Getting Past the Impasse
Getting Past the Impasse:
Framing as a Tool for Public Relations
Myra Gregory Knight
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
4015 Bristol Road
Durham, NC 27707
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Running head: GETTING PAST THE IMPASSE
J. Grunig, L. Grunig and Dozier (1995) have proposed a two-dimensional model of
public relations that combined the two-way symmetrical and asymmetrical models.
They also named strategies important for both public and organizational
influence and called for research dealing with others. This paper proposes
framing as such a strategy. To demonstrate the technique's potential, the author
employs framing to show how sex education can be promoted more effectively
within public schools.
Getting Past the Impasse:
Framing as a Strategy for Public Relations
When an advocate of sex education claims to espouse "sexual literacy" and an
opponent warns that sex-education programs "presume perversion," the clash
represents something far more significant than public bickering. The frame each
side has adopted for its message helps to shape public opinion and perhaps,
ultimately, advance or impede public policy.
Such a debate also may signal opportunities in public relations, as has been
the case with sex education. Too often, however, public relations practitioners
are placed in a reactive rather than a proactive position. With teen pregnancy
on the rise and AIDS spreading to younger segments of the population, the idea
of sex education in public schools has attracted increasing support from
parents. Eight out of ten parents in the United States now favor in-school sex
education programs (Neuman, 1992, p. 13). As of 1992, 47 states required or
encouraged such programs (Trudell, p. 19). Not infrequently, however, progress
toward implementation has been frustrated by various political factions with
divergent views on exactly what information mandated programs should communicate
(Klein, 1992; Sears, 1992; Trudell, 1993). As political parties themselves
struggle to incorporate diverse interests, political leaders tend to avoid
discussing the issue. Consequently, sex education programs have been watered
down or given low priority on political agendas (Trudell, 1993). At this state
of impasse, practitioners are often called upon to placate disappointed
activists and "sell" the programs to the public.
The use of framing by public relations practitioners themselves offers a
potential solution to the problem. This paper will examine two research streams
in mass communication that have dealt with the linkages among media, public
opinion and policy--agenda setting and public relations. It then will argue that
the construct of framing is central to those linkages. Thus, framing represents
an effective tool through which public relations practitioners can mediate
debate concerning public policy. To illustrate how the framing process could
work, the paper will analyze the various interest groups active in the
sex-education debate to determine how they frame the issue. It also will seek to
find areas of mutual agreement. The paper will conclude with suggestions for new
frames that might promote more effective dialogue.
That mass media play an influential role in shaping political reality was
demonstrated by McCombs and Shaw (1972) in their study of the 1968 presidential
campaign. The study found a strong relationship between the emphasis the media
placed on campaign issues and the importance voters attached to those issues.
The authors named the effect "agenda setting." Over the next 25 years, numerous
studies of agenda setting demonstrated the influence of additional variables. In
1992, Shaw and Martin conducted a statewide follow-up to the original Chapel
Hill study and proposed a cyclical model of agenda setting that recognized the
agenda-setting roles not only of journalists, but of other individuals, events,
community and interest groups, and competing issues and agendas. Pan and Kosicki
(1993) proposed a similar, cyclical model that advanced the idea of a system set
of shared beliefs underlying the process as a whole. Other researchers have
postulated that the relationship is linear (Manheim, 1987; Van Leuven & Slater,
1991) and have offered evidence for a linear model (Johnson, Wanta, Boudreau,
Blank-Libra, Schefler & Turner, 1996; Rogers, Dearing & Chang, 1991).
Recently, several studies have underscored the importance of interpersonal
communication to the agenda-setting process. Zaller (1992) noted that political
elites control the framing of an issue and thus define public opinion; Weaver,
Zhu and Willnat (1992) found that interpersonal communication was significantly
related to interpretation of an issue as a social problem; and Minnis and Pratt
(1994) found that journalistic norms and informal policies influenced the media
agenda. Brosius and Weimann (1996) identified individuals they called "early
recognizers" who were active in identifying emerging issues and diffusing them
to the public. "It is possible that many of these early recognizers are indeed
media gatekeepers and reporters, whose job, at least in part, is surveillance.
They might be tied into social and organizational networks, in the course of
their work, that allow them to follow closely the emergence of a social issue
and transfer this knowledge to the news-gathering organizations" (p. 576). Thus,
regardless of whether agenda setting is a cyclical or linear process, it clearly
has multiple steps and multiple players. Those players include not only
journalists, but other professionals with ties to the media whose duties include
surveillance. Certainly, those other players include public relations
As the model for agenda setting has broadened to encompass influences outside
the realm of journalism, so has the model for excellence in public relations
expanded beyond the notions of press agentry and public information. The concept
of two-way symmetrical public relations was introduced by Grunig and Hunt
(1984), who described four ways that contemporary public relations was
practiced. With the two-way model, they said, practitioners strive to bring
about changes in the ideas, attitudes and behaviors of both the organization and
the public. A considerable body of research has documented public relations'
success in influencing the media. Turk (1986) found these efforts influential,
but not to the exclusion of other factors, such as the influence of journalists
themselves. Other researchers also found evidence of an "agenda-building"
influence. Moreover, they described a wide variety of influences on the media.
Walters and Walters (1992) noted the importance of interpersonal communication;
Berkowitz and Adams (1990), of interest groups and non-profit organizations;
Morton and Warren (1992) and Walters, Walters and Gray (1996), of readers'
interests; and Burns (1994) and McCombs (1994), of reporters and editors.
The Grunig model of public relations behavior has expanded to recognize the
number of avenues through which practitioners can influence public opinion. In
1989 and again in 1992, J. Grunig and L. Grunig abandoned the idea that each of
the four types of public relations practice could contribute equally to
organizational effectiveness. Declaring the superiority of symmetric approaches,
J. Grunig wrote: "One of the major purposes of excellent public relations is to
balance the private interests of the organization with the interests of publics
and of society" (1992, p. 241). Other researchers developed constructs that
complemented the new model. Salmon and Oshagan (1990) contributed the idea that
public relations could foster an "information environment" favorable to the
organization's position by emphasizing the congruity of the organization's
position with the community's. Dozier and Ehling (1992) suggested that
practitioners engage in "coorientation," efforts to increase both the public's
understanding of and agreement with organizational objectives, and
"environmental scanning," early recognition of potential public relations
problems. Ehling and Dozier (1992) suggested "principled negotiation" as an
appropriate tool for public relations practice.
Recently, J. Grunig, L. Grunig and Dozier (1995) proposed a new two-dimensional
model of public relations that combined the two-way symmetrical and asymmetrical
models. The new model is asymmetrical at each end--targetting both the
organization and its publics--and features a symmetrical, "win-win" zone in the
middle. Their research suggested that the model also might include a second,
orthogonal dimension with interpersonal communication at one end and mediated
communication at the other. The authors observed that achieving the ideal
win-win situation, with advantages for both the organization and its publics,
often requires compromise, but that efforts to help publics at the
organization's expense often are unappreciated by the organization's dominant
coalition. Thus, the organization itself should be treated as another public.
The article listed strategies appropriate for influencing the
organization--contending and avoiding; for influencing the public--accommodating
and compromising; and for achieving the win-win goal--cooperation, being
unconditionally constructive, and saying win-win or no deal. Personal
communication would be important for both public and organizational influence.
The authors called for more research dealing with "strategies that practitioners
can and do use at different points on this continuum" (p. 23).
Framing, a tool already used in a variety of public relations applications,
seems to meet the need the authors describe. With skillful use, it can shift
attention away from less-fruitful aspects of public debates and help focus
attention on possible solutions.
Framing as a Win-Win Tool
The construct of framing offers potential as a tool for achieving the
advantageous win-win situation. Entman described framing as "selecting some
aspects of a perceived reality and making them more salient in a communicating
text" (1993, p. 52). Frames help to define problems, diagnose causes, make moral
judgments and suggest remedies, he said. They work through selection and
salience, highlighting some features of a piece of communication and making them
more salient, or noticeable and meaningful, to the audience. Manheim's model of
agenda setting (1987) recognized salience as a direct influence on both the
media agenda through "audience salience" (p. 502) and the public agenda through
"personal salience" (p. 504). Salience was not mentioned as a direct influence
on the policy agenda, though "freedom of action" was. Manheim observed that "the
degree of freedom of action of policymakers will vary directly with the
quiescence of the citizenry" (p. 507). By extension, then, demonstrated audience
salience could indirectly influence the policy agenda by increasing
decision-makers' freedom to act.
Framing, thus, can potentially influence three types of agendas. The media
agenda can be influenced through the framing of information subsidies for
gatekeepers such as reporters and editors and through well-chosen frames for
interpersonal communication between the organization and the journalists. The
public agenda can be influenced by selecting frames that personalize abstract or
distant issues, as was demonstrated by Rogers, Dearing and Chang (1991) in their
study of media coverage of the AIDS issue during the 1980s. Finally, the public
agenda can be influenced by making decision-makers aware of shifts in the
salience of relevant issues among the decision-makers' constituents. Creating
awareness of these shifts could be accomplished through the presentation of
media-sponsored polls or organization-sponsored research, which might include
surveys, interviews, or focus groups.
Experimental evidence demonstrates that framing can influence public opinion.
In widely cited experiments illustrating the power of framing, Kahneman and
Tversky (1984) described two hypothetical programs proposed to help the United
States prepare for the outbreak of a deadly disease that was expected to kill
600 people. If the first proposal were adopted, test subjects were told, 200
people would be saved; if the second were adopted, there would be a one-third
probability that 600 people would be saved and a two-third probability that no
people would be saved. The vast majority of subjects--72 percent--preferred the
first program; 22 percent chose the second. In a related experiment, the
identical options were presented but framed in terms of likely deaths: In the
first program 400 people would die; in the second, there would be a one-third
probability that nobody would die and a two-thirds probability that 600 would
die. The percentages choosing the options changed: 22 percent chose the first
option and 72 percent, the second. Similarly, Sniderman, Brody and Tetlock
(1991) found that a majority of the U.S. public supports the rights of a person
with AIDS when the issue is framed to accentuate civil liberties, and a majority
supports mandatory HIV testing when the issue is framed to emphasize public
health. As both articles suggest, frames not only direct attention to particular
facets of an issue, but also help the public decide how to deal with it.
Framing recently has been proposed as a conflict-resolution strategy in
interpersonal communication. Drake and Donohue (1996) found that selecting a
common frame for negotiation improved the ability of disputants in divorce
proceedings to forge agreements. Fact-based frames appeared more helpful than
frames based on values or other issues. That framing might serve a similar
function in mass communication was posited by Pan and Kosicki (1993). In their
model of the news media discourse process, news discourse operates in the domain
of shared beliefs, or frames, "known to and accepted by a majority of the
society as common sense or conventional wisdom" (p. 69). They suggested four
framing devices through which news discourse might be analyzed: 1) syntactical
structures such as news leads and headlines; 2) script structures such as how a
news story begins and ends; 3) theme structures such as hypotheses and
conclusions; and 4) rhetorical devices such as metaphors and catchphrases.
Through such structures, they suggested, frames provide the foundation on which
public policy issues are constructed and negotiated.
Framing, then, appears to meet J. Grunig, L. Grunig and Dozier's stated need
for strategies that public relations practitioners can use at various points on
their new contingency-model continuum. It can help to define and solve problems;
it can help to shape public opinion; it can increase the productivity of
interpersonal negotiations; and it has been proposed as a foundation for public
discourse, such as negotiation, on a mass-communication level. Within the
Grunig, Grunig and Dozier two-dimensional, contingency model of public
relations, framing strategy would fit within the second, orthogonal dimension,
the "continuum that runs through the first continuum with interpersonal forms of
communication on one end and mediated communication on the other" (1995, p. 26).
Practitioners' Roles in Framing
Public relations practitioners occupy positions ideally suited for framing
issues in a way likely to advance both public and organizational interests.
Their traditional roles as media and community liaisons offer opportunities for
framing issues of interest, as do their less-recognized roles as lobbyists,
negotiators, and environmental scanners. Several studies have offered guidance
about how practitioners at either the interpersonal or mediated end of the
continuum can construct frames to accomplish their objectives. The
recommendations apply to three general areas of practitioner responsibility:
organizational communication, external communication and production of media.
Organizational communication. Framing can and should be applied not only in
communication with an organization's publics but also in those targeting the
organization itself. J. Grunig, L. Grunig & Dozier (1995) make the point that
dominant coalitions are not always excited about the potential of compromise in
negotiations with external publics, even though compromise might be in the best
interests of the organization. Consequently, the status of public relations
practitioners within the organization may decline and, with it, opportunities to
advance organizational objectives. Practitioners can avert such difficulties by
framing negotiations in terms of positive rather than negative expectancies,
that is, by emphasizing that negotiations have been proposed because of
"opportunities" rather than to "save face" or "prevent disasters." Similarly,
avoiding negative labels for negotiators representing hostile publics can foster
a friendlier environment for dialogue. Care needs to be taken, however, so that
positive labels do not appear condescending. As environmental scanners charged
with keeping the organization informed of relevant developments outside the
organization, practitioners also can frame their findings in presentations to
the dominant coalition. New developments can be presented as "interesting" facts
or developments or "potential problems." The choice of frame can influence
whether practitioners are regarded as astute observers of business trends or
simply bearers of bad tidings. The more favorable image would likely increase
the practitioner's power within the organization and the dominant coalition's
comfort with public relations involvement in negotiations.
External communication. Journalists contribute to both public and policy agendas
through the frames they adopt in reporting about an issue (Gamson & Modigliani,
1989). If the topic is controversial, these frames often emphasize conflict
(Shaw & Martin, 1992; Pan & Kosicki, 1993). From a journalistic viewpoint,
conflict is good. It makes for good reading or visuals, and it constitutes a
story in itself: "Opponents meet and clash." No thoughtful analysis is required;
the major concern is to be fair and accurate, to balance the two sides. From a
public relations viewpoint, however, conflict frames are problematic. They often
pit less powerful but attractive opponents such as environmentalists or
blue-collar workers against the organization in a David-versus-Goliath scenario.
The organization is perceived to be the bully. Even worse, stories emphasizing
conflict often fail to discuss remedies, leaving negotiations without a course
of action. In their study of the Wichita abortion-rights protest of 1991, Pan
and Kosicki observed that confrontation frames were "very effective in depicting
and marginalizing opponents" (1993, p. 65).
The same principle applies to value frames, those in which each side claims to
hold the "morally superior" position. Shah, Domke and Wachman (1996), in their
study of values and voting behavior, found that value frames "may lead to more
noncompensatory decision-making by (a) activating ethical schema or attitudes,
which motivates the voters to make judgments in ethical terms, and (b) providing
specific information on ethically based candidate positions, which enables the
voter actually to apply these ethical considerations in judgment" (pp. 533-534).
That is, value frames distract from policy-centered debate and focus attention,
instead, on candidates' personal lives and attributes. Both conflict and value
frames, then, simply reinforce negative preconceptions of opponents without
empowering those who would seek mutually acceptable solutions.
Public relations practitioners, in their agenda-building roles, can help to
facilitate dialogue between opposing factions by offering alternatives to
conflict or value frames. Progress frames are one possibility. If confrontations
occur, the organization can suggest discussions or negotiations with its
critics. These overtures, then, would become the new--and more fruitful--frame
for news discourse. Answering criticisms with a "good corporate citizenship"
frame also could work. To avoid being viewed as self-serving, however, it would
be best to focus on the recipients of organizational goodwill as opposed to the
organization's largesse. Fact-based frames also could prove useful, particularly
if critics have proceeded from misinformation. The frames chosen for written
communication with external publics should be reinforced through any
interpersonal or visual communication that occurs between practitioners and
journalists. Confrontations might be described as "enlightening," "opportunities
for understanding," or "preludes to negotiation." If members of the dominant
coalition were willing and not in danger of physical harm, they could be
encouraged to meet and shake hands with opponents in view of news cameras. The
meeting should represent an honest attempt at understanding opponents' views.
Since policymakers also are influenced by conflict and value frames,
practitioners who engage in lobbying can target them with substitute frames.
Factual frames are useful in such circumstances, especially if the
organization's opponents represent views that are held by only a minority of
voters. Factual frames also can help correct misperceptions stemming from
inaccurate information circulated either by opponents or because of
misunderstandings by the media. Policymakers are likely to be made aware of the
organization's other substitute frames through their media consultants, public
information officers, or personal exposure to media.
Factual frames hold special promise in negotiations with critics or opponents.
Drake and Donohue (1996) explored the potential of framing in resolving
conflicts related to divorce. They found the use of "converged frames" essential
to progress in dialogue. That is, the couples best able to resolve their
conflicts negotiated from the same frame or point of reference. "This finding is
significant," the authors wrote, "because it represents the first attempt to tie
frame convergence with outcome" (p. 316). Of the four frames Drake and Donohue
studied--fact-based, interest-based, value-based and relational--fact-based
frames were the most productive.
Negotiations focused on a hot-button public issue are not unlike negotiations
that occur in stressful private situations such as divorce. In both cases, the
arguments are likely to be stale and the opponents entrenched in their
positions. However, many traditional dispute-settlement techniques are not
available to organizations, because discussions often occur in public and
opponents shout at each other across picket lines rather than a lawyer's desk.
Techniques for corporate negotiations need to take these constraints into
account, at least until opponents agree to mediation. Reframing issues through
mass communication channels constitutes an attractive option. Once disputants
are seated around the bargaining table, framing can be used to supplement other
Production of media. Frames for interpersonal communication targeting the
dominant coalition and the organization's other publics should, for
consistency's sake, be adopted in media produced by the organization. The
question public relations practitioners must face is, "Which frame or frames
should take precedence?" The answer depends on the audience. If the medium is an
internal memorandum circulated among the dominant coalition, a
positive-expectancy frame that avoids negative labels for opponents is likely to
serve best. If the medium is a video news release intended for journalists, the
frame employed should not be conflict- or value-based. Media intended for both
organizational and external publics should be treated as news releases. The
question becomes tricky only when the audience is both part of the organization
and an opponent. Such instances would occur, for example, during strikes or
other disputes that divide the organization. In these cases, a fact-based frame
is indicated, since it is the most helpful in advancing discussion (Drake and
Reframing Sex Education
Hospitals, health agencies, pharmaceutical companies and government have often
become embroiled in controversial issues that pit them against factions that
differed with their policies and actions. Not infrequently, the issues have been
of long-term interest, with opponents staking out seemingly intractable
positions. Public relations practitioners often have been enlisted by such
organizations to help shift opponents' positions to ones more favorable to
One such issue is sex education. It is of national concern and has involved the
efforts of public relations practitioners in a variety of settings. Debate about
whether sex education should be conducted in public schools and how it should be
taught has continued for decades (Klein, 1992). The issue became more
controversial in the 1960s with the rise of feminism and the introduction of the
birth control pill. The controversy reached a crescendo in the 1980s with AIDS,
the New Right, and greater cultural diversity among American voters (Sears,
1992). Sex education exemplifies many characteristics of organizational issues
best approached through two-way symmetrical public relations. A variety of
interest groups are involved, the debate is often acrimonious, and positions are
well-defined. Indeed, positions have become "movements," and the views of their
leaders the focus of books (See, for example, Felsenthal's The Sweetheart of the
Silent Majority, a biography of Phyllis Schlafly, and Life on the Line, an
autobiography by Faye Wattleton.) Media have become so sensitized to the debate
that it has shaped journalistic norms. Journalists who favor easy access to
abortion, for example, have influenced many metropolitan newsrooms to
"automatically embrace the abortion-rights side of the argument" (David Shaw,
quoted in Beasley & Gibbons, 1993, p. 36).
This section of the paper will examine the sex-education debate to demonstrate
how the construct of framing could be applied to facilitate more productive
dialogue. Most previous studies of framing have focused on how media have framed
an issue by examining news articles or news broadcasts. Since this study is
interested in how interest groups frame the issue, it will take a slightly
different approach. Specifically, it will look at the writings and published
interviews of interest group leaders. The groups and leaders to be examined are:
The Religious and Far Right, as represented by Phyllis Schlafly and W.J.
Bennett; health professionals, represented by Joycelyn Elders and Henry Foster;
African-Americans/Progressives, represented by Jesse Jackson and Colin Powell;
feminists, represented by Eleanor Smeal and Faye Wattleton; and gay/lesbian
groups, represented by Rodger McFarlane and Virginia Apuzzo. All of these groups
are discussed by Sears (1992) in his analysis of the politics of sex education
and Klein (1992) in her examination of sex equity and education. Both also
discuss the influence of school administrators, who they maintain have been part
of the problem rather than the solutions. However, since no national leaders
have emerged from this group on the topic of sex education, school
administrators will be omitted from the analysis.
Classification of the general framing scheme will be based on Wehr's conflict
map (1979, cited in and employed by Drake & Donohue, 1996). Conflict-map schemes
classify the frames used in verbal disputes into four categories: (1) factual;
2) interest; 3) value; and 4) relational. Factual disputes focus on appraisals
of reality. Interest-based disputes encompass future desires or aspirations.
Value-based disputes concern disagreements over right or wrong, based on moral
or relational foundations. And relational disputes center around the emotional
ties between disputants and often involve problems of trust, control or
The analysis also will examine how each group defines problems, diagnoses
causes, makes moral judgments and suggests remedies. In addition, it will
examine three categories of textual frames: exemplars, catchphrases, and
depictions. These attributes of framing were discussed by Entman (1993); similar
concepts were employed by Beckett (1996) in her analysis of the framing of child
sexual abuse. According to Entman, problem definition identifies what a causal
agent is doing with what costs and benefits. Cause diagnosis identifies the
forces creating the problem. Moral judgments evaluate the causal agents and
their effects. And offering remedies suggests treatments for the problem and
predicts their likely effects. In this analysis, exemplars may be taken to mean
stereotyped images; catchphrases, stock or frequently occurring clusters of
words; and depictions, judgments or portrayals of opponents.
The spokespersons examined employed a variety of frame categories in their
writings and published statements, and most employed more than one category (See
Table 1). The Religious Right engaged in predominantly value-based discussion,
while health professionals tended to frame their discussions in terms of facts.
The Far Right and African-American/Progressives both employed a combination of
factual and value-based frames, though the two groups differed in other
respects, such as how they attributed the problem's cause. Feminist and
gay/lesbian groups both employed a combination of fact- and interest-based
The Religious and Far Right. The Religious Right and Far Right differed enough
in their framing of the sex education issue to be coded separately. Both Phyllis
Schlafly of the Eagle Forum and William J. Bennett, former Secretary of
Education under Reagan, have written books devoted to their criticisms of public
education generally and sex education particularly (Schlafly, 1984; Bennett,
1988). This analysis has been drawn primarily from those volumes. The problem
with sex education in public schools, according to Schlafly, is that it fails to
convey moral values, which "teaches teenagers how to enjoy fornication without
having a baby and without feeling guilty" (1981, quoted in Sears, p. 308). She
attributes the problem to educational fads such as humanism or "therapy
education" as opposed to "cognitive education" (Schlafly, pp. 12-13). As her
book title suggests, she sees children as "abused" by liberal educators, whom
she describes as "arrogant," "anti-parent" and "anti-religion" (Schlafly, p.
435). Her solution is to teach only abstinence and to condemn abortion as
immoral and homosexuality as abnormal (Schlafly, p. 439).
The Far Right, represented by Bennett, agrees on the solution, but it defines
the problem more broadly and reaches the solution through a different route. The
problem is not only immorality and promiscuity, in Bennett's view, but the
damage to young lives resulting from teen pregnancy, abortion and AIDS (Bennett,
1987). The causes are multiple enticements to sex, including peer pressure and
the media. Abstinence is viewed as the best solution because of facts: "Condoms
are not 100 percent reliable" (Bennett, 1988, p. 106), and "there is no evidence
that making contraceptives available is the surest strategy for preventing
pregnancy--to say nothing about preventing sexual activity" (1988, p. 98).
Opponents are, thus, uninformed or, as suggested by Bennett's book title,
unpatriotic. Contraceptives might be mentioned in a sex education program,
Bennett wrote, but the decision on whether to mention them or how much say
should be left to local communities (1988, p. 104).
Health professionals. This group agrees with the Far Right on the nature of the
problem, except for the need to teach moral values. "Everyone has different
moral standards," observed Joycelyn Elders, former U.S. Surgeon General under
Clinton. "You can't impose your standards on someone else (1993, quoted in
Klein, p. 37). The solution is comprehensive sex education in public schools and
easy access to condoms and other types of contraceptives. In terms of AIDS, "all
we've really got to help is education," Elders said (1995, quoted in Barnes, p.
36). As scientists, health professionals seem most comfortable arguing from
facts. Elders, for example, cited the high percentage of children who are
unaffiliated with churches as evidence that churches cannot assume the role of
sex educator (Barnes, 1995, pp. 36-37). Foster, an obstetrician-gynecologist who
was nominated for U.S. Surgeon General in 1995 but failed to win confirmation,
views the political system as the problem: "They may politicize the issue, but
they won't politicize me," he told the Washington Post before his confirmation
hearing (1995, quoted in Blumenfeld, p. D01). Part of the reason for Congress'
opposition to Foster centered around his anti-teen pregnancy program, I Have a
Future. Statements from the program guide that critics mentioned during the
hearing included that abstinence and contraception are "equally responsible"
methods of birth control and that teens should determine for themselves what
their personal values are toward sexuality, "even if those personal values may
be in conflict with one's parents" (1995, quoted in Dreher & Wetzstein, p. 1A).
Elders also has blamed the system, which she said has criticized unwed mothers
on one hand and rewarded them with welfare checks on the other (Barnes, p. 35).
Opponents are thus depicted as irrational (Barnes, p. 36) or hypocritical. "They
love little babies until they are born," Elders once remarked of political
conservatives (1994, quoted in Frankel, p. 41).
African-Americans/progressives. This group has much in common with the Far
Right, including its emphasis on teaching moral values. However, the problem,
causes and solutions are defined as more complex. The "cycle of illegitimacy"
that so concerns the Far Right is only one of many problems that progressives
see plaguing black youth. In their view, poverty, hopelessness and the influence
of mass media also must be addressed (Cummings & Rudnicki, 1995; Hatch, 1988;
House, 1988). The solution is to enlist parents, schools, church and communities
to promote pride and self-respect among teens. Both the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who
calls himself a "progressive" (Nichols, 1995), and Colin Powell, an independent
with wide support among conservatives, have been involved in teen self-help
projects based on these principles. Jackson established the PUSH/Excel Program,
which encouraged black youth of both sexes to strive toward solid, middle-class
virtues (House, 1988) and Powell takes part in Best Friends, an anti-teen
pregnancy project targeting inner-city girls. Best Friends was founded by Elayne
Bennett, an educator and the wife of William J. Bennett (Stoeltje, 1996). Both
Jackson and Powell are pro-choice; Jackson favors abortion (Wattleton, 1996, p.
53), while Powell prefers alternatives such as adoption (Cummings, p. 14). Both
Jackson and Powell also have expressed acceptance of gays, if not whole-hearted
support (Cummings & Rudnicki, 1995; Harper, 1996; Hatch, 1988). Opponents are
viewed as immoral and short-sighted. "The moral center," Jackson said, "is ...
reclaiming America's children--they are in trouble" (1995, quoted in Nichols, p.
Feminists. This perspective is represented by Faye Wattleton, a former president
of Planned Parenthood, and Eleanor Smeal, a former president of the National
Organization for Women. Feminists are strongly focused on their agenda for
change but, like health professionals, tend to argue from a factual frame. They
define the sex education problem in terms of women's issues and rights--access
to information and a full range of contraceptives, including abortion. The
causes of reduced access are seen as multiple: economics (Koeppel, 1995);
patriarchy (Wattleton, 1996); and absence of media support (Koeppel, 1995).
Perhaps in self-defense, feminists are particularly skillful in the use of
textual frames, such as exemplars and depictions. In her autobiography,
Wattleton recounts numerous examples of her experiences with victims of abortion
restrictions. These included 17-year-olds who died from illegal abortions,
mothers who suffered humiliations to avoid giving birth to seriously deformed
children, and unwanted children left in a "vegetative state" by abuse (1996, p.
47). Also based on personal experience, Wattleton described opponents as
arsonists, kidnappers and lawbreakers. According to Smeal, some opponents are
hypocritical: "Jesse Helms takes money from and supports the tobacco industry,
rants against gays, and wants to deregulate the environment, and the next minute
talks about the evil of killing babies" (1995, quoted in Koeppel, p. 32).
Gays/lesbians. These perspectives are represented in this analysis by Virginia
Apuzzo, president of the New York Civil Service Commission and a former
executive director of the National Gay Task Force, and by Rodger McFarlane,
former executive director of the Gay Men's Health Crisis. Although both have
been advocates for homosexual issues on the national level, their public
statements have tended to focus on gay and lesbian issues other than sex
education. Still, the statements suggest concerns that a sex education program
sensitive to the needs of gays and lesbians would need to address. One such
issue is that of inclusion. Apuzzo has been important in raising public
awareness of AIDS and has tried to relate it to broader questions of health
policy. "The Public Health Service now doesn't take too many steps without
informing us," she told one interviewer. "We may disagree violently with the
steps they're taking, but we've institutionalized our presence in the process"
(quoted in Altman, p. 105). She has complained of the Center for Disease
Control's unwillingness to negotiate with gay groups on issues such as
confidentiality in AIDS testing (Altman, p. 80) and has lobbied Congress to seek
more money for AIDS research when the CDC was unwilling to ask for it (Altman,
pp. 113-114). McFarlane's statements to the media have often underscored his
awareness of the stigma associated both with homosexuality and AIDS. "I'd rather
be an actor with AIDS than a plumber or teacher with AIDS," he once remarked.
"I'll be better taken care of" (Span, 1990, p. G1). He complained publicly about
discrimination against AIDS patients by hospitals. Discharging such patients to
public shelters, he told The New York Times, "is as good as homicide" (Howe,
1984, p. B4). An ideal sex education program, then, would deal candidly with
homosexuality and AIDS and not condemn anyone's sexual preferences. Like
feminists, gays and lesbians have tended to adopt a factual/interest-based
frame. For them, the major problems are the increasing incidence of AIDS and
discrimination against homosexuals. Failing to do everything possible to prevent
and treat AIDS is immoral. Exemplars include stories of discrimination against
homosexuals and AIDS patients, and foot-dragging by policymakers. As suggested
by the title of Altman's book, opponents are depicted as bungling bureaucrats
Based on this analysis and the findings of Drake and Donohue, a fact-based
frame emphasizing some aspect of public health would be most likely to foster
action on the issue of sex education. All the groups except the Religious Right
have employed factual frames at least in part, and public health professionals
have used them almost exclusively. Even the Far Right has acknowledged that AIDS
and teen pregnancy pose serious health risks to young people (Bennett, 1988, p.
103). Such programs might even be reframed as "AIDS education," which emphasizes
the public-health aspect and avoids the hot-button term "sex." As long as
homosexuality is not endorsed, discussing it in such a context would be
acceptable to all but the Religious Right, as would discussing condoms as one of
two methods that health professionals recommend to prevent the fatal disease.
Bennett, of the Far Right, suggests that the timing and content of such
instruction be left to local communities (1988, p. 104).
"AIDS education" might be offered by public schools as a "core health package"
required of all students to help protect them and others from infection. Since
parental authority has been a concern of the Religious Right, parents also could
be offered one of two choices for supplementary health education to address teen
pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases other than AIDS, which also pose
serious health threats. Teen mothers, for example, often suffer complications of
pregnancy and have a higher than average incidence of low birth-weight babies.
As one option, parents would assume sole responsibility for their child's sex
education other than AIDS. They would automatically receive printed materials to
assist them, including information on contraceptives and statistics on infection
rates among teens. They also could sign up for a course offering tips on how to
communicate with teens, which they would help to develop. Parental involvement
in developing the course would be important, since that would promote their
"ownership" of the solution. If parents chose the second option, they would
receive school assistance in educating their children about sexuality through
the school's "Human Development" course. This course would inform teens about
physical development, reproduction, and a full range of contraceptive options,
including abstinence. The course would be taught from a public health
perspective and, thus, would not emphasize moral values. The first option would
more likely appeal to the Religious Right, the Far Right, and some
African-American groups. The second would have greatest appeal among health
professionals, feminists and gay/lesbian groups.
This proposal for reframing the sex education debate could be tested further
through a scientific poll. Respondents might, for example, be asked whether they
would support an "AIDS education" course in public schools. To gauge public
support for such a course as opposed to sex education, they might be asked which
of several options they found most appealing: a required AIDS education course;
a required sex education course that promoted abstinence only; a required sex
education course that included both AIDS and sex education; or no AIDS or sex
education. Polling results could be released to reporters for publication, shown
to editorial writers in seeking supportive comment, and discussed with political
leaders as a foundation for their action on the issue. Practitioners would want
to provide a fact-based frame in information supplied to the media, so that the
media would cover the plan without exacerbating old conflicts. Operating from a
fact-based frame with a proposal in hand that addressed at least some of their
concerns, activists on both sides of the issue would likely be more willing than
in the past to negotiate toward a solution of the problem.
This exercise in framing has been provided as a hypothetical example of the
technique's potential in public relations. In a real-world setting, of course,
the views of parents, teachers, students and school administrators also should
be incorporated in the development of a workable frame. These views probably
would be obtained through interviews and local newspaper articles rather than
through books and magazines, although any reliable source of comment could be
employed. To promote an environment favorable to negotiation, public relations
practitioners also would want to offer substitute frames within their own
The concept of framing can be applied to a wide variety of issues in many
different settings. Many public relations practitioners already use framing in a
short-term context as they write news releases, develop organizational
communications, and deal with various publics. By applying the concept over the
long term in a planned, consistent manner, however, practitioners can advance
not only organizational objectives but also contribute to the solution of some
of society's thorniest problems.
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