Bolder Advocacy

Issue Frames and Winning Campaigns

Pat Libby is the author of The Lobbying Strategy Handbook: 10 steps for advancing any cause effectively (SAGE Publications, 2012), from which this column is adapted. Libby is also a clinical professor and director of the Institute for Nonprofit Education and Research, University of San Diego. 

I love advocates. I love advocates because they’re willing to give up some personal comfort—a cozy night by the fire, dinner with friends, a favorite TV show, etc.—to work on a cause because they’re passionate about it.

Credit: Just Economics of Western North Carolina

“Living wage” is an example of a fantastic frame that conveys powerfully the meaning of the campaign. Credit: Just Economics of Western North Carolina

The flip side of that passion is that advocates are often so single-minded they have difficulty understanding how to frame their issue so that it has broad appeal. They think “every person who learns about this will be on our side”—that if only people have enough information they will be persuaded. They also hang out with people who think like they do—after all, most of us do—which makes it even more difficult for advocates to begin to understand how anyone else can think differently.

Advocates also forget that most people don’t take time to educate themselves on issues. They don’t because they’re too busy juggling work/school/family, or they’re involved with other causes, or they’ve formed a first impression of an issue that may not be accurate (i.e., they’ve already made up their mind even though they’re not that informed about the facts).

The challenge for advocates is to think strategically about how to name and frame your issue in such a way that it quickly conveys a message about what your cause is about in a way that appeals to a wide range of people.

How you present your issue has everything to do with how well it will “sell” in the marketplace of ideas. You need to figure out how to package your issue so that people hearing it for the first time will understand it—or think they do—and remember what it’s all about. Although we tend to think of advocacy as waging a campaign that is focused on persuading elected or appointed officials to do something, chances are those officials will be more inclined to act if they hear from the general public. Therefore, the name of your issue needs to be able to be easily communicated to a broad audience.

Elements of effective campaign/issue frames

Really good frames have a way of positioning your issue so that people who might normally look at things from one perspective are drawn instead to consider your point of view because of how you’ve described it. A really good name for an issue can also serve a dual function of framing it as well.

Here are a few examples of effective “names and frames” that you may already be aware of from local and national advocacy campaigns:

Death Tax

Partial Birth Abortion

Living Wage

In each of these cases, the names of those advocacy campaigns provided a frame for an issue that shifted debate on the topic by asking people to look at it in a different light.

Let’s look at the “living wage” laws as an example. Interestingly, a living wage is defined mostly by what it isn’t, which is the minimum wage. It is a wage that is designed to give workers a basic standard of living that is decent. The point of living wage laws is that people who work full-time shouldn’t have to live in poverty and that government can make policy to do something about it.

There are approximately 150 living wage ordinances in cities across the country that  require businesses which receive contracts from those municipalities pay a set wage that is above the minimum and often indexed to inflation.  Maryland is the only state in the nation with a living wage law.

Now, the advocates who named and framed the first living wage campaign could have called it anything. They could have come up with a long wordy name or with a name that wouldn’t have had such broad appeal. What if, for example, they had called it the “Move workers out of poverty” campaign? That doesn’t have quite the same righteous ring to it as “living wage.”

Steps to conceiving a winning frame

So where do you begin? You may want to start by brainstorming a list of folks who oppose your cause and why.  Thinking through the possible opposition arguments may help you develop a name and frame that will neutralize that opposition or, prevent fence sitters from getting involved on the wrong side of the argument.

You also need to keep in mind that the way you name and frame your campaign often emerges from the facts you choose to promote your issue (and if you haven’t heard me sing that song before, just know that you need to do quite a bit of solid research on the facts before you begin work on your advocacy campaign).

The name of your campaign is its calling card. It’s good to invent something that is concise, memorable and ideally, affects the way people look at the issue.