Taking the Guesswork out of Communications

FrameWorks’ Interdisciplinary Team of Social Scientists
Takes Guesswork out of Communications Practice

When advocates at nonprofit or non-governmental organizations want to change public opinions about social issues, they often look to experts in marketing and public relations. These communications professionals carry out a range of valuable activities that aim to raise awareness about issues, change attitudes, and build support for change. They generate news coverage, produce advertisements and marketing materials, cultivate social media audiences, and more. These professionals focus on and specialize in getting messages out.

But this work frequently skips a vital first step: getting messages right. Social science research across many disciplines—from social psychology to linguistics and sociology to political science—has found that frames shape the effects that messages have. Through elements like images, values, messengers, facts and figures, and metaphors, frames communicate who is responsible for a problem and what kinds of solutions are needed to address it. They affect whether the public considers an issue an important problem that needs systemic solutions.

Even when communications professionals do consider how to frame an issue, they either go by instinct or commission a poll or focus groups that gauge reaction to messages. But these methods tend to be poor measures of the outcomes that advocates are pursuing—moving opinion, increasing support and creating engagement in a social issue. Instead, typical message testing simply measures the “likeability” of alternative wordings. Using “likeability” as a benchmark may do more harm than good, as it is likely to yield recommendations that merely reinforce existing understanding. Using these methods, it’s nearly impossible to arrive at communications that open up new perspectives.

As a result, social issue advocates have no way of knowing whether their (often costly) communications activities will have meaningful, long-term impacts. They don’t know whether the way they are communicating about an issue is in fact changing people’s attitudes and behaviours in the directions they desire. And, worse yet, they don’t know if their tactics might actually be undermining their cause.

At the FrameWorks Institute we believe that there is a better way of creating framing strategies that consistently move understanding and support in desired directions. We believe that communications research is a worthy investment and that communications questions are empirical questions.

A Multi-Disciplinary Approach
We are a multi-disciplinary team of social scientists working to help experts and advocates communicate in ways that are empirically proven to be effective. As social scientists, we understand that public attitudes about social issues are deeply entrenched as the pictures and thoughts in people’s heads that together add up to “culture.” We know that changing cultural norms involves more than catchy slogans, well-placed op-eds, elegant logos, and viral tweets. We know that long-term social change depends, first and foremost, on how ongoing frame contests play out. And we know that developing effective frames requires input from disciplines beyond marketing and public relations.

That’s why we developed Strategic Frame Analysis®, an interdisciplinary approach to communications that applies social science methods to communications on scientific and social issues. While framing has been called a “fractured paradigm” within the academy, our approach integrates methods and findings from across disciplines, designing studies and experiments that operationalize the extensive scholarly literature on frame effects. Our team includes:

• Anthropologists like myself, who analyze and catalogue the widely shared cultural assumptions that lie under and shape public opinion about social issues;
• Linguists, who develop metaphors that help people understand complex, abstract issues through concrete, familiar analogies;
• Sociologists, who ensure that framing strategies help people think about systemic, structural changes rather than individual behaviors; and
• Political scientists, who design experiments that test different framing strategies for their ability to move support for public policies.

We work together, across disciplines, and the results are clear. Over the past 16 years, we have worked on social issues all over the world to good effect. In the United Kingdom, we are working with advocates and experts to reframe public opinion about child development and maltreatment, criminal justice, the economy and poverty. This work has been used to guide campaigns, drive professional development programs and shift the strategy of leading charities and third-sector organizations.

At FrameWorks, we go beyond guesswork. We weave our interdisciplinary skills together to come up with evidence-based strategies to make change and strengthen society.


Nat Kendall

About this blog contributor | Nat Kendall-Taylor, Ph.D | Twitter: @frameworksinst
Nat Kendall-Taylor is Chief Executive Officer of the FrameWorks Institute, a think tank that designs empirical communications strategies to help nonprofit organizations drive social change. In this role, Nat leads a multi-disciplinary team of social scientists in studying public understanding and exploring ways to reframe such pressing issues as criminal justice reform, immigration, taxation, early childhood development, addiction, environmental health, education, public health and climate change.