Open Framing

Over the past five years, we have worked for a more connected, aligned and effective civil society through Common Cause, Campaign Lab and a number of other initiatives. We’ve published reports, created toolkits and run hundreds of workshops and training sessions for charities, think tanks, trade unions, artists and grassroots activists. And we’re eternally grateful for all the collaborations, support, and inspirations we’ve had on this journey!

Now, we’re developing a new branch of work and we’re hoping to be able to draw on, build on, and further strengthen these collaborations to create something great …

The Open Framing Project* seeks to give civil society powerful, participatory tools to change cultural stories and achieve lasting, transformational social change.

*Working title!

General Election Framing Guide 3

For anyone working towards a more equitable, democratic and sustainable societyOccupy Protester Shouting

It’s just seven days until the polling stations close.

Depending on your constitution (and/or the most recent poll you have seen), you might feel we are living in exciting (or terrifying) political times, or you might agree with Brenda in Bristol that there is just too much politics these days. Either way, it’s important not to lose sight of the long-term changes we are working towards. Knowing how to communicate effectively is a key part of creating this change.

At PIRC, we work with others to explore how to best frame the issues we care about (creating a nicer, more equal, happier, greener world). From the varied groups and issues we’ve worked on (including our current work on Framing the Economy), we’ve summarised five things anyone working for a more equitable, democratic and sustainable society should keep in mind when communicating with people in this week before the election (whether you’re out door-knocking, sending your final email campaigns or writing blogs).

1. Speak to people’s best selves

We aren’t as divided as we think. Just as we can all be horrible sometimes, we can also be really wonderful. Research suggests people are much nicer than we think; and that we share more values in common than we assume. In particular, people prioritise values around caring about others more than we think.

Research also suggests that what we focus on can encourage different values and sides in people. So, if we talk about economic benefits, people are more likely to act with concern for personal financial gain. If we talk about collective care, people are more likely to act with concern for their communities. What this means is we need to focus as much as possible on our (collective and individual) better selves.

In a similar vein, think about when your own mind has been changed. Has it been when someone’s been shouting at you, condescending you, or calling you an idiot? Unless you’re a bit of a masochist (and that’s fine), the answer’s probably no. So respect the people you’re talking to—they’re not stupid, and they’re not evil—and respect the journeys they might have to go on to really hear what you’re saying.

Will we convince everyone? No. But we’ll also lose our own supporters (and possibly our souls) if we bend to their requests in order to win everyone over.

2. Yes, ‘the system is rigged’: so what?

Most people already agree with you. The system is broken. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer. The ‘establishment’ are not to be trusted (variously understood as bankers, corporations, politicians, and the media). Even better: people care.

The bad news? People are cynical and fatalistic. People think we’re screwed, and there’s not much we can do about it.  So when you say “The system is rigged!” people don’t think “And we can work together to fix it!” They think “And that’s just the way it is cos people are selfish / it’s always been like that / nothing changes.”

Naming the problem is important, but not sufficient.

If we want to motivate and energise people this election (and—gasp—beyond), we need to talk way more about solutions. Clear, constructive, collective solutions. Solutions that match the size of the problems we face. There’s no point being unrealistic—it’ll just cause disillusionment and disappointment when it doesn’t happen—but let’s show that there are ways of doing things better, and that change is possible.

3. Repeat, repeat, repeat

You know how frustrated you get when you’ve seen that terrible advert for the 400th time? Well, it’s kind of on purpose. Advertising is made to be repeated over and over and over and over because, however annoying it becomes, that’s the way it sticks in your brain. Savvy politicians know this—hence those repeated rhetorical flourishes we can all cite word for word. If you want people to remember what you’re talking about, get your message clear, as snappy as possible, and keep getting it out there.

It also means that working together and acting in solidarity with each other is good for all of us. We should be repeating and passing on each others’ messages in order to give them more strength.

Sound obvious? Perhaps the less obvious bit is that even when you’re talking about how annoying the advert is you’re reinforcing their advertising. (Just like saying ‘don’t think of an elephant’ doesn’t stop you thinking of an elephant!) In other words, don’t repeat messages you don’t agree with, even to refute them.

This means myth-busting is a bust. One study showed that people who read a myth-busting factsheet about vaccines were more likely to believe they were true afterwards, and actually attributed the myths to the health organisation sponsoring the factsheets. So if you’re talking about policies or rhetoric you don’t agree with, give them as little airtime as you can. Instead, repeat and reinforce your own.

4. Care is competence

There are strong frames around competence in most elections. We are repeatedly being told who is competent to lead the country in difficult times, make decisions about our economy, etc. from all sides in this one. But the dominant framing of competence is often narrow and incompatible with creating a more sustainable, equitable and democratic society.

We need to disrupt this frame. Wherever possible, we must make the case that competence includes responsible care for people and planet. Any politician making policy decisions that worsen living conditions, destroys nature, fails to represent communities (etc. etc.) is not competent: different choices can and should be made.

Finding a good metaphor or other comparison for this kind of competence vs. the pretence of competence will likely be useful.

5. Disrupt xenophobic nationalism

Post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-Manchester, we need to be ever-vigilant for the racist and xenophobic nationalism that casts a huge shadow over so much of our political debate. The response to this has often, at best, been too quiet: too many of us have sat in that shadow. At worst, people have pandered to these beliefs in order to win over those with opposing views.

We must, instead, undermine these frames.

Remember that myth-busting doesn’t work, so this doesn’t mean saying ‘immigrants/ refugees  are not / do not…’. Instead try the show don’t tell principle: showcase diverse voices and faces, telling a story of our country that is inclusive and fair through what people can see.

At the very least, we all—whatever our issue—should check over what we’re saying for whether it could be read in a way that excludes people of colour or immigrants from the story of our country.


Yes Equality Paint Splat Campaign Banner

If you want a bit of inspiration, the Irish campaign for a yes vote on the marriage equality referendum in 2015 is a good ‘un (they won an ‘impossible’ 62% yes vote):

  • Speaking to people’s best selves. The campaign (after much research) decided to focus on a positive story of Ireland as a generous, fair, equal and inclusive country: in which marriage equality was a perfect next step of progress. They situated gay and lesbian couples within their wider families and connected with their various audiences with a variety of very human messengers. They used humour and got people out knocking on doors and creating their own campaign videos. And they consciously refrained from talking about it as a rights issue or focusing heavily on unfairness.
  • Showing change is possible. The campaign was all about change, and focused heavily on the solution rather than spending time talking about the problem (except when appropriate, like when asked why the change was necessary). It was really clear on its campaign asks and how people could get involved. And there was a huge, grassroots uptake of the issue: thousands of canvassers and people making their own materials; other organisations getting involved.
  • Repeating, repeating, repeating. Campaigners refused to get into debates with the No Campaign, or get drawn on their insidious claims, as they found very early on that saying ‘it’s not true that x’ just fuelled an unhelpful debate. Instead, they knew their own key messages and stuck to them: that this was a positive family issue, that reflected the character of a nation centred on generosity, equality and fairness.

Lastly, take care of yourselves, and each other

Campaigning, canvassing, even just talking to your own family about politics, can be really, really hard. Hearing the lies told in the media and the horrible events that occur daily is heavy stuff to take. It can all be a bit exhausting at least, and traumatic at worst. Make sure you’ve got some people you can shout and swear at (like, good friends with tea / cake / beer). Take time out. Sleep. Eat.

Remember self-care is a political act.


Civil society creating powerful, shared stories

“Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Author

What we’ll do

Through our work and many conversations with people across civil society, we’ve seen a need for a better understanding of strategic communications: on how to build stronger movements with the capacity to tell stories that create a better society for all. And we also know there is a lot of knowledge and creativity within civil society.

We aim to harness this potential through providing accessible tools for understanding story, such as:

  • Exciting workshops where we explore narratives and create new ones;
  • Cool, open-source online tools and printed resources;
  • Connecting with multiple movements and sharing learning;
  • Researching the best ways to frame stuff.

Why we’re doing it

“It is easy to forget how mysterious and mighty stories are. They do their work in silence, invisibly. They work with all the internal materials of the mind and self. They become part of you while changing you. Beware the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.”
Ben Okri, Author

In the past year, we’ve definitely witnessed the power of stories. The mainstream media cast the already marginalised as undeserving: disempowering people and deepening divisions within communities. But we’ve also seen stories that transform society for the better. During Ireland’s equal marriage referendum, the ‘Yes’ campaign told a powerful story of the Irish people as generous, inclusive and fair. Its authenticity and the engaging methods used to tell it resonated, bringing about an historic ‘yes’ to equality.

We believe that social change requires deep shifts in thinking. We must still reform laws and technology – but neither is sufficient in solving entrenched social problems. Rather, we need to change public and political discourse: the stories we tell ourselves. We can easily get trapped in a story that restricts the possibility for change. A new story – a new way of thinking – can help new worlds come into being.

To address poverty, inequality, exclusion, conflict, and climate change, we need new stories. These must connect rather than divide, explain rather than obscure, and offer hope rather than fear. Yet civil society is often surprisingly ill-equipped to navigate this terrain. Many of the largest and best-resourced organisations have become overly-technical and risk-averse, struggling to tell authentic stories. Those with the best stories often don’t have the resources to develop or share them. Strategic communication – ‘framing’ – has been an expert-led field, requiring large consultancy fees and research budgets, inaccessible to most. Further, stories are at their most powerful when they’re shared and told widely: an organisation can’t shift stories on their own. Civil society must connect and support each other.

Through the Open Framing Project we want to better equip civil society to tell world-changing stories. We’ll forge partnerships and networks across organisations, movements and borders, and create open, collaborative and accessible tools and resources.

“Narratives and melodramas are not mere words and images; they can enter our brains and provide models that we not merely live by, but that define who we are. Language is an instrument of creativity and power, a means of connecting with people or alienating them, and a force for social cohesion or separation.”
George Lakoff, Cognitive Linguist & Author

And we’d love it if you wanted to be involved.

We’re interested to hear from you if you have ideas, want to hear more, or want to work with us. We’ve loved working with the European LGBTI movement, international development organisations, people from the sexual and reproductive health and rights sector, economic justice campaigners, environmentalists and many more in developing this work so far, and we’re keen to take it further …

Latest Open Framing posts:

Developing Discourse or Stunted Growth? Taking the Sustainable out of the Sustainable Development Goals

Where does poverty come from?

Whatever your answer, it’ll shape what you think we should do about it. If you think it’s natural, for example, then perhaps all we can do about it is alleviate suffering rather than get rid of it. Perhaps we shouldn’t do anything about it at all.

Your answer will subsequently have an impact on how effective you are at addressing poverty. Will you introduce incentive schemes because you believe poor people are just not trying hard enough; or higher taxes for the rich because you believe historically there has been an unfair allocation of resources? Do you reduce or increase social benefits, like unemployment or child benefits?


In other words, the way we ‘frame’ poverty has a direct link with our political response.

It’s worrying, then, that an upcoming report from /The Rules suggests that the understanding of poverty that underpins the Sustainable Development Goals  (SDGs) is faulty. Worrying because the SDGs, which replace the Millenium Development Goals, represent the political response of the entire international community to global poverty. Read more

Strivers and skivers? We’re all in this together 2

The binary rhetoric that currently surrounds the welfare state reflects a deep moral narrative with a crippling social impact. ‘Strivers’ and ‘skivers’ are two sides of the same coin. That coin is shame.

One side represents the deserving, and the other side the undeserving. Rachel Reeves, the UK Shadow Work & Pensions Secretary, recently said that: “We [the Labour Party] are not the party of people on benefits.” She faced some criticism for these words, but these are messages we hear daily, from government and opposition alike.

We’re here for hard-working families. We’re here for the taxpayer.

In this narrative, employment equals worth, while unemployment casts you into the world of the untouchables.

Economic policies are created around this notion of worth. Unemployment must be a choice—you’re shirking—so let’s coax you out of it. You don’t need benefits in your first week of unemployment since you should be looking for work. We’ll put sanctions on you if you’re unemployed for too long.

Shame on you for being unemployed. Read more

Money talks: the impact of economic framing on how we act and feel

We’re ‘consumers’ or ‘taxpayers’ and we care about things like ‘pay-off’, ‘return on investment’ and ‘growth’: that’s the bottom line. Right?

Well, I’d put my money on it.

But, actually, when did that happen? When did we start to pepper our meetings, our work, and even dinner conversations with such words and phrases? Sometimes, our use of economic framing has an obvious trigger; take ‘credit crunch’. In one of the recent economic crises, journalists repeatedly used it (with a straight face), and then before you knew it, the 2008 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary carried a new definition of the word ‘crunch’, as meaning “a severe shortage of money or credit”. It was always pretty difficult to pass that particular term casually into everyday conversation, but now we officially associate crunch with economic recession, as well as biscuits.

Economic frames easily creep into everyday language via news media, or advertising, or political rhetoric, but we have little awareness of the effect that might have on the way that we think and behave. Psychological research is finally shedding light on this.

bride and groom Read more