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Influence of Framing Theory in Public Relations

What is framing?

Framing plays an important role in the age of media overload. Yet, there is a lack of a clear definition for framing theory. However, there are quite a few academic studies that analyze how framing is used by public relations professionals and the news media. In news media and public relations practices, frame holder’s strategically attempts to influence and shape how audiences perceive and comprehend situations, events, and products through persuasion, inclusion or exclusion of facts (Hallahan, K. 1999; Lim, J., & Jones, L. 2010; Lundy, L. K. 2006;Waller, R. L., & Conaway, R. N. 2011; Schultz, F., Kleinnijenhuis, J., Oegema, D., Utz, S., & van Atteveldt, W. 2012).

“Frames are designed to deliberately reconstitute selected aspects of reality surrounding deliberation of a public issue. In essence, a frame binds together carefully chosen ideas, information, judgments, arguments, claims, and value statements into a tightly compressed noetic narrative that guides the frameholder’s interpretation of events as well as discourse related to a given topic (Entman, 2007; Price, Tewksbury, & Powers, 1997; Schlechtweg, 1996)” (Waller, R. L., & Conaway, R. N. 2011, p. 87).

Framing and interpretation

Since frames carry the framholder’s interpretation, parties with different points of view and values can use framing to propagate, justify, and defend self-interests. This “adjustable” nature of framing makes it a very influential and sought out tool in communication strategies.

Framing operates through cognitive, rhetorical, and ideological processes. In cognitive processing, framing includes ideas and facts that are beneficial to the frame’s core theme, while excluding ideas and facts that are negative. The  rhetorical process suggests and hints at how the idea should be interpreted using similes, metaphors, descriptions, and illustrations (Hallahan, K. 1999;Waller, R. L., & Conaway, R. N. 2011). Finally, “On an ideological level, frames contain information on how a society works—or should work—as well as the proper relationship among its members; frames contain fundamental assumptions regarding social priorities and problems (Kendall, 2005; Schlechtweg, 1996)”(Waller, R. L., & Conaway, R. N. 2011, p. 87).

Framing theory and mass media

As the power of the media empire continues to expand with each new technological innovation, organizations are constantly in a battle with external actors such as the news media and activists to frame a company’s actions, especially during a crisis. Since communication is an integral part of effective public relations, framing is used in crisis communication strategies and marketing campaigns to defend, promote, and expand organizational interest.

“Implicitly, framing plays an integral role in public relations. If public relations is defined as the process of establishing and maintaining mutually beneficial relations between an organization and publics on whom it depends (Cutlip, Center, & Broom, 1995), the establishment of common frames of reference about topics or issues of mutual concern is a necessary condition for effective relations to be established” (Hallahan, K. 1999, p. 207).

The public relations strategies employed in the Nike sweatshop scandal and the BP oil spill crisis provide practical insight into how framing can be used to frame and counter-frame a crisis.

Framing Nike – Public Relations

Nike came into dominance in the sports shoe market ousting its competitors through a well-developed marketing strategy. Nike continued to expand through outsourcing jobs to Asia and soon came under fire by labor unions, activists, and mainstream media for its questionable labor practices. Nike’s first response was to reject the accusations but initiatives to protect the brand image led to the creation of a counter strategy: “That is, the Eitel team had to counterframe the debate on the labor practices of the company’s Asian contractors as well as the treatment of the young female workers employed in those Asian factories in order to preserve and enhance its reputation for social responsibility and, thereby, to protect its brand equity”(Waller, R. L., & Conaway, R. N. 2011, p. 94).

The news media continued to frame the issue using injustice and identity frames which targeted the Nike CEO and portrayed a corporate giant that had little regard for the plight of its poor workers: “The three major frames in the anti- Nike campaign were identified as follows: negative identity frames, collective action injustice frames, and negative consequence frames”(Waller, R. L., & Conaway, R. N. 2011, p. 96). Nike countered the process using positive identity frames, collective action remediation frames, and positive consequence frames.

Eventually, Nike recovered its image and won over media and its stakeholders by reframing the debate. In this case, the anti- Nike campaign’s framing was defeated by Nike’s counter-framing strategy: “Under Nike corporate Vice President Eitel, the company adroitly counterattacked with thematic frames that greatly reduced the emotional intensity of the whole debate on the company’s labor-related issues” (Waller, R. L., & Conaway, R. N. 2011, p. 103). In this framing war, Nike took on the offensive to counter the allegations and framed its approach using a variety of methods that highlighted the company’s positive actions and dedication to enforce fair labor practices in its Asian production facilities and avoided discussing negative aspects of its past practices.

The BP oil spill crisis is yet another example of a framing battle between the news media and an organization. Here, BP oil frames the company as an agent that is dedicated to solving the crisis and purposefully leaves out and downplays its involvement and responsibility for the oil spill (Schultz, F et al. 2012).

BP time and again brought new technological solutions with symbolic and impressive names (“top kill”, “static kill”) to the front, creating a perception that these initiatives could help stop the oil spill. By that, and by not relating other actors (e.g., the White House) to the cause and problem itself, BP presented that they could become solution providers. “This strategy of decoupling the problem from the corporation’s activities, from the solutions, and furthermore from solution providers, can be described as a “decoupling strategy”(Schultz, F et al. 2012, p.103).

Here, the decoupling strategy is used to reframe the crisis in a way that will portray the company as an agent that is dedicated to fixing the oil spill rather than operating under the news media frame that depicts the crisis as a consequence of corporate greed and mismanagement of natural resources by giant corporations.

In the context of framing, organizations sometimes must compete with opposing forces to determine how the news media frames the organization amidst a crisis. However, news media can be swayed over by strategic public relations campaigns that counter the opposing forces such as activists. While news media is a much stronger force when it comes to framing, it is also susceptible to third party influences. In the two cases discussed above, both Nike and BP attempted to influence how the news media framed the issue while those who were accusing the companies attempted to frame the issues and facts in a way that will further their agenda. There was a well-established coalition that wanted to influence the media coverage in a way that would favor Nike’s opposition (Waller, R. L., & Conaway, R. N. 2011). On the other hand, “Crisis managers will strive to define the situation, that is, whether the events that occurred actually constitute a crisis (situational framing). Certain attributes of a crisis might be emphasized or de-emphasized, such as the steps being taken to correct a problem (attribute framing)” (Hallahan, K. 1999, p. 229).

Framing during a crisis

Furthermore, in crisis situations public relations professionals must be prepared “to address the underlying issues behind the crisis (issue framing) as well as the cause and potential explanations of responsibility (responsibility framing)” (Hallahan, K. 1999, p. 229). In the BP oil spill crises, the company avoided addressing the responsibility frame and focused on issue framing and built a campaign highlighting the actions the company took to solve the issue.

“Frame competition indicates that different frames with varying degrees of magnitude are present in reality so that individuals consume those competitive frames simultaneously” (Lim, J., & Jones, L. 2010, p. 296). The competing frames affect the public as well as the news media and knowing how to work with competing frames and influencing the news frame with the organizational frame during a crisis will enable an organization to bounce back after a major crisis.

How a company handles a crisis will determine its future. Therefore, crisis management is an important aspect of public relations and framing plays a major role in how the public views and understands the crisis. By entering the arena where issues are framed and presented to the public, an organization has the opportunity to compete with factors that will determine how the company’s role is portrayed to the public. The importance of paying attention to the news media frame of an issue and being able to influence it in a way that will benefit the company is easier said than done. However, as Nike and BP have demonstrated, framing can be used to a company’s advantage if the public relations department plays the right cards at the right time.

References: APA 6th Edition

Hallahan, K. (1999). Seven Models of Framing: Implications for Public

Relations.Journal Of Public Relations Research11(3), 205-242.

Lim, J., & Jones, L. (2010). A baseline summary of framing research in public

relations from 1990 to 2009. Public Relations Review36(3), 292-297. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2010.05.003

Lundy, L. K. (2006). Effect of framing on cognitive processing in public

relations.Public Relations Review32(3), 295-301. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2006.05.021

Schultz, F., Kleinnijenhuis, J., Oegema, D., Utz, S., & van Atteveldt, W. (2012). Strategic

framing in the BP crisis: A semantic network analysis of associative frames.Public Relations Review38(1), 97-107. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2011.08.003

Waller, R. L., & Conaway, R. N. (2011). Framing and Counterframing the Issue of

Corporate Social Responsibility. Journal Of Business Communication48(1), 83-106. doi:10.1177/0021943610389752

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