Winning the Frame Game

Susan Nall Bales shows progressives how to inspire the public with important ideas

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When Washington communications consultant Susan Nall Bales talks to environmental groups, she tells them that they can’t fix government policies until they become more conscious of the stories they’re telling and the hidden chains of reasoning these stories can set off in people’s minds.

In explaining their issues, environmentalists tend to predict a wide range of disasters: catastrophic weather, species extinction, tropical pests heading north, you name it. (The classic example is probably Paul Ehrlich’s best-selling 1968 book, The Population Bomb, which began: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.”) The question is not whether environmentalists have science on their side; many of today’s disaster forecasts, such as global warming, may well be accurate. But Bales demonstrates why doomsday scenarios, factual or not, alienate the public.

She shows two slides. First she displays a cover of the children’s book Chicken Little. When activists sound like Chicken Little, she says, the message is that the sky is falling, it’s your fault, and you have to lower your living standards. Not surprisingly, that message attracts only true believers. Then she puts up a second slide, of The Little Engine That Could. A far better message, she tells her clients, is that good old American technology can solve environmental problems, and that citizens willing to exert political will can hold government and business accountable.

Susan Bales is not just another Washington spin doctor. As president of the nonprofit FrameWorks Institute, she has synthesized four decades of social-science research into an approach called “strategic frame analysis,” which is designed to help progressive advocacy groups do a better job of getting their messages across to the public at large. Bales has worked with activists on issues ranging from child development and health care to foreign policy. She and her collaborators—pollster Meg Bostrom, anthropologist Axel Aubrun, and numerous others—do more than help groups craft better messages; they emphasize a whole new model of communications on public issues.

A constant refrain in Bales’ work is that people have deeply held preconceptions (“frames”) that render their views almost impervious to new, contradictory information. “It’s not enough to present evidence,” Bales says. “You have to change the frame.”

One of Bales’ major premises is that Americans overwhelmingly get their information about public affairs from the news media, which in turn establish persistent frames. To help progressive advocates, the FrameWorks team first surveys and analyzes past media coverage of an issue to detect the patterns or frames. They use extended interviews with citizens, in addition to conventional polling and focus groups, to uncover the “hidden reasoning” or mental shortcuts that condition how people respond to the topic. Finally, Bales and her crew test out different “reframes” to learn how people’s minds can be opened to new policies. Often, as on the issue of global warming, the goal is to bridge the gap between what academic experts have to say about a given problem and how the media and political commentators treat proposed solutions, which too often are dismissed as unrealistic or even impossible.

If Susan Bales were giving advice about how to write this article, she would probably advise me to mention her as little as possible. It’s not that Bales is shy, though she keeps a low profile compared with other accomplished Washington communications consultants. Her reasons would be more strategic.

A constant theme in her work is that the media’s penchant for human-interest stories distracts us from a more thorough presentation of social problems. In fact, coverage based on anecdotes has a way of implicitly blaming individuals, rather than government or society, for hardships and is thus inherently hostile to liberal policy solutions. So if this article were just about Bales—her background in English and French literature, how she works from her suburban home in the woods of Potomac, Maryland, and has five cats—it might be part of the problem.

In fact, this story is just as much about liberal activists who are despondent after Republican victories in the last two elections and are on the defensive as the Bush administration pursues a sweeping, hard-right agenda on foreign policy, the environment, public services, and other issues. Many progressive advocates are looking for new approaches. Though there’s still a lot of resistance, some activists may even be willing to let go of their reservations about coming off as calculating and Machiavellian if they adopt the kind of strategic thinking found in the FrameWorks message

Founded in 1999, FrameWorks grew out of Bales’ two decades of experience in communications, starting with her work on women’s and civil-rights issues and continuing through her years as a consultant for a wide range of liberal groups. Among other projects, Bales worked for the National Women’s Law Center to oppose Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Later, in the early ’90s, she organized the Coalition for America’s Children and its campaign to coordinate more than 300 groups working to turn concerns about children into real “voting issues.”

But something was missing. Bales began to doubt whether the news coverage she was getting was actually advancing the issues she cared about. At the same time, she was reading the work of Stanford University communications theorist Shanto Iyengar, who observed in his 1987 book News That Matters: Television and American Opinion that most media coverage uses “episodic,” rather than “thematic,” frames. In other words, the dominant media approach is an anecdotal story that focuses on individuals and their problems but is short on social context or discussion of public issues. As Bales read more deeply on the subject, she realized that progressive advocacy groups and the foundations that fund them weren’t thinking about how the media affect political debate in creating their own public education campaigns. No wonder they were getting burned. In fact, by putting out ill-conceived messages and reinforcing stereotypes that hurt their ultimate objectives, liberal groups were often doing more harm than good.

Why do conservatives seem to communicate better than liberals? One reason is the liberal left’s tendency to overintellectualize issues. Liberals bombard the public with figures and statistics that prove their cases. But again and again the data bounce off people without making any impression. “If the facts don’t fit the frame, it’s the facts that are rejected, not the frame” is an oft-repeated FrameWorks aphorism.

Rush Limbaugh was up to his usual tricks as I drove to visit Susan Bales at her home. I’d listened to Limbaugh before, of course, but what he was saying seemed cast in a new light by what I’d already learned from Bales. Rather than an arrogant windbag, Limbaugh suddenly seemed like a brilliant conservative tactician. Counterintuitively, he told his listeners that they should be glad when liberal groups attack the president on something like war with Iraq. If the liberals are on the attack, Limbaugh explained, that means they’re not putting forward a positive agenda—and that means conservatives are winning.

“Unfortunately, the research would say he’s right,” Bales later said. “Negative attacks by many of the groups, like children’s advocates and environmentalists, that we see as being caring kinds of groups do more damage to them than they do to the opposition. That’s one of the real hardships [of] liberal advocacy.”

Conservatives also know how to come up with clever frames and stick with them. Take the “death tax,” the right’s reframing of the estate tax. According to a report in The New York Times, Republicans spent five years teaching their troops to use this terminology. A similar story could be told of the frame “partial-birth abortion,” an extremely rare procedure that the right brilliantly renamed for propaganda purposes. Among Democrats, Bill Clinton seemed to have an intuitive feel for the frame game. His resolution to talk about “gun safety” rather than “gun control” was as good as it gets, notes Cornell University communications professor Dietram Scheufele. But it’s not so easy for many on the liberal left, in part because progressives prefer to be tolerant of wide diversity. At antiglobalization protests and the recent antiwar demonstrations, radical messages and realist ones were casually intermingled. But protests characterized by extremism, anti-Americanism, and violence tend to alienate moderates who might otherwise have questioned the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, notes San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Rich Louv, who has worked with Bales in the past.

Isn’t all of this just a more elaborate form of spin? “I’m worried that press secretaries and PR flacks are going to start carrying around cards with bullet-pointed principles based on this kind of research and will devote even more attention to shaping people’s perceptions as opposed to honest give and take,” says Brendan Nyhan, coeditor of the Web site, which tracks manipulations of political language and debate.

But the FrameWorks group insists that its mission is about enhancing democracy by opening minds that have been dulled by spin, or constantly forced into confrontational and partisan modes of thought. “Framing is in many ways the opposite of spinning. Spinning is trying to convince people, ‘You know, this really isn’t blue, it’s really green,’ ” argues pollster Meg Bostrom, holding up a glass from the conference-room table during my group meeting with FrameWorks’ members. “What we’re trying to do is help people understand not just that it’s blue, but also the shape, the size, the weight.”

Susan Bales comes across as scholarly and unfailingly collaborative, but she’s also a charismatic figure who has her liberal heroes. She often cites Martin Luther King Jr. as one who knew, intuitively, how to stay on message without sacrificing inspiration. Another is the famed 1930s and 1940s newspaper correspondent Ernie Pyle, whose coverage of economic struggles across the American heartland helped win public support for the New Deal. His stories of ordinary soldiers fighting in World War II are considered classics of war reporting. Pyle just happens to have been a relation. The Bales and Pyle families had adjacent farms in Dana, Indiana. What is her exact relationship to Pyle? “You can call it cousin; it probably works in Indiana,” Bales jokes. She may also be his reincarnation.

Bales has written of Pyle’s columns in which the journalist described his crossing the nation noting how the New Deal could fix the system rather than just help individuals. She concludes, “Progressives have also lost the ability to translate from individuals to programs, and from programs back to individuals.”

“I continue to believe that Pyle’s style of journalism is a real antidote to the kind of popularized television news [format],” says Bales. In a 1939 column about poverty in rural Alabama, Pyle put it this way: “They have a way of using the word ‘sorry’ down here that I’ve not heard in other parts of the country. A listless, no-good, poor-paying fellow is known as sorry. You can be poor without being sorry. You’re sorry when you lack character.” Pyle refused to let the region’s economic problems be described as mere personal failings. “You can’t blame any individual, least of all the poor people themselves,” he wrote. “No, it’s a combination of the landlord and the supply merchant and poor land and low prices and sickness and ignorance—in other words, it’s the whole system.”

“It will take generations to get the rural South raised above its system,” Pyle concluded. Bales is hoping it won’t take quite as long to get journalists to report like that again.

Chris Mooney is a contributing writer for The American Prospect. Excerpted from The American Prospect (April 2003). Subscriptions: $39.95/yr. (11 issues) from 5 Broad St., Boston, MA 02109.