issue framing

Defending Israel's Assault on Gaza

If you wanted a role model for framing issues, you couldn't do better than Ron Dermer, the American-born and educated Israeli ambassador to the United States.

Dermer has his hands full these days as Israel, for all intents and purposes, has invaded Gaza to root out Hamas tunnels and rocket launchers, inflicting significant civilian casualties that have enraged the Muslim world and made Israel's allies cringe.

He defends Israel early and often and without an apologetic tone. He has framed the issue so that Israel, facing a persistent barrage of rocket fire from Gaza, has a right to defend itself. Period. 

He may have cut his teeth on this line of argument, according to a New York Times feature story, when — as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania — Dermer was assigned the task of arguing Israel should be condemned for its treatment of Palestinians. Dermer was so passionate, he won the debate. When asked why he argued so fiercely for a point of view he strongly disagreed with, Dermer said, "I lied. Like they do."

If Dermer was merely a passionate blowhard, he wouldn't command the respect he receives. And he receives a lot. The Times noted Dermer has made more than 50 television, radio and print interviews since the Israelis and Hamas began fighting.

Framing and Headlines

Framing an issue and writing a headline require the same skill of knowing how to distill your point in a few, catchy words.

They also share an important distinction — how an issue is framed and how a headline is phrased may make the difference of whether anyone pays attention.

Clever framing and headline writing don't guarantee readership, but they sure help. Poor framing or weak headlines are proven attention-killers.

Framing an issue and writing a headline require skill. But more important, they demand focus and a willingness to discard your first idea for a better one.

Some people just have the knack for summing up an issue or story. For others it takes a village. That doesn't matter. Unlike works of arts, well-framed issues and reader-fetching headlines don't carry signatures or bylines. Their value is in their impact on intended audiences.

Common characteristics of framed issues and good headlines include concise description, crisp wording and a memorable twist of phrase.

One of the best current examples of a reframed issue is shifting from "same-sex marriage" to the "freedom to love." It is hard to find a word to hate in the expression "freedom to love." Moreover, it fits well in a sequence of mentioning free speech and freedom of religion. While more opaque than the literally correct "same-sex marriage," freedom to love carries more emotive value and avoids other charged words such as gay, lesbian or transgender.

Framing an Issue, Changing a Mind

How would you argue for scrapping Oregon's iconic Bottle Bill or sacrificing personal privacy to keep the Internet free? That was the challenge my Willamette University MBA students faced as they learned the skill of issue framing.

Effective framing is critical to give people a quick, memorable way to see an issue with your point of view. It is an advocacy tool that plays a fundamental role in issues management, in congealing the views of a broader group and even in changing people's minds.

Here are some of the best issue frames for retiring the venerable Oregon Bottle Bill and its 5-cent redemption fee and having beverage containers collected curbside along with other recyclable material instead of returned to grocery stores:

  • "Kick your cans to curbside."

  • "In recycling we trust."

  • "Ban the Bottle Bill. Recycle instead."

  • "Recycle at the curb, the way GREEN was intended."

  • "Curbside recycling. A simpler choice for you. A cost savings for all."

  • "Kick the Bottle Bill to curbside. Don't pay twice to recycle responsibly."

  • "Save your nickel. Recycle at curbside."

Avoiding the 'Pink Slime'

Managing an issue is a lot easier if you rely on your peripheral vision instead of tunnel vision.In sight, the loss of peripheral vision can result in tunnel vision. The same is true in managing a sensitive public issue.

Glaucoma is a common cause of peripheral vision loss.  In some cases, glaucoma creates pressure that prevents the iris and cornea from opening fully. Glaucoma also can cause blurred vision. Does that sound like the way some organizations manage the issues they face? Some organizations are so sold on their own messages, they fail to hear contrary viewpoints or, worse, cannot see how issues can be reframed.

A good recent example is the "pink slime" issue.  

As described by a USA Today editorial, a savvy Midwest entrepreneur named Eldon Roth figured out how to turn meat trimmings into a profit. "He heated them, spun them in a centrifuge to separate tiny particles of meat from fat, then treated the product with a puff of ammonium gas to kill bacteria." Violå, lean, finely textured beef (known in meat industry parlance as LFTB) was born.

What once was intended for dog food became a thrifty filler to hold down ground beef prices for dog's best friend. 

If you didn't know any differently, the phrase "lean, finely textured beef" sounds like a gourmet product. However, a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist, who was inspecting the product a number of years ago, coined the phrase, "pink slime" in one of his emails. The scientist's phrase didn't surface until a reporter for The New York Times spotted and used it in a critical 2009 story. Suddenly, "lean, finely textured beef" didn't sound very appetizing.