Monday, November 15, 2010

Framing and Public Diplomacy: More Thoughts...

Spent my Sunday reading about... frames and framing effects. Yes, I know I missed out on a gorgeous day outside, but I did learn more about another piece of a greater puzzle - effective public diplomacy. Here's a chaotic response (I hope it makes at least some sense) to some of this material.

Framing, as defined by Entman, involves the selection of “some aspects of a perceived reality and [making] them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and/or treatment recommendation." Thus, in many ways, the frame is the determining factor of any imparted information in whether most people notice it in the first place, and if so, how they understand, remember, evaluate, and act upon it.

 Here's an example of an interesting "frame". [Image courtesy of]

Hallahan further points out that “framing works by biasing the cognitive processing of information” by selectively influencing which sets of memory traces organized as schemata are activated to interpret a particular message. That, then, supports the proposition that frames cannot have universal effect on all. Yet, as noted by Chong and Druckman, it is the “selective acceptance and rejection of competing frames” that brings about public opinion formation – facilitated through constant public deliberation and discussion – thus making effective framing a major issue of interest for public affairs/relations managers.

Entman suggests that there are four major locations in the communication process: communicators, the text, the receiver, and the culture. The latter is of particular importance, as not only does it define the stock of commonly invoked frames used when the information is processed by an individual, but it also plays a significant role in the construction of frames in the first place.

Thus, when trying to construct any form of effective communication strategy and framing, it is very important to consider the context – the socially created symbolic reality – within which that communication is framed and interpreted. That is why framing is an even greater challenge for those dealing with foreign cultures and publics – as in the case of public diplomacy – since it necessitates a thorough knowledge of the culture and the themes/frames that would resonate most to bring about the desired outcome. (And here is it absolutely important to note that framing is not concerned with persuasion, but rather with the management of the "salience" of issues and their interpretation.)

Chong and Druckman say that knowledge can enhance the framing effect by increasing the likelihood that the considerations emphasized in a frame will be available, accessible, and comprehensible. Yet, very often, communication in public diplomacy involves information and frames that are not only unfamiliar, but may clash – directly – with the knowledge, and the normative/belief systems already held by the foreign public, essentially leading to cognitive dissonance.

Often, frames are defined by what they omit, as much as by what they include. [Cartoon from Speed of Thought.]

Although the authors suggest that when exposed to opposing considerations individuals have greater motivation to engage in conscious evaluation of the new information, they also point out that when possessing strong attitudes, individuals will resort to selective perception and “Motivated Reasoning”: evaluation of incoming information in a such a way so as to support existing preconceptions and devalue contrary evidence.

To address this problem, Entman suggests that communication in public diplomacy should focus – first and foremost – on ensuring the cultural congruence of the message and frames employed. Here, he also refers to the utility of activating “cascading networks”, which can help to diffuse – through the existing networks – certain frames from the administration of one country to foreign elites. These elites, then – as major media sources themselves – would be able to frame the issue(s) within their own societies, accordingly.

Cultural congruence, however, can be very difficult to achieve (even if just considering the elites), and as Entman suggests, active engagement and empathy with audiences, as well as mutual understanding, might be key to creating room for “frame promotion.” This requires, however, a true devotion to the principle of symmetric communication and openness to listening to the “other,” too. Without it, simple one-way feeding of information might not only fail to invoke the desired frames among the audience, but can bring about the rejection of information altogether, due to cognitive resistance and counter-arguing.

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