Seven Models of Framing: Implications for Public Relations

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Copyright © 1999, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Seven Models of Framing:
Implications for Public Relations
Kirk Hallahan
Department of Journalism and Technical Communication
Colorado State University
Framing is a potentially useful paradigm for examining the strategic creation of pub-
lic relations messages and audience responses. Based on a literature review across
disciplines, this article identifies 7 distinct types of framing applicable to public rela-
tions. These involve the framing of situations, attributes, choices, actions, issues, re-
sponsibility, and news. Potential applications for public relations practice and re-
search are discussed.
Public relations can be examined from a variety of frameworks, including systems,
critical, and rhetorical perspectives (Toth, 1992).
The rhetorical approach focuses on how public relations is engaged in the con-
struction of messages and meanings that are intended to influence key publics im-
portant to an organization. Rhetorical theory encompasses a wide range of
approaches, including argumentation, advocacy and persuasion, corporate com-
munication, dialectics and discourse, dramatism and storytelling, information, or-
ganizing, public opinion, and reputation management. Yet, none of these
approaches represents a comprehensive foundation for fully understanding the
processes or consequences of public relations.
Another theoretically rich approach that offers the potential of subsuming and
tying together many of these seemingly unrelated approaches involves framing
. Framing has been used as a paradigm for understanding and investigating
communication and related behavior in a wide range of disciplines (Rendahl,
1995). These include psychology, speech communication (especially discourse
Requests for reprints should be sent to Kirk Hallahan, Department of Journalism and Technical Com-
munication, Colorado State University, C–225 Clark, Fort Collins, CO 80523–1785. E-mail:
[email protected]

analysis and negotiation), organizational decision making, economics, health
communication, media studies, and political communication.
The premise of this article is that framing theory provides a potentially useful
umbrella for examining what occurs in public relations. In addition to a rhetorical
approach that focuses on how messages are created, framing is conceptually con-
nected to the underlying psychological processes that people use to examine infor-
mation, to make judgments, and to draw inferences about the world around them.
This linkage is missing in many of the other rhetorical frameworks. Moreover,
framing phenomena operate across levels of analysis (J. M. McLeod, Pan, &
Rucinski, 1994; Pan & McLeod, 1991), making framing theory applicable at the
intrapersonal, interpersonal, group, organizational, interorganizational, and soci-
etal levels in which public relations influence attempts operate.
This article begins by defining framing and its linkages to psychological pro-
cessing. It then proceeds to identify seven distinct types or models of framing that
might be applicable to public relations practice, depending on the circumstances. It
concludes by suggesting some specific applications as well as directions for future
As a foundation, it is important to recognize that public relations work fundamen-
tally involves the construction of social reality (Berger & Luckmann, 1966;
Tuchman, 1978). The constructivist approach to communication draws on ideas
from the symbolic interactionism school of sociology (Blumer, 1971). Symbolic
interactionism rejects attempts to examine human behavior in terms of instinct, ex-
ternal forces, or the structural–functional explanations that predominated early so-
ciological thinking. Instead, human behavior is thought to result from how people
interact and their use of symbols to create meaning. Constructionists contend that
representations of objects or problems in people’s minds vary from the correspond-
ing actual objects or conditions on which they are based. More important, construc-
tionists contend that people act based on these perceptions, or what Lippmann
(1922) deftly described as “the pictures inside our heads,” rather than “objective re-
ality” (p. 3).
Public relations workers have been referred to pejoratively as “imagemakers”
and “spin doctors”—labels that only partially portray their important role in con-
structing social reality. Indeed, public relations counseling involves defining real-
for organizations by shaping organizational perspectives about the outside
world—a process also termed enactment (Weick, 1969). Similarly, outbound pub-
lic relations communications involve attempts to define reality, at least as it relates
to client organizations, for the many publics on whom the organization depends.
This construction process might be dismissed as manipulation. However, because

defining reality is the very essence of communication, constructionists would ar-
gue that the process is neither inherently good nor bad.
Framing is a critical activity in the construction of social reality because it helps
shape the perspectives through which people see the world. Although public rela-
tions practitioners commonly refer to framing effective messages (Duhé & Zoch,
1994) in the same way that a builder frames a house from the bottom up, the fram-
ing metaphor is better understood as a window or portrait frame drawn around in-
formation that delimits the subject matter and, thus, focuses attention on key
elements within. Thus, framing involves processes of inclusion and exclusion as
well as emphasis. Entman (1993) summarized the essence of framing processes
with the following:
Framing essentially involves selection and salience. To frame is to select some as-
pects of perceived reality and make them more salient in the communicating text, in
such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation,
moral evaluation and/or treatment recommendation
for the item described. Frames,
then, define problems—determine what a causal agent is doing and costs and benefits,
usually measured in terms of cultural values; diagnose causes—identify the forces
creating the problem; make moral judgments—evaluate causal agents and their ef-
fects; and suggest remedies—offer and justify treatments for the problem and predict
their likely effects. (p. 55)
Implicitly, framing plays an integral role in public relations. If public relations is
defined as the process of establishing and maintaining mutually beneficial relations
between an organization and publics on whom it depends (Cutlip, Center, & Broom,
1995), the establishment of common frames of reference about topics or issues of
mutual concern is a necessary condition for effective relations to be established.
How Framing Works
As a property of a message, a frame limits or defines the message’s meaning by
shaping the inferences that individuals make about the message. Frames reflect
judgments made by message creators or framers. Some frames represent alterna-
tive valencing of information (i.e., putting information in either a positive or nega-
tive light, or valence framing). Other frames involve the simple alternative phras-
ing of terms (semantic framing). The most complex form of framing is storytelling
(story framing). Story framing involves (a) selecting key themes or ideas that are
the focus of the message and (b) incorporating a variety of storytelling or narrative
techniques that support that theme. Pan and Kosicki (1993), for example, suggested
that framing can be evidenced in a series of structures within a message. These in-
clude syntactical structures, stable patterns of arranging words and phrases in a text
(see also T. A. van Dijk, 1988); script structures, the orderly sequencing of events

in a text in a predictable or expected pattern; thematic structures, the presence of
propositions or hypotheses that explain the relations between elements within a
text—including the presence of words such as “because,” “since,” and “so”; and
rhetorical structures that subtly suggest how a text should be interpreted. Rhetori-
cal devices can include metaphors and similes, familiar exemplars and illustrations,
provocative language and descriptors, catchphrases, and visual imagery (Gamson
& Modigliani, 1989).
Framing operates by biasing the cognitive processing of information by individu-
als. At least two mechanisms to explain the process are found in the literature. One
suggestion is that framing operates by providing contextual cues that guide decision
making and inferences drawn by message audiences. Drawing on their earlier work
on the concept, Kahneman and Tversky (1979) suggested that the simple posi-
tive-versus-negative framing of a decision operates as a cognitive heuristic or
rule-of-thumb that guides decisions in situations involving uncertainty or risk. Neg-
ative reactance to losses or risks is consistent with other findings in the impression
formation literature that suggest negative information is weighted more heavily than
positive information (Hamilton & Zanna, 1972) and is more attention-getting
(Pratto & John, 1991). It is also consistent with motivational theories that people act
to protect themselves. More recent evidence for this heuristic explanation was pro-
vided by S. M. Smith and Petty (1996), who used the elaboration likelihood model
(Petty & Cacioppo, 1986) to suggest that negative framing might serve as a periph-
eral cue in processing. Specifically, negative framing might prompt people to think
more about a message (i.e., engage in more effortful processing or message elabora-
tion). This finding is consistent with research that suggests that message framing ef-
fects vary by level of involvement (Maheswaran & Meyers-Levy, 1990).
The second mechanism through which framing operates is priming. Knowl-
edge is thought to be organized in human memory in cognitive structures or
schemas, which operate as constraints on the arrangement and interpretation of sit-
uations and events (Bartlett, 1932; Fiske & Taylor, 1984; Markus & Zajonc, 1985;
Neisser, 1967). Alternatively, schemas have been conceptualized as categories
(hierarchial structures), as prototypes (idealized representations of objects within
particular classes), and as scripts (expected scenarios for events).
Although the schematic organization of memory has been challenged (Alba &
Hasher, 1983), the notion jibes with at least three of the major models that describe
memory in terms of associative networks (Anderson, 1976), storage bins (Wyer &
Srull, 1986), and distributed memory models (McClelland & Rummelhart, 1985).
Regardless of the specific model, researchers agree that schematic processing en-
tails people using association and expectation to make inferences about events and
to impute meaning not manifested in the message itself. Significantly, some re-
searchers use “frame” synonymously with schema to delimit which memory nodes
are associated with a particular topic in memory (see Barsalou, 1992; Biocca,
1991; Lawson, 1998).

Framing affects cognitive processing by selectively influencing which memory
nodes, or sets of memory traces organized as schemas, are activated to interpret a
particular message. Priming effects can be conscious, such as when a person pur-
posefully uses message cues to attempt to retrieve stored knowledge from mem-
ory. Priming effects also can be unconscious or automatic, such as when a person
categorizes a topic or message during the pre-attention phase of processing and
then processes information using rules that are considered appropriate in the situa-
tion (Bargh, 1988; Higgins, Bargh, & Lombardi, 1985).
Although a theoretically rich and useful concept, framing suffers from a lack of co-
herent definition. An exhaustive literature search suggests the existence of more
than 1,000 citations about framing in the academic literature. Framing has been
adopted as a textual, psychological, and socio-political construct. Depending on
the circumstances, the meaning of framing varies based on the research question,
the level of analysis, or the underlying psychological process of interest. Entman
(1993) characterized framing as a “fractured” paradigm that lacks clear conceptual
definitions and a comprehensive statement to guide research. Other researchers
have called for developing a more integrated approach that clarifies the framing
concept within various domains (e.g., Brosius & Eps, 1995; Levin, Schneider, &
Gaeth, 1998; Pan & Kosicki, 1993; Scheufele, 1999; Yows, 1995). Thus, to use the
construct in research requires careful explication (Chaffee, 1991).
Framing’s ostensible weakness also is one of the concept’s inherent strengths.
Framing’s emphasis on providing context within which information is presented
and processed allows framing to be applied across a broad spectrum of communi-
cation situations. An examination of the literature across disciplines suggests at
least seven models of framing that have potential application to public relations.
By examining these alternative conceptualizations, it is possible for researchers
and practitioners to understand the usefulness of the framing concept, to apply it in
practice, and to pursue a systematic research agenda about framing as it might be
applied to public relations. This article is a small step toward that goal. The seven
models involve the framing of situations, attributes, choices, actions, issues, re-
sponsibility, and news. Each of the seven models are summarized in Table 1 and
discussed next.
Researchers from anthropology and sociology were the first to examine communi-
cation using a framing paradigm. Their legacy of using framing to describe how re-

Typology of Seven Models of Framing Applicable to Public Relations
What is Framed
Key Sources
Relationships between individuals in situations found in
Bateson (1972), Goffman
everyday living and literature. Framing of situations
(1974), Putnam &
provides structure for examining communication.
Holmer (1992),
Applies to discourse analysis, negotiation, and other
Tannen (1993)
Characteristics of objects and people are accentuated,
Ghanem (1997), Levin,
whereas others are ignored, thus biasing processing of
Schneider, & Gaeth
information in terms of focal attributes.
(1998), McCombs &
Ghanem (1998), Ries
& Trout (1981),
Wright & Lutz (1993)
Posing alternative decisions in either negative (loss) or
Bell, Raiffa, & Tversky
positive (gain) terms can bias choices in situations
(1988), Kahneman &
involving uncertainty. Prospect theory suggests people
Tverksy (1979, 1984),
will take greater risks to avoid losses than to obtain
Levin, Schneider, &
Gaeth (1998)
In persuasive contexts, the probability that a person will
Maheswaran &
act to attain a desired goal is influenced by whether
Meyers-Levy (1990),
alternatives are stated in positive or negative terms.
Smith & Petty (1996)
Social problems and disputes can be explained in
Best (1995), Gamson &
alternative terms by different parties who vie for their
Modigliani (1989),
preferred definition a problem or situation to prevail.
Snow & Benford
(1988, 1992)
Individuals tend to attribute cause of events to either
Iyengar (1991), Iyengar
internal or external factors, based on levels of stability
& Kinder (1987),
and control. People portray their role in events
Kelley (1967, 1972a),
consistent with their self-image in ways that maximize
Protess et al.(1991),
benefits and minimize culpability. People attribute
Wallack, Dorfman,
causes to personal actions rather than systemic
Jernigan, & Themba
problems in society.
Media reports use familiar, culturally resonating themes
Gamson (1984), Gamson
to relay information about events. Sources vie for their
et al. (1992), Ryan
preferred framing to be featured through frame
enterprise and frame sponsorship.
ality is constructed through language and the structure of interactions among peo-
ple can be labeled as relational or situational framing.
Anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1972) is credited as the originator of situa-
tional framing theory. He defined a psychological frame as “a spatial and temporal
bounding of a set of interactive messages” (p. 191). According to Bateson, the par-
ticipants’ understanding of the interaction in which they engage—including their
roles and the rules to be followed—operate as a form of metacommunication (i.e.,
communication about communication that guides the process). Sociologist Erving

Goffman (1974) later expanded the notion and described framing as “the defini-
tion of a situation … built up in accordance with principles of organization that
govern events—at least social ones—and our subjective involvement in them” (p.
10). Goffman defined a frame as a “schemata of interpretation” that provides a
context for understanding information and enables individuals to “locate, per-
ceive, identify and label” (p. 21). In his classic work on frame analysis, Goffman
identified various processes involved. Of these, three of the most important were
keying, bringing into focus particular aspects of everyday life by recreating past in-
teractions; anchoring, the rooting of ideas in deeper frames of meaning; and fabri-
, the recasting of certain dimensions of experience so they are made salient
within a situation or interaction. Linguists and others in related disciplines have
drawn on Bateson and Goffman and have applied frame analysis to studies that an-
alyze discourse (e.g., Tannen, 1986, 1993), language (Hofling, 1987), and literary
storytelling (Hufford, 1995).
Two of the most important research domains relevant to public relations in
which situation framing has been investigated involve organizational behavior
and negotiation. Culbert and McDonough (1990), for example, described (situa-
tional) framing as the process by which managers at all levels attempt to impose
their version of reality on situations. Hirsch (1986) argued that normative fram-
has facilitated acceptance of once-disdained business practices, such as hos-
tile takeovers. In the same way, organizational framing (i.e., the use of frames
by organizations in its discourse) has been used to examine contemporary prob-
lems. Examples include sexual exploitation (Mills, 1997) and concealment of
sexual harassment (Clair, 1993). Economists similarly have employed framing
concepts. Elliott and Hayward (1998) suggested that social norms, or uncon-
scious rules of social exchange behavior, have been used to contrast actions in
different types of economic systems. They suggested the business contexts in
which individuals work provide important cues that frame understanding of
problems and lead to distinct behaviors. In the negotiation arena, Putnam and
Holmer (1992) argued that bargaining is defined through the processes of fram-
ing and reframing that occur throughout the deliberations. Other researchers
have examined the linguistic patterns used by bargainers to frame negotiations
(Gray, 1997) and the critical role of mediators as framers and reframers of issues
(Bodtker & Jameson, 1997).
Separate from defining and describing overall situations found in everyday life and
literature, a second and distinct form of framing involves the framing of attributes
(i.e., the characterization of objects, events, and people). When used in this context,
semantic framing is used to focus on particular attributes that might be flattering or

derogatory and, thus, be advantageous or disadvantageous to message sponsors in
persuasive communications.
Consumer behavior researchers are the most active in attribute framing re-
search and use the term in at least four distinct ways (see A. A. Wright & Lutz,
1993). Picture framing describes ads in which captions accompany a photo and are
used to prime the cognitive processing of visuals by calling attention to particular
attributes depicted (Edell & Staelin, 1983; Kamins & Marks, 1987). Problem
refers to the deliberations used by decision makers, particularly novices,
to structure a preference judgment task. Advertising has been shown to influence
judgments by altering key aspects of the decision process by refocusing consumer
attention away from certain attributes or choice rules in favor of others, thus defin-
ing (framing) the criteria on which decisions should be made and the schema that
should be used (Chebat, Limoges, & Gelinas-Chebat, 1998; Ganzach, Weber, &
Or, 1997; Hoch & Ha, 1986; Homer & Yoon, 1992; Schul & Ganzach, 1995; Shah,
1996; G. E. Smith & Berger, 1996; P. Wright, 1977; P. Wright & Barbour, 1975; P.
Wright & Rip, 1980). Advertising framing of product experience, drawing on Wil-
liam D. Wells’s (Puto & Wells, 1984) notion of transformational advertising, sug-
gests that promotional messages transform how the consumer perceives and
judges the subsequent consumption of a product (Deighton, 1988; Deighton &
Schindler, 1988; Fazio & Zanna, 1981; Levin & Gaeth 1988; Marks & Kamins,
1988; Olson & Dover, 1976). Finally, experience-frames-advertising effects have
been identified. These involve how a consumer’s prior experiences and satisfac-
tion using a particular product bias the salience of particular product attributes in a
commercial message and, thus, influence the criteria used to judge messages and
featured products (A. A. Wright & Lutz, 1993).
Product positioning is another term commonly used by marketers to describe
attribute framing. Kotler (1995) defined positioning as the “act of designing a
company’s offerings and image so they occupy a meaningful and distinctive com-
petitive position in the customer’s mind” (p. 295). Ries and Trout (1981; Trout,
1996) suggested that positioning heightens product expectations and enables con-
sumers to differentiate people, objects, and brands. Although they do not use the
term “schema,” Ries and Trout (1981) contended that people rank products and
brands using “little ladders” in their heads; the ladders are product categories, and
the ladder rungs represent brands.
Framing also has been used to describe alternative presentation of product
claims or attributes. Alternatives examined include whether the product is de-
scribed (framed) based on price versus benefits (G. E. Smith & Wortzel, 1997),
product connections to political concerns (pro-environmental “green marketing”)
versus instrumental qualities (Green & Blair, 1995), and the alternate anchoring
(framing) of price references (Gourville, 1998; Harlam, Krishna, Lehmann, &
Mela, 1995; Tom & Ruiz, 1997). Finally, framing also is central to research about
comparative advertising that examines claims made about a particular product’s

attributes relative to others in the same category (Bettman & Sujan, 1987; Miniard,
Rose, Manning, & Barone, 1998).
Attribute framing has received increased attention in media studies from
Maxwell McCombs and his colleagues (Ghanem, 1997; McCombs, 1997;
McCombs & Ghanem, 1998). They argued that media are effective in not only
raising the salience of particular topics, issues, or objects but also can create spe-
cific knowledge of attributes related to issues and people, such as political can-
didates. The media’s ability to create general top-of-mind salience about a topic
is known as agenda-setting (McCombs & Shaw, 1972, 1993). McCombs labeled
the media’s ability also to frame attributes as second-order agenda setting or
frame setting. The extension of the familiar description of agenda-setting thus
suggests, although media are not necessarily effective in telling people what to
think, media can be strikingly effective in telling people what to think about
—and how to think about it.
Beyond marketing and communications, attribute framing has been used by
economists to explain economic behaviors (for review, see Elliott & Hayward,
1998). The theory of institutional framing (Frey & Bohnet, 1995; Isaac,
Mathieu, & Zajac, 1991; Lindenberg, 1992; Zajac, 1995) suggests that percep-
tions of fairness (i.e., an attribute of an institution involving whether it deals
fairly with others) accounts for aberrations not explained by standard economic
models that emphasize self-interest. Other economists reject classical notions of
economics that presume people use a single absolute zero-base as the starting
point for making economic decisions. Instead, people are thought to use multiple
reference points in decision making; each of these reference points represents a
distinct frame of reference that is used to assess attributes or values when mak-
ing comparisons. Finally, still other neoclassical economists reject the notion
that people are rational in making decisions and only seek economic benefits
(utilities). These economists contend that nonrational economic behavior can be
explained by the fact that individuals seek a variety of different benefits (utili-
ties) and that any of these can dominate decision making at a given time and can
thus focus judgments on different attributes.
In examining research in psychology related to decision making, Levin et al.
(1998) stressed that attribute framing involves individuals making evaluations of
particular attributes of an object. They assume no risk is involved. In general, at-
tribute framing relies on semantic differences related to making what is fundamen-
tally the same choice, such as a describing beef as “75% lean” or “25% fat” (Levin,
1987). Attribute framing also can involve effects from alternative descriptions of
the success–failure rate of a particular procedure (i.e., whether results emphasize a
60% success rate or a 40% failure rate), or win–loss rates (i.e., whether a team won
30 games or lost 20 games). Significantly, Levin and his colleagues reported that
positive framing of attributes consistently leads to more favorable evaluations of
objects and attributes than negative framing.

A third important area of framing for public relations involves the framing of
risky choices,
wherein individuals must not merely evaluate attributes but must
make a choice between two independent options when some level of uncertainty
or risk is present. (The framing of risky choices can be distinguished from fram-
ing where no independent choice is at issue and only one course of action is in-
volved. This latter case is labeled framing of actions and is described in the next
The framing of choices is one of the most extensively researched areas of fram-
ing, based on the classical work of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos
Tversky (1979, 1984, 1987; Tversky & Kahneman, 1981, 1987). Kahneman and
Tversky (1979) defined a frame as a decision maker’s perception of “the acts, out-
comes, and contingencies associated with a particular choice” (p. 263). In particu-
lar, they argued that human decision making is inherently nonrationale because the
prospect of a loss has a far greater impact on decision making than does the pros-
pect of an equivalent gain.
In developing their prospect theory of decision making, the psychologists be-
gan with an expected-value model wherein it was assumed, in a linear fashion, that
an individual who finds $1 would happy and that a person who finds $100 should
be 100 times happier. Conversely, they theorized that a person who loses $100
should be proportionately more distressed than a person who loses only $1. In-
stead, the researchers discovered an S-shaped curve of responses wherein the pros-
pect of greater gains was perceived as less valuable but that the prospect of even a
modest loss far outweighed the prospect of a comparable modest gain. The re-
searchers concluded that people tend to avoid risks when a choice is stated in terms
of gains but will take greater risks when choices are stated in terms of losses.
Prospect theory’s revelations about the predominant influence of loss-preven-
tion has been a topic of ongoing interest among researchers. Although a variety of
moderating factors have been suggested, Kahneman and Tversky’s (1979) fram-
ing effect has largely withstood testing (for discussions, see D. E. Bell, Raiffa, &
Tversky, 1988; Brendl, Higgins, & Lemm, 1995; Dunegan, 1993; E. J. Johnson &
Tversky, 1983; Kahneman, Knetsch, & Thaler, 1987; Levin, 1986, 1987; Levy,
1992; Quattrone & Tversky, 1988; von Furstenberg, 1990).
Most studies of prospect theory have involved hypothetical, experimental situ-
ations, such as Kahneman and Tversky’s (1979) original question involving how
people would respond to an Asian disease. However, research about the framing of
choices has been conducted in a wide range of applied domains as well. For exam-
ple, health communicators have found patients are willing to select greater risks if
the decision means saving a life or reducing suffering (for a recent review, see
Rothman & Salovey, 1997; also see Burger, 1984; McNeil, Pauker, Sox, &
Tversky, 1982; Rosenberg, 1989; T. L. Thompson & Cusella, 1991). The same