than passing reference to the father of her three children, and notes that, “She has had little contact with the children’s father and receives no child support.” If this were a draft of a piece written by a low-income advocacy organization and I were asked to provide feedback, I would recommend giving readers more information about that state of affairs. Is it because he has no obligation for child support? And, if so, for what reasons? Might there be a problem with collecting his child support obligation? And, if so, why?  That is just one piece of the story that could be reframed to make clear some structural or situational drivers of the child support problem.

Much of the work I do with advocates is to help them make explicit in their communications the situational explanations they know too well about social problems. The framing in the Times piece is not an anomaly and is instructive – situational stories will not be relied on to reason about social problems unless we tell them, explicitly.

(*Note: I realize the journalist was not necessarily intending to tell a social change story – my comments are to illustrate, for those who do intend to tell such stories, the problems with this kind of framing.)