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Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Teachable moments: the Greens and 'framing' (urgh)

Greens are annoyed that UKIP gets so much media coverage, but are there questions to ask about the party’s own record of missed PR opportunities?
First off, this piece is intended to be comradely. I have criticisms to make about the Green Party, but I have no interest in smearing it or its members. I am lucky enough to live in Caroline Lucas MP’s constituency and will vote for her in 2015.
But I think the party has a problem getting its message out and I want to warn against a purely defensive posture of crying ‘journalistic bias’ for the failure to cut through in the media.
For me, this piece by Matt Hawkins and Clare Phipps in theEcologist illustrated just such an approach. I’d also cite Natalie Bennett’s comments in this interview with Novara Media.
In the interview she explains the reasoning behind the Green’s tactical decision not to visit flooded areas, such as Somerset, earlier this year to explain the party’s policies on extreme weather and climate change. Finally, I want to flag up commentsmade by Neal Lawson of Compass, again to Novara Media, which I think give a tiny (though I can’t judge how well-informed) insight into things going on behind the scenes Green Party HQ during the floods. I cite Neal’s comments because I wonder if they highlight an organisational weakness of the party in reacting to breaking news whilst simultaneously campaigning for re-election. 
First off, let me caveat that I think our media strongly manifests the social relations latent in a developed, western capitalist society, its norms and ethics etc. In addition, I think it is true that as the primary gatekeeper to public opinion, the BBC reflects the same norms and ethics and, to compound matters, is more open to the established parties of power.
In these circumstances it is inevitable that a party with a critique of capitalism at its root, and which is not considered a party of power, will struggle to influence the media agenda.
In response, the Greens have to be opportunistic and savvy.
Last winter significant parts of the UK were flooded. In response, politicians (including UKIP) and the world’s media flocked to places like Somerset to witness whole villages underwater, homes ruined by the deluge, lives turned upside down by extreme weather.
The coverage was emotionally affecting and it engaged many people. The pictures, interviews and words helped people like me (safe and sound in Brighton) to empathise with the plight of those affected. You would need a heart of stone not to feel something when confronted with such footage.
Now, this is what the media is spectacularly good at: knocking on doors, finding human-interest stories and re-telling them to a wide audience (a few excellent reporters are able to go further and transform ‘topics’ into stories as well).
But the coverage also prompted me (and presumably many others) to think more abstractly about what might have caused the floods in the first place and to consider ‘what needs to be done’ to stop them happening again.
In short, the coverage provided an opportunity to ‘frame’ the debate about climate change. There… I said it, that horribly vogue-ish liberal word: ‘framing’. Now, before I go on, I’ll put on record my hunch that ‘framing’ is a bit overplayed in some quarters. It is a PR tactic, nothing more, it is not a grand theory of political communication or change, it is a tool. It is based on the very simple idea that if you want to explain something to a person (or audience), you must do it in a way they can relate to ‘start where they are’. Framing provides for a ‘teachable moment’, if you will.
People often talk about the value of ‘story telling’ as a component of framing. But it’s really the mechanics of story telling that enable an idea to be framed, the metaphors, analogies and similes intrinsic to story telling that allow an abstract argument to come to life.
Remember sitting on the rug in class at infant school? Remember how the teacher would often end by rhetorically asking: ‘and the moral of that story is…?’
Well… that.
Now, all adults (apart from the malignant narcissists and psychopaths among us) can relate emotionally to the experience of a family flooded out of their home. We have a sense of what it would be like for us if, by bad luck, we were faced with the same situation. This emotional engagement can provide a bridge to more abstract knowledge, for example, it can help us to relate the science of climate change to actual, concrete social events.
When a parent lays out Smarties in order to teach a kid to count, they are framing. They are using something the child understands and can relate to (food they enjoy eating) as a stepping stone to something more abstract, in this case, mathematics (See my clever use of metaphor there?)
This is not rocket science (heh heh) just a sensible, empathic way of teaching (heh  heh heh heh).
So why, when all the word’s media and its dog, was in Somerset filming the deluge, did the Green Party stay in London? Why opt for a press conference at the Thames barrier when the teachable moment was in a Somerset field? Was the Thames barrier a better device for framing than the visceral depiction of flooding’s concrete impact on actual human lives?
The Green Party has no right to own climate change as a campaign issue, but it has a better claim to being authentic on this issue than any other party. And whilst it is crucial to have a well-argued and rational set of policies about flooding, this is not enough. People need to find their own way to connect with policy, they don’t always connect on the basis of a rational and well argued proposition, although, in principle, I they can. To avoid losing such people, you need a teachable moment: every policy should have a metaphor, a simile, some ‘Smarties’ that will allow people to make their own connections between it and their own, concrete, lived reality.
Infographics do this job, they provide a visual metaphor for abstract statistical facts. Human-interest stories in the media do the same job, that’s why any campaigning charity worth its salt maintains a network of people (aka ‘case studies’) to advocate for and illustrate their research.
Sadly, as Neal Lawson points out, it is likely that the intensification of climate change will lead to many more ‘teachable moments’ like the Somerset floods. I hope the Green Party plans to be chief lecturer next time around.

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