Framing- a double-edged sword in PR content strategizing?

We have all seen examples of how framing works – most recently, the killing of a man-eating tigress which hurtled the government-appointed father-son hunter duo in an unwarranted media frenzy.

Framing- a double-edged sword in PR content strategizing?

A study by Pratt, Ha, and Pratt (2002) of the representation of diseases in the media in Africa showed that the media often used negative and derogatory descriptions when reporting on diseases such as HIV/AIDS. In contrast, they used no negative terms or examples and no derogatory language in reporting on diseases such as tuberculosis. As a consequence of the way in which the media framed the topic in a negative light, it is likely that people with HIV/AIDS were seen in a negative way by people who heard or read the reports. Tuberculosis patients were more likely to have received sympathy from those same people.

We have all seen examples of how framing works – most recently, the killing of a man-eating tigress which hurtled the government-appointed father-son hunter duo in an unwarranted media frenzy. The animal rescue groups applied framing, and the two reputed rescuers and experts unknowingly slid down in public perception as villains.

Or how certain advertisements almost always end up showing a woman as a doctor wearing a white coat and talking about how a product is safe for her own children, is a classic example of how framing works as people can relate to these images and their perception changes to suit the marketer’s goal. (No doctor would lie when it comes to her own children!)

The power of language as a tool in effective communication has long been prized in effective PR. Whether it is rhetoric, argument, or persuasion, words have always helped shape mindsets. When it comes to communicating the value of a brand or a company’s image, an excellent copy helps create the right picture.

OR so we thought.

New developments in cognitive science show that the human brain may not be as receptive to information as we have always thought. In his noted book ” Don’t Think of an Elephant,” noted neuroscientist George Lakoff, explains that human brains create embedded neural structures, which he calls “frames” which are nothing but neurons that trigger our thoughts as responses to stimuli. These “frames” are mainly a person’s worldview, their perception of reality.

The implication of all this is that “IDEAS are of primary importance, and humans often respond to language that lines up with their preconceived principles.”

As per Lakoff, communication is not necessarily about trying to sway someone over to “your side” of viewpoint or coerce them to get convinced of your message. The key, as per Lakoff, to effective communication is to identify the framed perspective of whomever your target customer is, what kinds of values that frame leads those people to use when they process the information.

How does PR applies framing?

Framing manifests in thought or interpersonal communication. Depending on the audience and what kind of information is being presented, framing in communication can be positive as well as negative.

Press-releases- In mass-media, a frame defines the packaging of an element of rhetoric in such a way as to encourage certain interpretations and to discourage others. Sometimes framing is used in the form of presenting facts in such a way that implicates a problem that is in need of a solution. In communications, framing defines how news media coverage shapes mass opinion.

Events- While sharing information about an event, for example, the understanding often depends on the frame referred to. But you cannot just apply a “frame” to an event. Every individual would try to project to the world the interpretive frames that allowed them to make sense of the event. Therefore, to show an event in the “light” that you wish the target audience to see or ignore and move on, you may need to work on their frames and try and align it so they can look at your perspective.

Framing Techniques in PR-An Example

PR agencies are often seen encouraging some stories and interpretations while discouraging the others.  This is not to say that most PR is about lying or consciously distorting the truth. More so, that by highlighting particular stories, using specific sources from a particular news angle, public relations agencies are constructing reality through a selective process. What is presented is often influenced by work practices, resource constraints, and sensitivity of the matter to shareholders as well as management.

When an event is explained and understood by the comparison of the frame with other frames, gradually a frameshift happens. Framing is like a mental shortcut and is often the exact opposite to the rational choice theory in psychology.

A classic example of framing is the pollution- look at how this issue has been framed:

Pollution as a law and order frame- Most vehicle owners are callous about going for regular PUC (pollution under control) checks. The present infrastructure does not support so many vehicles during peak hours leading to traffic snarls. The need for public transport has not been answered efficiently. The journalist on this beat could involve social, political and government and even police representatives for opinions, sound bites, and more.

Pollution as a health issue- The keyframing is how the increasing pollution is affecting the health of commuters or causing health concerns in broader society. A pulmonologist may be interviewed to discuss the health issues and courses of treatment; health minister might be asked to comment on the subject and ways and measures by the government to tackle them.

Pollution as a social problem- Here, pollution may be framed as a social issue connected with class, and dysfunctional society. How households now have 3 or more cars, sometimes one vehicle per family member – pointing towards the substantial rich-poor divide. How the low diesel prices have affected the sale of diesel cars in the past and how these have contributed more to the pollution. Car manufacturers, customers, and even economists and town planners could be brought in to influence public perception and create the right framing.

Pollution in a positive light- this is a less common frame, but an unconventional way to project something that is perceived as extremely dangerous and harmful by the public in a different frame. How the pollution motivated people to burst fewer firecrackers on Deepavali, or how the car rental aggregators came up with ideas like car-pooling or sharing the cabs. The ‘harm reduction’ efforts by the corporate could be emphasized here.

Key lessons for the PR industry:

Framing is strongly impacted by the language that is used to describe given events or critical features of a given story. Language serves as the cognitive framework through which we understand and make sense of the world around us, and apply the same to make sense of the news about a given event or a story.

Using the correct language is the key- a headline, in a reputed national daily about how a plane, flown by an Indian pilot crashed soon after takeoff raised a considerable furor in social media as well as other platforms. Every word could have huge implications in shaping public perceptions, inciting stereotypes, and validating or marginalizing a particular character of the story.

Corporate media has to be more vigilant- In a corporate media environment; consumers of news cannot rely solely on the packaging of news stories. Considering the state of the media landscape today, PR firms should be prepared to ask probing questions such as what are the reasons behind how a story is being packaged or presented and rule out hidden or disguised biases and even stereotypes.

Staying away from negative framing- Putting a negative spin on the news because otherwise, it wouldn’t be newsworthy is a dangerous way of applying PR principles. If PR agencies resort to “If it bleeds, it reads” public perception may be influenced at initial stages, but sooner than later, people would see through the negative frame and would shun the news and beliefs altogether.

Typology of Seven Models of Framing Applicable to Public Relations*

What is framed   DescriptionSituationsRelationships between individuals in situations found in everyday living and literature. Framing of situations provides a structure for examining communication. Applies to discourse analysis, negotiation, and other interactions.AttributesCharacteristics of objects and people are accentuated, whereas others are ignored, thus biasing the processing of information in terms of focal attributes.ChoicesPosing alternative decisions in either negative (loss) or positive (gain) terms can bias choices in situations involving uncertainty. Prospect theory suggests people will take greater risks to avoid losses than to obtain


ActionsIn persuasive contexts, the probability that a person will act to attain the desired goal is influenced by whether alternatives are stated in positive or negative terms.IssuesSocial problems and disputes can be explained in alternative terms by different parties who vie for their preferred definition a problem or situation to prevailResponsibilityIndividuals tend to attribute the cause of events to either internal or external factors, based on levels of stability and control. People portray their role in events consistent with their self-image in ways that maximize benefits and minimize culpability. People attribute causes to personal actions rather than systemic problems in society.NewsMedia reports use familiar, culturally resonating themes to relay information about events. Sources vie for their preferred framing to be featured through frame enterprise and frame sponsorship.

Adapted from Seven Models of Framing: Implications for Public Relations by Kirk Hallahan, Department of Journalism and Technical Communication, Colorado State University  JOURNAL OF PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH, 11(3), 205–242 Copyright © 1999, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Framing is an effective strategy that helps public relations agencies determine where the audience puts its attention. The key to reaching others is not a great press copy or an amazing advertisement- but knowing the language that speaks to their frame, and using those exact same words to activate their frame and then allow them to see the issue from your perspective.

About the author:

Shiv Shankar – He is the Executive Director & Founder of K2 Communications. Under his astute leadership, K2 Communications has developed into a frontrunner among PR agencies that incessantly delivers excellent regional and national PR support to clients belonging to various sectors including government, IT, education, consumer, and healthcare.

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