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Know Your Frame


  • Changing public opinion can be a long, uphill climb. 
  • The first step to securing a policy victory is identifying the one point you want to change the public’s mind on. Then, ask yourself if changing opinion on that point will make it easier to enact a policy change.
  • Embrace your cause and don’t be afraid to address it directly — the public will respond to authentic campaigns.
For those readers who are new to this series, I am posting columns every month about communications lessons I learned during my decade-long involvement in the campaign to repeal ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ (DADT). Each posting focuses on an error that I made, or saw other groups make, followed by thoughts about what might have prevented the mistake. The effort to repeal DADT has been viewed as a textbook example of social justice advocacy, and public education was one component of the campaign. Hence, lessons from the repeal struggle may merit consideration by advocates working across a range of issues. That said, my experiences have been informed by just one campaign, and lessons may not be relevant in other realms. So I want to be explicit in noting that I am not claiming any across-the-board validity to my insights, and to invite readers who have a different take to let me know. For elaboration on the lessons I discuss in this series, please see my e-book How We Won: Progressive Lessons from the Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

In my last column, I argued that, from my perspective, some NGO’s seem to use their communications departments to promote organizational name recognition, but few appear to pursue opportunities to leverage communications to the broader aim of shifting public consciousness, of changing the public’s mind about critical issues. My argument was that few progressive non-profits integrate communications strategies into broader, long term strategies of social justice focused on changing the public conversation. (Right wing groups have been effective at this, but progressive organizations seem to be lagging behind). I noted that in the DADT repeal struggle, advocacy groups pursued a decade-long strategy to convince the public that discrimination, not gay troops, harm the military, and that changing the public’s mind about this point was a necessary pre-condition for achieving policy change.

Let’s say, for the moment, that an NGO has decided that to use its communications department more strategically, not just to promote organizational name-recognition, but also to change public opinion on a critical issue of the day. How, exactly, can that be achieved? And isn’t changing the public’s mind too tall of an order to succeed? I have several responses, all of which will be subjects of future columns. But for now, I’d like to focus on a central question embedded within today’s question. In particular, if an organization decides to try to change the public’s mind, how can it identify the right message out of the infinite number of possible talking points?

Ten years ago, Berkeley professor George Lakoff offered an answer to this question, and his answer has been influential in progressive circles. Lakoff argued in Don’t Think of an Elephant (2004, revised 2014) that progressives have lost the framing wars. According to Lakoff, conservatives have become clever at framing policy initiatives in terms that advance their agenda. Hence, they successfully recoded the “estate tax” as the “death tax,” under the theory that since few Americans own estates, there was relatively little opposition to a federal tax on estates, but given that everyone has to die, public opposition to a “death tax” would be easier to incite. Another example is that conservatives named a law designed to enable utilities to spew pollution into the air the “Clear Skies Act.” And who can forget the frightening conversation about “death panels” that was fabricated during the public conversation in 2009 about the possibility of a public option for national health insurance.

Lakoff advised progressives to become as clever as conservatives when it comes to message selection and framing, and to take every opportunity to determine how issues get framed. Progressives should never use conservative frames, Lakoff said, because as soon as progressives allow conservatives to frame a conversation, we lose. Who, after all, is going to oppose a “Clear Skies Act”? Democrats and progressives have followed his advice. Which is why, for example, pretty much every Democrat running for President frames their budget proposals in terms of promises to cut federal spending.

[pullquote1 align=”center” textColor=”#000000″]“If we could snap our fingers and change the public’s mind about one point, what would that point be?” and “If we succeed at changing the public’s mind about that one point, would it be easier for progressive politicians to enact policy and legal change that would benefit the public?”[/pullquote1]

Maybe Lakoff is right when it comes to message selection for political campaigns. But there’s a big difference between campaign strategy and long-term planning, and one critical difference between a political campaign and an NGO is that NGOs have the luxury of time. And they can use that time to change the public’s mind.

I want to argue that when it comes to message selection, the reason that conservatives have to be so clever about framing is that most conservative initiatives are designed to promote the welfare of the few at the expense of the many. By contrast, progressive NGOs don’t need to lie or even be slick when it comes to message selection because our initiatives are designed to help people. When progressives select messages to frame public opinion, I would argue that in most cases it is best to simply be honest about what we’re saying, and even to use conservative frames. And to use communications strategies to change the public’s mind about key issues, thus giving political leaders more cover for progressive initiatives.

Consider an example from the DADT repeal campaign. When I founded the Palm Center in 1999, one of my first steps was to survey the landscape and assess where the conversation stood at that time. On one side of the debate were gay and lesbian advocacy groups whose messaging emphasized fairness and democracy. Their argument was that firing service members for being gay or lesbian was an unfair violation of civil rights that was inconsistent with the norms and values of a democracy. On the other side, military leaders and their allies insisted that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would harm the military.

My assessment was that as long as the conversation remained framed in these terms, no politician would ever be able to repeal DADT. The fairness/civil rights/democracy message was no doubt valid. DADT was in fact a grossly unfair law. But that said, defenders of discrimination could easily trump that message by arguing that in matters of national security, military effectiveness must come first. And while it might be unfair to fire gay and lesbian service members, the cost of not doing so would be to jeopardize military readiness and potentially and unnecessarily sacrifice the lives of the troops who defend the nation.

As was the case with the “Clear Skies Act,” the military readiness argument was a flat-out lie, plain and simple. Even the military’s own research indicated quite clearly that gays do not harm the military. But there’s a big difference between knowing something in an academic sense and creating a conventional wisdom among opinion leaders and the public at large.

My staff and I decided that for the foreseeable future, our primary mission would be to sponsor research to assess whether the military readiness argument was valid, to publish the research in peer review journals, and to use aggressive communications strategies to publicize our research findings. Based on the findings of our research, we identified our message as follows: “discrimination, not gay troops, hurts the military.” Notice that, contrary to Lakoff’s advice, we used the conservative frame concerning military effectiveness, and purposely stayed away from the progressive frame about fairness, civil rights and democracy. Also, there was nothing slick about our frame. All we had to do was tell the truth.

[pullquote1 align=”center” textColor=”#000000″]Unless progressive groups use communications strategies to give politicians cover to do the right thing, we cannot expect them to achieve social justice on our behalf. [/pullquote1]

To the extent that our maneuver could be generalized into more broadly-applicable strategic advice, we identified a lie (gays hurt the military) that was sustaining bad policy (DADT), and then used communications to flip that lie on its head (discrimination, not gays, hurts the military). We knew that winning the war in the court of public opinion would never be sufficient for changing policy. But we viewed changing public opinion as a necessary pre-condition for policy change.

For an NGO contemplating a similar strategy, perhaps the first two questions to ask are this: “If we could snap our fingers and change the public’s mind about one point, what would that point be?” and “If we succeed at changing the public’s mind about that one point, would it be easier for progressive politicians to enact policy and legal change that would benefit the public?”

Let’s return to budget policy for a moment, and to my point that Democrats running for President almost always frame budget proposals in terms of promises to cut federal spending. Are there any myths that force Democrats to take that stand? My sense is that the public has bought into several myths (lies) that have been promoted by long term message campaigns by conservative NGOs and opinion leaders: (1) The federal government spends more on the poor than the rich. In fact, once tax expenditures are factored into the equation, it becomes clear that the federal government spends far more on rich families than poor ones; (2) Government spending is high. In fact, government spending on social programs (as opposed to national security) is low in comparison to other industrialized nations. Our total federal spending per GDP is roughly analogous to other industrialized countries, but when you separate guns from butter spending, you see that our public spending on butter is comparable to a banana republic; (3) Federal income taxes are high. In fact, taxes are quite low when compared to other countries or even our own history.

What if progressive groups engaged in a twenty-year campaign, based on research, to explain that public beliefs about federal revenue and spending are based on lies? That may sound like pie in the sky. But when I first became involved in the campaign to repeal DADT, it seemed impossible to imagine a day when no one would take the Generals and Admirals seriously when they said that gay and lesbians undermine the military. Unless progressive groups use communications strategies to give politicians cover to do the right thing, we cannot expect them to achieve social justice on our behalf. And the only way to give them cover is to be brave enough to stand by our convictions, and to use communications to express those convictions as aggressively as possible. If this sounds like a platitude, the I would ask: when was the last time you heard the media cover the dangers of excessive military strength, the risks of collecting too much intelligence, or the benefits of high taxes?

In next month’s column, I’ll return to a variant of the question I posed at the beginning of this one. If an NGO has decided to use communications to change the public’s mind, and has selected the message that it wants to emphasize, what is the next step? For an answer, please check back next month.

Aaron Belkin is a scholar, author, activist, and dancer. He has written and edited more than twenty five scholarly articles, chapters, and books, and he designed and implemented much of the public education campaign that eroded popular support for military anti-gay discrimination. After the military’s gay ban was overturned, Harvard Law Professor Janet Halley said of Belkin, “Probably no single person deserves more credit for the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’” Follow him on Twitter at @aaronbelkin.


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