Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 17;   April 29, 2009: Political Framing: Communications

Political Framing: Communications

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In organizational politics, one class of toxic tactics is framing — accusing a group or individual by offering interpretations of their actions to knowingly and falsely make them seem responsible for reprehensible or negligent acts. Here are some communications tactics framers use.

In 1940s street parlance, to frame is to ensnare or catch: "I was set up!"; "He was innocent, but the police framed him." In framing, someone creates evidence to project the appearance that the target carried out an illegal act. For instance, a framer might plant at a crime scene a drinking glass with the target's fingerprints.

Theatrical poster for the 1944 film Double Indemnity

Theatrical poster for the 1944 film, Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder. The film tells the story of a plot to murder the husband of the seductive character Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barbara Stanwyck. Her co-conspirator is Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray. Although the plot itself doesn't involve a frame, as the story unfolds, a threatened frame does become part of the complex tale.

In organizational politics, frames need not meet the standards of evidence that a court of law requires. Political frames often consist of interpretations, innuendos, privately voiced assertions and vague accusations. Moreover, political framing isn't necessarily carried out before the fact. The innuendos and accusations usually occur after an incident, as the framer provides an alternate interpretation of that incident to disparage the target.

Here are some of the communication techniques of political framers, and a few suggested counter tactics.

Requests for information
To further an appearance of probity and reason, the framer can make innocent-sounding requests for information. Phrases like "help me understand," or "can you clarify" might appear. The questions themselves provide the framer opportunities to add to the frame. For instance, the framer might ask, "I've been told that you assassinated President Lincoln. Can you confirm that this is a simple misunderstanding?" The accusation is nested in a seemingly reasonable request for a denial, but the request itself gives the framer a chance to spread the accusation.
When this occurs, the damage is already done. Although it's tempting to say nothing at all, remember that silence can be interpreted in many ways. A response is required, but if it's anything more than a simple, straight, and serious denial, you risk making the problem worse.
Multi-channel communication
Believing that they know everything the framer has said is a common mistake of targets of framers. When targets learn of some new charges, usually indirectly, they tend to focus on those charges, ignoring the possibility that other communications are happening In organizational politics,
frames need not meet the
standards of evidence that
a court of law requires
or might already have happened. For instance, the framer might make an accusation directly to the target, having already prepared the audience by making that same charge — and more — in a more private venue, excluding the target. Targets, believing that they know the full scope of the problem, then address the charges they know about. The framer is then free to fall back on already-prepared ground, leaving the target's carefully prepared defense unanswered and effectively deflected.
As a target, it's wise to assume that the framer has had more communication with others than you know, and that some of those others are convinced that you've done and said what the framer claims. When you hear of new charges, try to draw out more, to get everything on the table before trying to turn things around. To avoid further spreading falsehoods, privacy is best, but privacy is not always possible.

We'll examine strategies for political framing next time. Go to top Top  Next issue: Political Framing: Strategies  Next Issue

Double Indemnity is over 60 years old, but still Order from Amazonentertaining. Get some popcorn and make an evening of it. As a film, it has served as a template for many more recent screen tales, including — possibly — Body Heat. Students of film will certainly enjoy Double Indemnity. Order from Amazon.com

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