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Five steps to framing messages on coronavirus and poverty

7 May 2020

Using tested framing techniques to talk about poverty has been a game-changer for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. But the COVID-19 outbreak has changed the game again and we are faced with a new challenge…How can we tell compelling stories about poverty that can inspire action in this fast-changing situation?

Earlier this year Luke Henrion and I came to the Charitycomms Changing hearts and minds conference to share all we knew about framing and how it’s working for us. But already, a different kind of change was spreading through the UK – one that’s had a huge impact, not just here but around the world. COVID-19 had arrived.

Back in early March, even though we’d already started to avoid shaking hands, and counting to 20/ singing ‘Happy birthday’ as we washed our hands, conferences were still happening, we were all free to mingle, and the trains were packed. There’s been a massive shift since then, of course, and now ‘social distancing’, ‘lockdown’, ‘shielding’ and ‘furloughed’, have become part of our everyday vocabulary of words and phrases that describe this strange new world we find ourselves in.

Words have power and how framing can help us harness that

Words have power in how we think, how we feel and how we behave. Listen to the news and you’ll hear carefully crafted messages in the Government’s updates on the coronavirus situation.

Framing means making deliberate choices about what words we use and how we harness their power as we communicate.

The coronavirus pandemic is having a far-reaching impact on our society, and in particular poses new questions for those of us who are talking about poverty. What does it mean for people already in poverty before it began? How should our Government respond? And how can we prevent more of us from being swept into poverty?

As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) knows well, framing is something we can use to tell a powerful new story about UK poverty that could change the public’s hearts and minds. So In partnership with FrameWorks, we’ve produced a free five-step guide to framing messages about coronavirus and poverty.

Here’s a quick whizz through those five steps:

  1. Explain the growing challenges faced by people in low-paid work

At this turbulent time, we’re finding out just how much we all rely on each other, and it’s often the people in low-paid work who are keeping everyone going. To explain the challenges facing people in those roles, we can use metaphor. We can talk about how people in poverty face constant pressure that can push them to breaking point. A sudden increase in pressure can quickly become a flood that pushes us into deeper hardship. We use ‘constant pressure’ alongside the currents metaphor, which explains how people can be swept into poverty by forces outside their control, and what it’s like to be struggling.

  1. Make the case for strengthening our public services

Another thing we’re learning is how much we all depend on our public services, like the NHS and our social security system. We need the Government to strengthen these services, now and in the future. We can do this by focusing on what the Government could do, not what it isn’t doing, and we can again use our metaphors to explain the crucial role of social security. It can be an anchor that holds us steady and prevents us being swept into poverty, or it can be a vital lifeline to help us weather this storm.

  1. Call for justice, as well as compassion

This moment in our history has awakened our compassion but alongside this we need to appeal to people’s sense of justice, so we can make the case for doing right by each and every person in our society. We may all be in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat. There are traps we can fall into when we talk about coronavirus and poverty. In our guide, we have a list of these, and how we can avoid accidentally triggering negative responses.

  1. Balance ‘we need to do this’ with ‘we can do this’

The COVID-19 outbreak is an emergency situation that demands an urgent response. When it feels like our world is falling apart, it’s natural to reach for words that reflect this feeling, but our words need to do more than this. We need to show the urgency and severity of what’s happening now, without losing sight of the ability to put things right. We need to combat fatalism and inspire people to act. By helping people to understand what needs to be done – and also how we can do it – we bring everyone with us.

  1. When the time is right, talk about redesigning our economy and support systems

This pandemic is not a one-off crisis for those of us in poverty. Poverty was here before the outbreak, and we need to make sure it’s not forgotten about – or made worse – as recovery begins. To show how systems and structures can be changed, we use the idea of ‘design and redesign’. We can explain that the economy and other systems have been designed as choices have been made, and that means they can be redesigned so they work better for all of us. When this time in our history has passed, we can – and should – redesign our economy and support systems so we can carry on protecting each other in the long term.

The future for framing at JRF

Applying framing insights to our work is an ongoing process – we never stop learning as we try it out in practice.

We first adopted framing as a guiding principle after the FrameWorks Institute’s research for JRF on public attitudes to UK poverty gave us proof of how powerful our choice of words can be. Completed around three years ago, it involved 20,000 people, and revealed how people think and feel about poverty, approaches that could reinforce negative beliefs, and communication techniques that could shift them to something more constructive. Fast forward to now and the learnings we gained then and shared in our existing toolkit, are at the heart of all we do.

Here are some of the actions we have taken that you could too:

  • We banished myth-busting. Instead we use the tested values of compassion and justice to show why poverty matters.
  • We integrated those values, along with tested metaphors, throughout our content.
  • We frame stories so that they include values, metaphors, context, examples and solutions.
  • We avoid naked numbers as much as possible because we know that stats on their own don’t change people’s minds.
  • Our different teams and departments have come together to try out framing in different scenarios, and we include a session on framing in our induction for new starters.
  • We get out and tell others – through conferences, presentations, workshops and our Medium blog – what we’re doing, why and how, so that they can join us and use these tools for themselves.

In this ever-shifting present situation, we want to make sure our toolkit stays relevant and helpful, so we will be refreshing and updating it in response to user feedback and the latest developments.

For JRF itself, we’re continuing to implement insights from our framing research and practice into our messages and into our identity. We want to go beyond framing being something that we do – we want it to be part of who we are, what we look like, and what we sound like as an organisation. And we want to work with other charities, campaigners and advocates with lived experience so we can tell a united story calling for action to solve UK poverty.

Photo: Scott Webb on Unsplash

Paul Brook

chief copywriter, Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF)

Paul is Chief Copywriter at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. He's currently focusing on how we tell a new story about UK poverty and has been experimenting with doodles as a way of helping people make sense of poverty.

Away from work, he writes a blog on mental health and wildlife.