'Alternative Facts' Versus Reframing an Issue

You can keep your conversation out of the ditch better by reframing an issue toward some good news instead of resorting to alternative facts that are easily disputed and prolong a bad news narrative.

You can keep your conversation out of the ditch better by reframing an issue toward some good news instead of resorting to alternative facts that are easily disputed and prolong a bad news narrative.

It is important for crisis counselors to understand the difference between alternative facts and reframing an issue. Alternative facts are attempts at spin control. Reframing an issue is a constructive way to show a different perspective.

Last weekend’s brouhaha over the size of the audience witnessing President Trump’s inauguration is the perfect example of the difference.

Trump’s surrogates disputed visual evidence that the crowd on the Washington Mall was smaller than the audience who came to the 2009 inauguration of President Obama. They blamed the news media for using distorted photography and intentionally lying about crowd size. 

In the process, Trump special adviser Kellyanne Conway coined the term “alternative facts.” However, the alternative facts failed to convince very many people, but they did generate a storyline that managed to obscure what Trump actually said in his inaugural address.

The Trump team might have been wise to reframe the issue, instead of pick a fight. For example, data indicated the online audience watching the inauguration was the largest in history. This wasn’t an alternative fact, but a way to reframe the discussion to highlight that audiences are migrating to new virtual viewing stands.

Trump’s people could say, with validity, that it didn't matter where people watched. They also could have said the larger online audience suggests that younger people tuned in. Both would have been good and far less contentious messages.

If the President – or the CEO – is hung up on some issues, whether it is the size of a crowd or last month’s sales figures, lying won’t produce the desired positive press. It paradoxically is more likely to keep the bad news you tried to hide in the headlines.

Looking for a way to reframe bad news doesn’t involve lying about it. Reframing requires looking for silver linings, the good news lurking below the bad. Reframing won’t be successful if you are just making stuff up. You need to redirect attention at credible other information, trends or outcomes. You need to give your audience something worthwhile to consider amid the bad news.

Another lesson to learn is to pick your spots. While Trump may be obsessed with the size of things, most Americans could care less how big the crowd was at his inauguration. Putting that issue front and center was disproportionate to its importance and not so subtly underscored the narrative of the new president as a congenital narcissist who proclaimed a policy of “America First,” but acted like “Trump First.”

His special day and the weekend that followed could have been so much different if Trump and his team simply reframed what was significant and what was not and shifted the conversation in that direction.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.