Ripped from the headlines, here is an example of the power of framing messages. Before I begin, I want to be clear that I am not taking any position on the issue of abortion and use this example simply to highlight how framing can redirect the thinking about an issue and how important it is to effective public relations.
Last week the Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell backed away from a controversial abortion bill that only a week before seemed to be gathering steam. The bill would have called for an invasive ultrasound to be performed before any abortion could occur. What started out as a debate about limiting the access to abortion and fetal rights within a week became a discussion of government intrusion. How did that happen? Framing. Women’s groups and others opposed to the bill changed the tone and substance of the conversation.
The opposition started calling the use of the transvaginal ultrasound, which is required to be able to measure gestational age of the fetus within the first three months, “state-sponsored rape.” Strong stuff. The concept of the government literally intruding inside a woman’s body was too much. Now the very politicians, who have framed themselves as defending the public from government heavy handedness, were now sponsoring a bill that represented the ultimate in “Big Brother.” The bill died.
Seize the day.
Framing messages has never been more important than in today’s fast paced, 24-7 media environment where it is so challenging to get people’s attention. Those who are masters of framing win the day. Public relations practitioners and advertisers have known this for a long time.
What are frames? According to the Frameworks Institute, a Washington, DC- based communications research organization focused on the nonprofit sector, frames are “organizing principles. [Framing is] the way a story is told that triggers shared and durable cultural models that people use to make sense of the world.”
We all come to issues with frames that have been built in our minds from our experiences and beliefs. Whether we are making decisions on what car to buy, what candidate to support or whether we are for or against a particular issue, we do so through the frames we have constructed.