What are you looking for?

Framing the Issue: How Obama Won the War of Words

Posted by on November 8th, 2012
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Communications, Nonprofit Messaging, Storytelling    Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

“To frame an issue is to reduce it to a story for which there is only one possible outcome.”—Geoff Nunberg, linguist

Something very interesting happened on the way to the polls this election cycle.

Going into their national convention, Republican leadership declared that they were going to build their case against the “failed presidency” of Barack Obama. To make their case, they cited what they saw as a litany of failures: adding to the national debt, a failure to bring back jobs, that government was taking credit for the success of the private sector (“We built it.”), and Obamacare.

Republican strategists had developed a message frame — a narrative that they would follow through to the election — that the president had made a promise upon which he had failed to deliver. The storyline was that there was a case to made against the president. He had failed, with particular emphasis on economic issues, and it was time to switch course.

Communication novices often fall into the trap of working within the frame handed to them by their competition. It would have been a reasonable response on the part of Team Obama to counter accusations they saw as false, to essentially try to prove their own case in the court of public opinion.

But that’s not what they did.

Instead of accepting the Republican frame and playing defense to Republican attacks, the Democrats offered up a different frame, a different storyline.

The dominant message coming out of the Democratic camp was that this election was about a clear choice between two different visions for America, one that looked backward and one that looked forward.

It’s no coincidence that the theme of the president’s campaign was “Forward” rather than the hope and change of the previous election cycle. President Obama’s camp framed their messages around the concept that this was a distinct choice, and while they did take time to refute (often untrue) charges from the Republican camp, again and again they stuck to their main message: voters were choosing between a vision that led forward and one that led to a romanticized vision of the past.

The outcome of this strategy is that this election was seen by some as a referendum on the president’s performance largely focused on economic issues and by others as a choice between two visions for America that was largely rooted in social issues like reproductive rights, gay marriage, and an embrace of our nation’s multicultural identity.

Ultimately, Team Obama won because it didn’t just have a catchy slogan or snappy message, but because it identified an alternate message frame —one that resonated with the majority of voters — and stuck to it right up until it was time for the acceptance speech.

This same approach can work for you as you think about your own nonprofit communications. Are you accepting the frame of your opposition and simply arguing against their stance, or are you offering a different argument altogether?

For example, you could talk about issues of homelessness in your community as:

  • a moral issue: that our religious faith instructs us to respond to because we have an obligation to be charitable
  • an economic issue: that doing something about homelessness will build our city’s economy
    a public safety issue: that we must get homeless people off of our streets to ensure the safety of our children
  • an American Dream story: that we have the opportunity to empower individuals to pull themselves up by their bootstraps

Each of these would be a story that might motivate action on your issue. Ask yourself: Who is your audience? What motivates them? And how can you frame the issue in a way that will resonate with them and inspire them to action?

Agree? Disagree? What strategies have worked for your organization? Please share your thoughts…


Zach Hochstadt is a Mission Minded Founding Partner and runs Mission Minded’s Denver office, leading the company’s creative teams in the areas of message development, writing, graphic design, and web design and development.

See all posts by