Image for Framing an Issue Seeks to Galvanize Opinion and Action

The words used to describe an issue can make all the difference. That’s called framing, and there is no better example of the power and pitfalls of framing than the roiling debate over defunding police.

“Defund police” went from a protest banner to a familiar phrase almost overnight. The phrase has ignited a firestorm, with outraged opponents decrying the folly of eliminating local law enforcement to sympathetic supporters who see the concept as a way of rethinking local policing.

A major part of the disagreement is definitional. While gaining nationwide notoriety according to polls, the phrase has been tossed about without everyone – or maybe almost anyone – knowing exactly what it means.

Despite the continuing divergence of intended definitions, some communities are implementing “defund police” strategies. So far, that has generally meant trimming police budgets, not hiring more police officers and diverting the money to mental health emergency responders and affordable housing.

In Minneapolis, where the current round of protests was sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, the city council has proposed eliminating the current police department and replacing it with a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention, which it describes as a “holistic” approach to public safety. A non-law enforcement person would serve as director.

As the debate has intensified and defunding police policies have been put in motion, pollsters at PerryUndem, a public opinion research firm, have detected a growing receptivity to the concept, even as it remains somewhat fuzzy and undefined. A just released Monmouth University poll found 77 percent of respondents believe the phrase means changing the way police departments operate, while only 18 percent believed it means f=getting rid of police altogether. “Defund police” is undergoing what communications people call “reframing”.

“Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world,” says George Lakoff, who is called the “Father of Framing”. “As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions.”

“When we successfully reframe public discourse, we change the way the public sees the world,” Lakoff adds. “We change what counts as common sense. Because language activates frames, new language is required for new frames. Thinking differently requires speaking differently.”

Framing or reframing an issue is a critical tool in the arsenal of public affairs professionals. The task can take time, requires repetition and involves more than coming up with a clever slogan.

In his book Don’t Think of an Elephant, Lakoff argues that framing and reframing must conform or confront beliefs held by the intended audience. “Defund police” as a phrase certainly accomplishes that. Most people believe policing is an essential public service. The use of the word “defund” by protest groups confronts the question of what the public wants from police departments.

For many people, the initial reaction to “defund police” is incredulity. Hardly anyone would support doing away with police. At the same time, the phrase sparks a conversation about what should we be funding and is traditional policing the answer for all the problems occurring in our communities. That conversation has expanded and matured to put more detail behind the phrase. The details, such as have teams of mental health specialists respond to certain kinds of emergencies, has piqued interest, which in turn has prompted local action.

The groups espousing the idea of defunding police haven’t won the war, but they haven’t lost either. The explosiveness of the phrase has played a part in sustaining the conversation and instigating community rethinking. “Defund police” exponents have expanded from sign-carrying protesters to include citizens and officials who believe the concept is a way to enable police departments to stick to law enforcement and be relieved of duty to address homelessness, domestic violence and mentally ill people acting out.

Many communications “experts”, including me, thought it was a mistake to use such an incendiary phrase as “defund police”. The ongoing conversation and bursts of official action to reshape police budgets prove the experts wrong. 

The confusing messaging surrounding the use of masks as a safeguard against airborne transmission of the COVID-19 virus stands in stark contrast to the policing conversation. There isn’t anything as clear-cut to frame the use of masks. While millions of Americans are routinely wearing facial protection when in public places and states are moving to make wearing masks mandatory, there is no definitive frame for masks.

Opponents have turned the issue into one of personal freedom, reminiscent of previous debates over public health measures like bike helmets, indoor smoking bans and seatbelts in cars. Scenes broadcast daily on TV newscasts give evidence that many people party, shop or gather in crowds without masks. Public health officials need to find a way to reframe the issue, especially for younger people who don’t feel as vulnerable to the virus.

A friend mused online about the dilemma and came up with this take-off from the successful “Click It or Ticket” campaign by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. His suggestion:

Mask It or Casket

The familiar turn-of-phrase is intentionally provocative. Anti-maskers will dismiss it by claiming that most people who contract the virus won’t die, which is true. However, the sharp point of the phrase is raising the profile of consequences for not wearing masks. It may not be your casket, but it could be the casket of someone you love.

Framing or reframing an issue is not for the faint of heart. It is a contact sport. The reason “defund police” worked better than, say, “rethink policing” is because it is more emotionally charged and challenges widely held viewpoints. In-your-face tactics don’t always work, but sometimes, such as in the midst of a resurging pandemic, they may be worth a try.