Have you ever had to speak to the media about an issue that has faced your business or your campaign? Did you feel like they were asking you a question when they already had a predisposition toward a certain answer? Specifically, that their question was “framed” in a certain way?
I’m sure the answer is yes but before you write off the media it’s important to look at how you respond to ways in which “framed” questions come your way. First, what is framing? The easiest way to define it comes from Shanto Iyengar, a communications professor at Stanford: presenting the same information in different ways. We all use framing as part of our attempts to influence.
As American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet has written, in storytelling, communicators can select from a collection of interpretations. The storyteller’s preferred meanings are filtered by the predispositions of the audience that shape their judgments and decisions.
The media is no different.
They are both the initial audience and the eventual storyteller. Sure, we’d like to think of everyone in the media as non-biased and unable to be influenced by frames. And I think that many journalists truly do work hard to ensure this is the case.
But the reality is that journalists are people too and they have opinions and use frames to simplify complex issues just as much as the rest of your target audience does After all, how else would they make sense of a subject they had just learned about that day and then turn around and interpret it to thousands of people?
When you are presenting information to the media you want to do it in the same way you would any other target audience—develop a narrative and core message, and frame the issue.
But when the media comes at you with a frame how do you counter it?
One way not to do it, unless you want to be famous on the blogosphere, is to challenge the interviewer, get angry and say, “listen [enter expletive here], why are you wasting my time if you are just going to write the article you want to write anyway?”
It might be fun to do that but it won’t really help out the article.
First, to counter the incoming frame, the most important thing is to not repeat or accept the frame. Think about a recent newspaper article you have read. When you saw the quotes from one of their sources did you also see the questions that were asked to produce those quotes?
Generally the answer is no.
But if you look closely at a lot of newspaper interviews you can infer what questions the journalists have asked. That is because the interviewee accepted the journalist’s frame as presented.
In your interview, since the journalists aren’t writing the question down to accompany your answer, there is no need to always accept the question as framed.
Before you (and journalists reading this) panic, don’t forget that this stance isn’t suggesting you avoid the question. This is simply saying that you are in control of the interview and should remember that just because a question is asked a certain way does not mean you have to answer it in the same manner.
Let’s look at an example.
Say you are the owner of the small local bookstore. Your bookstore is struggling to survive in a world of Internet pricing and massive selection. As I’ve written about before, it is important for you to connect on an emotional level over data level.
But data is what the local journalist wants to focus on. After all, a new mega bookstore wants to come in to town and offer cheaper prices and a cool café and the journalist knows that your sales will take a hit.
So when you have begun a signature campaign to save your bookstore from the behemoth, the local paper calls you for an interview. After exchanging some pleasantries you receive the following questions:
Journalist: I understand you’ve started a signature campaign to encourage the local city council to prevent MegaBooks from coming to town. Some other retailers are saying that given the lower prices they would offer you’d lose 35% of your business. Isn’t this just a self-interested attempt to stay open?
You:[Silently] Oh crap.
Journalist: And to follow on that, if people want to support your small business wouldn’t they still do it even if MegaBooks opens? Isn’t that capitalism?
You:[Less Silently] Oh crap.
Does this sound familiar? It may be a little strong but it illustrates the point. What would happen if you had accepted or repeated the incoming frame? What if you had said the following:
You: This has nothing to do with our profits. I’m a firm believer in capitalism and I understand why some people would be interested in lower cost books, but this isn’t about that.
With this reply, now you have repeated and accepted the frames. Imagine how the quote will read and imagine what the framework of the story will look like. The entire story will be focused on a new bookstore coming to town with lower costs and your quotes will only support that frame.
So how would you not accept the incoming frame and possibly even pivot to your own, more emotional, compelling frame?
Let’s try this answer:
You: This is fundamentally a story about David versus Goliath. I imagine a community where small independent family businesses continue to thrive because neighbors help neighbors succeed. We are a part of this community, our children go to school here and our lives and hearts are here. We view our bookstore as an extension of our home and want our community to continue to be welcomed into our business as though it were their second home.
Now imagine the possible headline: “MegaBooks Seen as Goliath Taking on David”
You didn’t avoid the question that was asked; you just provided a new, more emotionally compelling frame.
Note also how the response doesn’t focus on the percentage of lost sales or the price advantages of MegaBooks or anything else that will lose your audience’s interest.
The numbers are inherent in the image of David taking on Goliath. The big guy has the advantages and you are trying to create an emotional picture as to why the little guy should win.
Media frames work because they connect the mental dots for the public. The public already has an underlying narrative about the small bookstore and MegaBooks. It’s up to you to guide the media frames so the audience (both the journalist and the readers) come away with a better understanding of what information is being presented.
If you approach media interviews this way you will learn you are in control – and there is no need to be terrified.