The Movement and Media Research and Action Project www.mrap.info has logged two decades of collaboration and study with organizers in many movements. Through this work, we have learned that the most effective communication strategies are grounded in a broader organizing strategy, a plan for movement-building. Framing is part of movement building at every stage, not simply at some later point of publicity. Moreover, framing a message is not a task done by a lone leader or a professional expert. Everyone in a movement is a communicator and everyone has something valuable to contribute to framing the movement’s message.
Start with a vision and a strategy
A movement-building approach to framing starts with a shared vision of the long view. To achieve this vision, movement organizers plan strategy. Concretely, strategy iinvolves mapping how to unite all who can be united to overcome barriers to realizing a shared goal. Organizers ask:
What is our vision of a better world? Who shares our vision?
Who needs to be with us at the table with us to make our vision reality?
What institutions or existing powers pose obstacles to realizing the vision?
What other groups, wider circles would support us? Under what conditions?
How can those of us with a shared vision maximize pressure to lower the obstacles?
A strategic plan needs to be concrete—It is a work plan.
A strategic plan focuses organizing resources on agreed upon priorities in order to consolidate core members, train upcoming strengthen infrastructure, gain supporters and to better understand and pressure the social institutions the movement seeks to change. Successful movements start small and build big; they convince widening circles of supporters to join them in tackling manageable challenges, operating in cycles of dialog, action and reflection.
What is framing?
Successful movements do not arrive full-grown in the pages of the New York Times. Rather, framing—communicating the movement’s vision and sometimes its calls to action—is key to this growth. Framing is dialog about strategy. Framing is the work of preparing a message that will explain organizers’ vision to supporters, potential supporters and non-supporter, even to opponents. A frame makes a movements’ organizing work make sense to the audience. A frame calls the audience to join the organizers in working for a shared vision.
Organizing strategy and framing strategy go hand-in-hand
To forward their mission or goals, activists must learn to treat framing as integrated part of movement building. Framing becomes dialog with key constituencies about strategy where strategy is understood to mean mapping power relationships and coming to agreement with constituencies identified as critical to reworking those power relations to move an agenda. As such, message framing is about dialog not diatribe; Message framers identify core audiences then plan how to dialog with them regarding the sources of a problem and its potential solutions. Framing dialogs involve listening and responding with a series of audiences beginning with one’s core supporters and those directly affected by a problem. Activists also enter framing dialogs with potential allies, constituencies that are undecided, and even with opponents. In each case the goal is to understand the constituency’s perspective and to deepen that constituencies’ understanding of the framer’s perspective. Activists may also dialog with power-holders to help recognize constituencies whose importance to solving a problem may have been overlooked.
Organizing can be thought of as a dance cycle that keeps recurring—dream, listen, plan, speak/act, reflect. Dreaming means visioning a better future—what life would be like if it was fair. (Notice we didn’t say perfect). Listening involves gathering any and all knowledge that will inform an organizing plan. This can include stories from past and present activists as well as written records in news archives or libraries. Planning focuses the organizing resources on agreed priorities. Framing is both speaking and acting (which is what people mean when they say, “Actions speak louder than words.” Framing carries a vision and sometimes an invitation to participate. Reflection, often ignored, helps organizers draw lessons and perfect plans.
“What is power? Power is the ability to say what the issues are and who the good guys and bad guys are. That is power.” Conservative pundit Kevin Phillips
As social movements have recognized framing as a critical component of political success, politicians and activists have scurried to framing workshops and consultants promising to help identify a winning message. In the current political climate, demoralized social movements and activists find this promise appealing.
Having sponsored such framing workshops for over two decades, we argue here that attention to framing is necessary but not sufficient. The value of framing, we suggest, rests in focusing substantive dialog with strategically targeted constituencies. Rather than thinking of framing as external packaging to attract news and bystanders, think of framing as focused dialog to align targeted constituencies strategically. Framing is the dialogic work that infuses the strategic relation-building on which movement-building depends. A well-rounded movement-building strategy grounds itself in an analysis of existing power relations and works to position supporters and allies to best advantage. Used strategically, framing permeates movement building work—resource acquisition, infrastructure, leadership development, power analysis and strategic planning.
Below we provide an explanation of framing and then a description of a framing caucus, a tool that helps groups prepare effective messages.
One way to begin framing a message is to review existing news coverage. By establishing clipping or monitoring systems, groups can track existing news frames vis-à-vis their issue.1 (In reading the articles also note authors; this information helps establish a media data base of reporters and outlets.) For most purposes, framing2 can be simplified to three key questions:
What is the main issue or problem (from your perspective)?
Who is responsible?
What are the viable solutions?
After helping groups focus a core message or frame, we work together to identify a story or catchphrase that captures the frame. When people talk of message framing, they often think only of this final stage—the memorable metaphor, perhaps carried by an image, a story or sound bite
This is important but sadly many organizers think it is sufficient. They think communicating means finding the right image that conveys a repressed truth, that when publicized, the truth will expose opponents’ slick lies. All one needs is the right image to get attention. This ignores the fact that activists need to dialog with potential allies using many venues—not to ‘get the message out’ but to open an ongoing dialog. Opponents don’t need to lie. They see facts differently. Viewpoints change in conversation. Conscious framing is the preparation for that dialog.
Facts do not speak for themselves.
People often say, “We will just tell the truth.” Facts do not speak for themselves. There are many truths in any conflict. From a given standpoint, some facts seem more important than others. From a given point of view, some facts seem irrelevant, others critical.
Framing assumes a point of view and a purpose.
Storytellers frame the facts from a particular standpoint and they assume an audience. Storytellers frame the story to make sense to their audience. Frames are born in dialogs and are intended to build dialog. The goal of dialog—listening and talking is to build relationships that forward a vision.
Messages grow from strategies.
Analyzing the political situation precedes media. Themantra is, ‘There is no communication strategy without an organizing strategy.’
Everyone is a communicator.
The public spokesperson at a press conference is one type of communicator. In social movements, everyone must be a communicator. Everyone matters, and it matters that everyone adds their own lived experience into how they tell the story.
Reporters who ask the “hard questions” are not opponents.
A reporter asks herself, “What questions would my audience ask? Reporters seek to answer these questions—even if these misunderstand movement goals. It is the movement organizers’ job to help the reporter understand movement goals. Through the reporter , the movement can communicate its vision to wider audiences.
Reflection on experience, not experience alone, is the best teacher.
Take the time to learn from what you’ve tried so you can store it and share it with others.
By practicing frames before contacting mass media, organizers create a written track record of what they want to accomplish. Media advisories can then more easily follow the group’s intended framing. Putting things in writing facilitates post-event reflection: organizers can compare the actual outcome against the desired message. This last step, post-event reflection, completes a dialog, action, reflection cycle, drawing lessons for the next cycle.
1 For more on setting up monitoring systems see RICADV forthcoming, Communicating Change.
2 I drew heavily from both Snow and Benford, 1988; Gamson and Lasch, 1983.