Frame this: thoughts on the messaging thing

There's been a lot of talk the last few years about the importance of "framing" issues so that progressive messages get across. You could even say that this has become a micro-industry in some circles.

There is a lot of research that indicates that the how of communication is as important as--sometimes more important than--the what. And no one would dispute the importance of skilled messaging and
media work.

Also, some of the message styles or frames that advocacy groups use have been demonstrated to be counterproductive. Some examples:

*framing something as a crisis sends the unintentional message that nothing can be done;

*trotting out poor people for media stories often makes viewers or readers think more in terms of the personal worthiness of the people depicted than about what is happening to them or what they want to do. At best, it often makes people think in terms of charity, not change;

*burying the reader or viewer with wonky statistics can lose an audience where good use of metaphors and "social math," which graphically depicts a situation, can help get a message across.

So far, so good.

However, any good thing can be overdone. I have run into a few of what I call "frame fundamentalists" who seem to believe that all you need to do to influence public policy or achieve some public goal is to frame the issue effectively. The problem is that this leaves out the whole power/strategy thing, which, as you may have noticed, has a lot to do with how things shake down.

To get things done, you need both.

To use a historical example, thinking that framing things alone will solve a problem is kind of like thinking that Allied propaganda in World War II was the sole factor in defeating the Nazis. It probably helped, but it didn't do the whole trick.

I am reminded of something Confederate General George Pickett said when asked why his famous charge at Gettysburg failed: "The union army had something to do with it." 

A story from the ancient Greeks may illustrate the problem. In his Politics, Aristotle alludes to a parable of Antisthenes in which the hares demanded equality with the lions. (Maybe they even hired media consultants.) The lions replied, "You speak well, hares, but where are your claws and teeth?"

The point of the claws and teeth story here is not that one has to get mean, but that one has to get organized and be strategic. Framing by itself, however useful, isn't enough.

And I imagine that most of the people who practice it well would agree.

(This is adapted from Thursday's post in The Goat Rope, a social and economic justice blog with gratuitous animal pictures. And in all modesty, El Cabrero must say that the picture that went with this one was pretty funny.)

Tags: Framing, Media, messaging (all tags)

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