Framing and Why That Debate Was So Bad for Obama, Republicans on Drugs and Still the Best Study Ever ?

Framing
Obama Dismays Followers

 

After the first televised debate of the US Presidential election, Republicans were cock-a-hoop and Democrats frustrated and despondent.  Most people watching thought Obama had lost to Romney and a slew of analysis identified reasons for this, nearly all to do with his demeanour, visual bodily signals and his ‘failure’ to use iconic ‘facts’ such as the ‘47%’ (Romney’s dismissal of 47% of the electorate as government-dependent ‘victims’) in his arguments.

 

It largely remains a puzzle why Obama took the approach he did.  Given the huge amount of American political coaching to the effect that visual cues are much more important than what you say, it seems bizarre.  For example PR advisers like Burson-Marsteller routinely advise their clients that in interviews, the attention span of the average viewer or listener is only 20 seconds, they recall just 7% of the interview, and are influenced 7% by content, 30% by tone and 50% by body language.

 

It’s widely agreed that Obama did much better in the second debate but framing plays a large part in why Obama let himself down so badly in the first.  The give-away was in the reactions of his own supporters immediately afterwards.  There were choruses of “why didn’t he land that blow ?” and other cries using the ‘boxing match’ frame.   Although some of the encounter was processed by what was said about ‘issues’, most of the viewers had long made up their minds beforehand who they would be voting for.  The event was not a competition of ideas or policies to swing the ‘undecided’, more a test of whether ‘our man’ had the vigour, enthusiasm and virility, to go the distance as President.

 

As commentator Van Jones said of the second debate: There are two main things people are looking for during these debates: Are you a strong leader, and are you on my side?”.  In debate one, in effec the “weigh-in” for the actual match, Obama didn’t seem up for the fight and it was his own side who felt the greatest pain.

 

Reframing Drugs

 

A very different but also American example of the importance of framing is the case of Drugs Judge, the remarkable Robert Francis.   A Texan Republican with cowboy boots and hunting trophies adorning his office, in values terms Francis has all the visual trappings of a traditionally minded Settler or a Prospector Golden Dreamer who score high on power over others and could be expected to be ‘hardline’ on ‘crime’ and ‘antisocial behaviour’.   Because of the historic polarisation of the ‘drugs issue’ in the US and some other countries, the expected ‘right wing’ approach has been zero tolerance, maximum punishment.  The result has been a classic values conflict along the power versus univeralism antagonism.  As has been noted in previous Campaign Strategy Newsletters, much the same division has historically got in the way of effective responses to issues such as climate change.

 

That at least is how Francis appears although Pat Dade tells me that he suspects Francis is actually a Republic Texan Pioneer Transcender (apparently being Texan means a lot but only understandable to Americans).  Anyway, the interesting thing is how Francis has managed to almost completely reverse the default maximum-jail policy for drugs offenders and replace it with a recipe hitherto only promoted by universalist, social liberals (mostly Pioneers).   As an example, this has relevance for any campaigners seeking to re-frame an issue and lift it out of a values impasse.

 

An article in TheObserver explains what Francis has done.  At the sharp-end his Dallas drugs court imposes onerous personal life-plan type prescriptions on offenders, while retaining the prospect of incarceration for re-offending or absconding.  Offenders get counseling, housing or employment, and (and this is probably important) emotional encounters with Francis in his court room.  They get praise and small incentives to succeed.  Francis told journalist Ian Birrell “These people have to believe we care and want them to succeed … Once they believe in me they can start to change.”

 

As Birrell says, this is a ‘revolution in justice’ and it is sweeping the United States because Republicans have ‘hardline conservatives who have declared prison a sign of state failure. They say it is an inefficient use of taxpayers’ money when the same people, often damaged by drink, drugs, mental health problems or chaotic backgrounds, return there again and again.’

 

Here we have Settler values –avoiding waste of money –  and Prospector pragmatism – ‘do what works’.  The theatre of the Court and the multiple restrictions apply ‘power over others’.

 

Birrell found:  ‘instead of building more prisons and jailing ever more people, Texas is now diverting funds to sophisticated rehabilitation programmes to reduce recidivism. Money has been poured into probation, parole and specialist services for addicts, the mentally ill, women and veterans. And it has worked: figures show even violent crime dropping at more than twice the national average, while cutting costs and reducing prison populations.’   The approach is spreading to Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and South Carolina, with the backing of conservatives such as  Newt Gingrich, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal and Grover Norquis.

 

How can such changes come about ?  The back story of the change is important and it started with money.  In 2006 Texas faced an election and the need, with ‘War on Drugs’ policies, to build $2bn new prisons.  Republican Jerry Madden was asked to find another, cheaper solution.   A Tea-Party sympathizing G W Bush fan Madden had no interest in drugs but probably helpfully, he was an engineer.  He studies evidence and found that locking up drugs offenders was not reducing the problem, and cost much more than more effective strategies.  Birrell notes:   “Madden looked at the numbers and took a leap of faith. He went on the attack, using traditional right-wing arguments to subvert those seeking hardline penal policies. “We moved the issue from one of being soft on criminals to one of being smart over the use of money. If you are keeping people in prison who do not need to be there, then that is a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

I spent several years working on UK Government drugs strategy communications, which are caught in a dysfunctional toggle between policy based on evidence of what-works, and politics playing to a media gallery of “what we’d like to work”: in my view the UK too is in need of a dose of the Texan medicine.

Some lessons to achieve reframing out of a values stand-off:

  • Find a frame that hits some values hot buttons for both groups but also crucially, for those ‘in the middle’ (in this case principally, cost and ‘what works’)
  • Get the change sourced in and from the values base that needs to discard its previous frame
  • Change as little of that frame as possible, eg by redefining it (here, discipline is shifted from being locked up to compliance with life-changes)
  • Have a chain of key, in-control messengers who a critical mass of supporters of the old frame (here War on Drugs>Lock them up) identify with – if Jerry Madden or Robert Francis had been well known social liberals this would not have worked

 

Still the Best Study Ever ?

 

For all campaigners, great books to read on framing remain George Lakoff’s The Political Mind and Don’t Think of An Elephant but comprehensive online research examples usable in training are harder to come by.  It’s also often hard to persuade budget holders that they need to do any research at all, so besotted do they become with their ideal ‘message’ (ie one in which the world agrees with them).

 

The best example I know is still the Frameworks Institute study on the ‘runaway food system’.  Conducted for campaigners wanting to engage the US public in thinking about the pros and cons of the ‘food system’, this study tested over forty frames before hitting upon the ‘runaway’ as the one that triggered effective engagement.  The difference in audience responses shown before and after they were ‘primed’ with this metaframe (which replaces those otherwise dominant) is truly astonishing.  The whole thing is still available in tutorial format here – the key interviews are near the middle but watch it all.

 

If you know of any other great online framing examples, please let me know  chris@campaignstrategy.co.uk .

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