460635827Like other buzzwords, the words “frame” or “framing” are widely used and often abused by communications practitioners and observers alike. But we’re actually seeing a duel of competing frames happening right now, and the public conversation about vaccination provides a great opportunity to make frames and framing more concrete.

First things first – this post is not about vaccinations. My colleague, Madeline Daniels, has already done a great post for First Focus on that important issue. This post is about frames, framing, and their role in public debates.

What’s a frame? There’s no universally-accepted definition. But for me, a frame is the conversation about what the conversation is about. On its surface, the vaccination debate may seem to be about children or health. But it’s not – at least not from a framing perspective. The prevalent frames are individual freedom and shared responsibility. That’s what the respective sides want us to think the conversation is about.

Vaccination critics, like U.S. Senator Rand Paul, frame the conversation as about a parent’s freedom to make choices for his or her family. That’s why Sen. Paul begins his response to a reporter’s challenge on this issue with “I guess being for freedom would be really unusual.”

Vaccination backers, like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), frame the conversation as about our shared responsibility to protect our community from a shared threat: disease. That’s why the CDC uses metaphors like bailing water from a leaky boat to describe the importance of continued vaccinations – they want us to feel like we’re all in the same boat. And it’s why vaccination advocates, like USA Today’s Alex Berezow, can comfortably advocate for jailing parents who refuse to immunize their children. From a shared threat/shared responsibility perspective, an individual choice to forego vaccination harms all of us just as surely as an individual choice to rob a home.

“Framing” is organizing your communication so as to maximize the likelihood that your audience will see the issue through your frame. One straightforward way to do this are prominence, which Sen. Paul employs by using the word “freedom” upfront. Another is repetition, which the CDC does by consistently returning to themes of shared action and shared fate. Even the pronouns change to reflect the speaker’s frame – note that Sen. Paul refers to “your children” in his CNBC interview, while CDC consistently uses “our children.” Framing is applicable when a debate is new to the audience or when a debate has more than one competing frame. If a single frame dominates a debate, participants who see that frame as a disadvantage may try to “reframe” it – by definition a longshot play.

Why do frames matter? Because once I accept a frame – that the vaccination debate is about shared responsibility, for example – it becomes harder for opponents of that position to persuade me. I’ll still value freedom, but I’m more likely to minimize arguments that vaccination requirements meaningfully compromise my freedom, or I’m more likely to accept the tradeoff in exchange for protection against a shared threat, or both.

But it’s also important to note that the speakers’ frames aren’t the only one in play. Each audience brings frames of their own. If my life experience or my broader belief system make me particularly sensitive to government encroachment on personal liberty, appeals to shared responsibility are less likely to persuade me.

So now we know what frames, framing, and reframing mean – so what? Here are a few practical applications for advocacy communications on any issue:

  1. Be frame-aware – Every message you deliver either amplifies or muddles your framing, so;
  2. Pick a frame and stick to it (at least until you figure out if it works) – Organize your messages so they reinforce a deliberate frame, then avoid distractions and stay on-message;
  3. Frame for the persuadables – Once your audience has made up their mind, it’s a lot harder to change it – whenever possible, focus your framing on audiences who are new to the debate or undecided;
  4. Get into the debate – Remember, repetition is one of the best ways to solidify your frame, so if a debate matters to you, get your messages in front of your audiences again and again.

And a secret bonus application: you’ll start seeing the framing in every newspaper and evert television ad.