Why framing your message matters

Five concepts that communications pros should know to strengthen their effectiveness.

I had the opportunity to hear from a psychological anthropologist at a meeting in Washington, DC, last week. What does this have to do with communications? He studies public thinking and how different social societies and cultures can lead to different outcomes and understandings. Some of what I learned should seem like common sense, but communicators often rely on their own judgment to develop messages rather than on research. Framing messages correctly is key to communication success.

Nat Kendall-Taylor, PhD, is the CEO of the Frameworks Institute, a nonprofit organization that "roots communications practice in the cognitive and social sciences." He spoke to us about five concepts that communication professionals should know to strengthen their effectiveness.

Understanding is frame-dependent
How you frame an issue matters, and it should be based on sound research. For example, Kendall-Taylor spoke about a public policy matter related to addiction and gaining public support. What resonated with those surveyed was that "drug addiction hurts us all—we're all in it together." What didn't work was a message of empathy. The message of "we should feel sorry for those addicted" didn't work to gain support for the proposed policy.

Expert comments can be understood by the public entirely different than intended
In healthcare, a physician may say something very important, but medical jargon doesn't always translate into the general public's understanding. At the same time, broad statements about wellbeing, for example, may be interpreted differently by one individual than another. Each thinks about what this means to him or her personally, rather than to society as a whole.

Providing more data always doesn't help your case
You need the right data to tell your story and make your point. Too much data can cause confusion and misinterpretation of your message.

Correcting mistakes can make them worse
A great example highlighted PR campaigns that provide "myths and truths." According to his company's research, the mass public tends to recall the myths, rather than the truths, which causes long-term misunderstandings. And worse, they attribute those "myths" to the organization that put them out in the first place. He used an example of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s educational campaign on myths and facts about the flu vaccine.

Balance urgency with efficacy and be solution driven
In a crisis for example, you want to achieve the greatest understanding of your messages and create the outcome you desire. When there is high urgency and high efficacy, you get the strongest motivation from your audiences. When there is low urgency to an issue and low efficacy, your audience is least motivated to act or respond.

As public relations professionals, we are constantly trying to improve how effectively we communicate to our audiences. This thinking and analysis can serve as one more tool that may help.

Eileen Sheil is executive director of corporate communications at Cleveland Clinic. She can be reached at sheile@ccf.org.

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