[This conversation was originally published in part 1 of ‘Narrative Power & Collective Action’, a collaboration between Oxfam and On Think Tanks. All conversations were edited by Louise Ball. Download the publication.]
Nat Kendall Taylor is a psychological anthropologist and CEO of the FrameWorks Institute in the US, and Nicky Hawkins is an experienced campaigner and Director of Impact at the FrameWorks Institute in the UK.
The FrameWorks Institute helps non-profit organisations frame public discourse on social and scientific issues. Its Strategic Frame Analysis approach offers empirical guidance on what to say, how to say it, and what to leave unsaid.
Do you want to get to where you want to get to, or do you want to keep getting stuck in a story that isn’t allowing you to be heard or understood?
Why framing matters
[Nat]: Understanding is frame dependent. Understanding of information is contingent on the way it is presented to people. So the decisions made about how to present information, that’s how I define framing.
It’s the choices that a communicator makes – consciously or unconsciously. And how those choices have perception and behavioural effects on the people receiving the information.
People who are communicating about complex social issues have to realise that they are not their audience. Communication is not a literal process of translation. You can’t just think that the things that work for you or get you going as an advocate will for people who aren’t you.
Then there’s the strategic piece. Even when organisations realise that they have to change public thinking to shift policy, each organisation is telling their own story and everyone’s story is different. That’s no way to change public thinking. It’s a cacophony.
Alignment and collective action
So a lot of this work is also about finding the frames that work, but also strategically aligning around them, sharing and amplifying them.
This requires a really different way of thinking about communications: not branding or competitive activity, but one that is collaborative and requires people to actually share messages.
If you are interested in social change, you are interested in culture change. And the only way to change culture is all together, not all apart.”
[Nicky]: You can present really good evidence around the need to shift frames and establish a new narrative, and people are absolutely bought into it and up for it. But then it’s difficult to do things differently across an organisation and an entire sector. Old habits die hard so this aspect of the work requires lots of energy and support.
In our conversation with Nat and Nicky, we asked them to walk us through how they support organisations to develop framing strategies.
[Nat]: The first question is always: what is the story you want to tell?
A lot of narrative and communications work starts without having worked out what it is you want it to do. Nothing can be successful unless you start with a clear understanding of what you want to happen. What are the ideas you want to communicate, what are the changes in policy you want to see?
The next question is: what are the stories people are telling themselves?
When you engage people on concepts, they are not blank slates. They have embedded understandings from years of experiences. A lot of this is based in a common culture and exposure to media. So, what can you say about the common ways that people make sense of an issue?
The third question is: what are the stories being told?
This question is answered largely through the use of content analysis. The stories that are being perpetuated by news media,non-news media, and by the sector itself. When you look at advocacy communications, what are the most prominent groups saying? What messages are they disseminating? What frames are embedded in those messages?
The fourth question is: what is the story you should be telling?
What ideas do you want to communicate? How do you want people to receive them? What are the most effective values and the best ways of organising them? What are the best examples to use? What is the story that gets people moving the direction you want to take them?
Then the fifth question is: what is the best way to get those stories out?
This is where we take a backseat role as advisors and let others who are great at this work step up and do their thing.
Over the last 15-years, we’ve developed a process for empirically answering each of those questions, using social science methods from a really wide range of disciplines.
This is also all we think about every day! We’ve asked those questions on 50 projects a year for 15 years.
[Nicky]: I take a pragmatic approach to all of this. It’s about getting the job done. Everyone is communicating all the time. We’re all constantly making choices about how we communicate.
We can make those choices about how we present information based on good evidence. But the big question is: do you want to get to where you want to go, or do you want to keep getting stuck in a story that isn’t allowing you to be heard or understood?
[Nicky]: I’m a fan of early adopters. So, when we have a piece of research with framing recommendations, before we even publish the research, we operationalise it and get it into discourse as quickly as possible.
To give you an example, we were doing some work on child health and obesity in the UK. It’s a topic steeped in stigma and judgement. It’s very othering and fatalistic.
We have been working with a group of organisations, doing research to understand public thinking and explore frames that might shift public thinking.
Now we have finished the research, we are thinking about how we shape what we have to recommend into a published piece of guidance.
But at the same time, we are operationalising those frames with high-profile spokespeople who are in the position to get them out there.
Challenges to changing how NGOs communicate
The big challenge is the extent to which this is seen as a priority. The extent to which people are willing to put the time and the resources into going on a journey to do it better.
If communications are forever seen as an afterthought – as the spin or polish after the real work is done – then nothing will change.
If you see communications as fundamental to our ability to drive change, then you start to realise we need to invest and prioritise accordingly.
Challenges in framing around civic space
The breadth of what you are trying to scoop up in the term civic space makes it a challenge. When you’re going out with a message that it’s about everything, it’s easy for people to hear nothing. There isn’t much to grab hold of.
So, the biggest challenge you have is telling people what it is really about and why” “it matters. Why does it matter to people with busy lives who don’t already know or think about this stuff in the way you do?
A good example was Brexit in the UK. The Leave campaign told a simple story about freedom and control. The Remain campaign was that it was about everything: money, trade, international cooperation, staying and reforming. They had a plethora of reasons why remaining in the European Union was important.
This has broader significance in our research and work: you can’t say everything. You have to focus your frame so people can hear one or two things, rather than the long list.
I think the NGO community often falls into the trap of trying to say everything, and ends up saying nothing.
You have to know what the narrative is you want to change from and to. You have to know the current narratives on an issue, then you have to know the narrative you want to move towards. All this requires work.
In an ideal world, you have donors who are committed to supporting this work and that realise that it’s not a six-month campaign. It is an on-going piece of social movement work.