Businesses that find competitors using negative frames against them do well to be cautious in how they employ defensive counter-frames.
Frames are sets of preconceived ideas that are used every day by businesses in how they present themselves and by the stakeholders of those businesses in how they perceive them. As heuristics, frames make sense of a complex world by making available an easy to use mental shortcut. There is no need to mull too much over the possible negative consequences of smoking once it has been established that cigarettes are a “bad product.”
So the frame makes its possible to quickly apply judgments against whomever the frame is applied to. The business that are “safe” have little reasons to rest on their laurels. The world changes at a rapid pace and so do stakeholder expectations of corporations. Who could have fathomed twenty years ago that sugar would also end up being a bad product accused of causing myriads of health problems?
How aggressive a framing war can be fought when there are huge commercial interests at stake is shown by the recent attack on the alternative, plant-based meat sector with the traditional meat producers labeling the vegan fare as “ultra-processed” imitations of meat.
From a reputation management perspective, one of the worst things that can happen to any company is finding itself in a situation where a negative frame is applied to one or more of its products or services, or possibly its entire organization. The communicator’s gut reaction will often be to jump the gun and communicate immediately their own counter-frame. As is often the case in strategic communications however, what makes sense intuitively might not yield the best results.
In what follows, I make two recommendations based on scientific research on how companies should best go about responding to negative frames.
Do not repeat the negative frame
A common mistake that I will often have to help trainees unlearn in media trainings is to reference the frame they are aiming to negate. Mentioning a frame activates a frame. In his seminal book on the topic of framing, “Don’t think of an Elephant,” George Lakoff elaborated on this issue in great length.
It is indeed impossible to not think of elephants when you hear somebody mention an elephant (let alone a pink one), just as it was impossible to not think of crooks when Richard Nixon famously said “I am not a crook.” During media interviews in particular, spokespeople are prone to repeat negative frames because they will be inclined, as happens naturally in conversations, to mirror the words used by the person who is asking the questions.
Do not communicate the counter-frame too early
When it comes to deciding when to answer a frame with your counter-frame, it is important to know whether your audience has already formed strong attitudes in response to the first frame they were exposed to. If an audience has already been very receptive to that first frame, counter-framing can have the opposite effect of what is meant to be achieved in that it will keep the original attitude salient longer than needed, as show in research on counter-framing from Chong and Druckman (2008).
Strong attitudes towards the frame that you are trying to counter can inoculate individuals from further influences. This inoculation may be caused by what is called motivated reasoning, as individuals with strong opinions will be eager to preserve their existing views at all cost by counter-aguing and dismissing opposing arguments. You will want to not immediately communicate the counter-frame in this instance but wait for the frame to decay. If people have formed an initial weak attitude, waiting to counter the frame is not necessary. (How long would you have to wait if a strong opinion is formed by the other frame? The aforementioned research showed a positive impact from waiting 14 days).
The degree to which people will quickly make any frame they are exposed to their own depends on their “need to evaluate” (the higher this is, the less that initial frame will have set their opinion). But how do you know whether your audience has a high need to evaluate? You could ask them through a survey but that is a step for which there will not be room in many communication campaigns. Second best is relying on the fact that (not too surprisingly) a high need to evaluate has been found to correlate with more education and higher income (Bizer, Krosnick, Holbrook et al., 2002).
The impact of personality on cognitive, behavioral, and affective political processes: the effects of need to evaluate by George Y. Bizer, Jon A. Krosnick, Allyson L. Holbrook et al. in Journal of Personality, 72:5, 2004.
Counter-framing effects by Dennis Chong and James N. Druckman in Journal of Politics, 2012.
Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff, Tandem Library, 2004.
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