Framing and Counter-framing in PR – Strategies, tactics and tools

Framing and Counter-framing in PR – Strategies, tactics and tools
31. May 2019 Falk Rehkopf

Framing and Counter-framing in PR – Strategies, tactics and tools

Take it from us – framing is something that everyone does, regardless of whether they’re conscious of it or not.

Consider this: two people might perceive the exact same scenario in different ways and each person will respond based on their perception. But when you frame a scenario in a certain way, everyone involved is likely to look at the scenario from that specific viewpoint. Essentially, you’re influencing how people think of you or your organisation and guiding them to act in a way that you can benefit from.

As PR pros, it’s our job to frame our clients, topics or our organisation in a way that allows relevant stakeholders to look at it in the desired light. Read on to find out more!

What is framing and why it makes sense

Simply put, framing refers to the act of presenting information within a pre-defined interpretational ‘frame’ to influence publics’ judgement about an organisation, executive, topic or offering. We use framing in our personal and professional lives and framing helps us to construct, refine and deliver messages.

Here’s how Professor Matthew Nisbet of Northeastern University puts it: people use mental filters to make sense of incoming messages. This gives the sender – and framer – of the information “enormous power” to focus attention and influence how receivers will interpret the message.

Bearing this in mind, it only makes sense for PR pros to utilise framing as part of their overall content strategy. By framing information and disseminating it in the right way, you’ll be able to increase your relevance to your target audience and organise key messages into concepts resonating with them.

How does framing compare to agenda-setting you wonder? According to the agenda-setting theory proposed by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in 1972, choosing and displaying news, editors, newsroom staff and broadcasters play an “important part” in shaping political reality.

So, is framing the same thing as agenda setting or is it a different concept altogether? Both concepts are similar in the sense that they involve the influencing of a certain target audience. That said, agenda-setting simply deals with telling an audience what to think but framing looks to go one step further in instructing an audience how to think about an issue.

Framing in different contexts

Framing plays an integral role in the world of PR – that much is obvious. While PR pros have been using framing techniques for decades, today the challenge lies in influencing audiences’ perception in a way that’s seen as honest and authentic.

Framing takes place in several contexts; among other things, you can frame news, actions, responsibility, risk, attributes and situations:

Framing a situation

First up, framing a situation helps with storytelling and in the context of organisational communication. PR pros use framing to “impose on others their version of the enacted environment in which the organisation operates”.

Framing an attribute

Next, in framing an attribute, you’re typically highlighting and emphasising certain characteristics of a product and downplaying other aspects of the same product. This is a technique that’s routinely used in product positioning. For instance, if a PR pro is writing a press release about a ground beef product, they might choose to frame it as “75% lean” which sounds more attractive as opposed to “25% fat”.

Framing an action

Framing an action deals with proposing a certain activity to achieve the desired goal. If you’re running a campaign to encourage your customers to make a one-off payment, you might either frame this as a “discount” for those who pay upfront or a “penalty” for those who pay in instalments.

Framing a risk

When you’re framing a risk, you’re communicating the likelihood that a gain or loss will result from a decision and using this to influence a person’s decision-making process. As an example, in the healthcare industry, people have a higher chance of agreeing to surgery if risks are presented in terms of survival rates (ie: “94% survive this operation”) rather than death rates (ie: “6% of people pass away from this operation”).

Framing a responsibility

When answering to the public, companies typically frame a responsibility in a way that allows them to take credit for successes and avoid getting blamed for failures. This typically comes into play within crisis management and managing corporate reputation.

Framing a news story

Last but not least, reporters often frame news stories using familiar themes that resonate with their audiences. As you pitch stories to journalists and reporters, keep in mind that these might be reframed in order to cater to the publications’ readers:

Examples of framing

One example of framing is how Donald Trump continuously used the term “witch hunt” to describe the investigation into the Russian interference within the 2016 US elections. As Kim Harrison, Principal at Cutting Edge PR and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia notes, this frame is “striking and accusatory” and effectively “casts doubt on the validity of the (investigative) process”.

According to a study published in the SSRN Electronic Journal, politicians are increasingly using social media to directly influence their audiences’ opinions and behaviour by applying framing tactics. More specifically, members of the U.S. Congress are using hashtags such as #dontdoublemyrate, #noshownopay and #cutthefleet to discuss divisive issues and frame perception about these issues in a way that fits into their narrative.

Another example within social media is the Million Hoodies Movement. A study examined 652 posts from the movement’s Facebook page since March 2012, following the death of teenager Trayvon Martin, until July 2013, when the accused was acquitted, using an interpretive textual analysis. The results demonstrated that various frames were used in their communication on the platform such as diagnostic framing, prognostic framing and motivational framing.

Probably one of the best-known examples of framing (and counter-framing) is the BP oil spill crisis, where the media framed BP as an irresponsible company destroying our environment. BP, on the other hand, counter-framed itself as an agent that’s dedicated to solving the oil crisis. Among other things, the company highlighted new technological solutions and thus presented itself as a “solution provider” instead of the perpetrator behind the oil spill.

Framing types

There are myriads of ways in which you can frame a situation, responsibility or risk. Generally speaking, all types of framing can be categorised into one of the following:

  • Values-based – These frames tap into consumers’ underlying values and use these to motivate certain behaviours;
  • Financial-based – These frames highlight the financial benefits of engaging in certain behaviours and appeal to consumers who make decisions based on logic;
  • Gain-based – These frames focus on what consumers gain from engaging in a particular behaviour;
  • Loss-based – These frames focus on what consumers lose from engaging in a particular behaviour.

PR pros: How to get framing right

Need to work on your framing strategies? Here are some tips and best practices that will help you improve your strategies and tactics.

1. Start with the main goal of your messages

When coming up with a framing strategy, make sure you identify the goal of your framing efforts and use this goal to guide your strategy. For instance: Do you want your audience to see you as a company that cares? Or do you want your shareholders to perceive you as a capable organisation that’s worth investing in? Depending on which goal you have in mind, the way you frame your company and messages will differ greatly.

2. Think about your most important segment

It’s common for companies to target multiple audiences and serve multiple target customer segments simultaneously. That said, you can’t possibly frame your company in a way that appeals to ALL your different segments.

As the adage goes, when you stand for everything, you stand for nothing. You won’t be able to have every single customer relate to your message, so hone in on your most important groups of publics and target groups and frame your message in a way that it resonates with these.

3. Only provide information that’s critical

One common mistake that PR pros make? Thinking that more data, information or numbers will help their cause. While you need the right data to paint a compelling picture and make your point, too much data isn’t conducive to framing. If you overwhelm your target audience with too many statistics, this will most likely cause confusion and your audience might also misinterpret your message.

Elements and tools of effective framing

The elements of successful framing include:

  • Values at stake;
  • Problem;
  • Solution;
  • Action.

To bring all these elements together, you may rely on the following framing tools:

  • Metaphors;
  • Storytelling (myths and legends);
  • Traditions (rites, rituals and ceremonies);
  • Slogans, jargon and catchphrases;
  • Corporate artefacts;
  • Contrast;
  • Spin;
  • Behaviour.

Over-framing 

When framing or indeed counter-framing techniques are abused, the truth is skewed and information borders disinformation. The language used is critical in this context and PR pros need to always be aware of how they use it. In any case, communicators must always have defined ethical standards at the core of what they do.

A final word on framing

At the end of the day, framing is an unavoidable part of human communication and can be an excellent strategy for companies to ensure that their target audience is equally engaged and aligned with them. If you haven’t already come up with ways of incorporating framing into your communications strategy, we’ll advise doing so moving forward.

Chief Marketing Officer