Framing and messaging are the heart of effective communications work. In the simplest terms, framing and messaging make up the process of crafting what you will say and how you will say it so your audiences will be moved to action.

There are two kinds of frames in communications work: an idea frame and a story frame. An idea frame captures your values and the change you want to make. An idea frame is like a wide-angle lens that captures a landscape in one snapshot, while a story frame is like a zoom lens that captures a specific scene within the landscape (for more on story frames, check out CMJ’s how-to on storytelling). An idea frame can be as simple as a phrase, such as “driving while black” or “a living wage.” These phrases each capture a picture of racial discrimination and economic justice, leading audiences to logical solutions: stop racial profiling and support higher minimum wages.

Messages are like captions to these photographs. They convey the frame through descriptive statements (see below for examples).

Framing and messaging are one of the most important steps in media work, with several avenues to accomplish them. The process can be two weeks or six months; it can be shorter when you’re framing just one event or story, and longer when you’re framing an entire issue. No matter the scope and path you take, one golden rule is to begin framing and messaging only if your goals and audiences are clear. Once you know what you’re trying to accomplish through media work and who you must reach to accomplish these goals, you’re ready to follow these tips.

• Identify frames and messages already in coverage. Are there dominant frames and messages that come up again and again? Could these frames and messages help or block you from achieving your goals? Conduct interviews, focus groups, or research with target audiences to identify the frames and messages embedded in people’s everyday conversations. How are your audiences already talking about your issue? What phrases or ideas capture their attention while supporting your goals? What phrases or ideas conflict with your goals?

• Identify your opponents and how they talk about your issue. Who are your opponents? What are they saying that might help or hurt your cause?

• Create an idea frame. This process may involve a series of discussions. Given your opponents’ frame, discuss how you want your frame to be different. What assumptions and beliefs do you want to counter? Given what your audience already believes about this issue, what values do you share with your audiences? How can you appeal to these values to advance a new frame? What vision or solution do you want to propose? What’s at stake? Once you’ve answered these questions, you’re ready to develop key phrases that capture your idea frame.

Elements of a Successful Message

Framing Guiding Questions

Sample Frames and Messages

Values Vocabulary


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