Reframing newsletter

Reframing Tricks and Treats to Avoid Fatalism

October 31, 2019

Happy Halloween! To celebrate the holiday, we’re reviewing some common ways the human service sector can undercut its communications’ goals — specifically tactics that “spook” our audiences by activating a sense of fatalism, or a misperception that challenges are too big, complex and entrenched to address or solve. This limited outlook means the public thinks nothing can be done about the problem at hand, so they don’t consider, much less support, the human service programs and policies for which we’re advocating.

Below are some tips of what to avoid and what to advance based on the Building Well-Being Narrative and other framing strategies. This guidance is designed to help prevent your communications from “scaring” up the cultural model — or “deeply held understandings that motivate thought and behavior in largely unconscious and automatic ways” — of fatalism that results in unproductive interpretations of human needs and services.

Lead with the value of potential

  • Avoid omitting an explanation of why the issue is significant. Such an omission could trigger the fatalistic view that the challenge is not important enough to think through.
  • Advance the value of human potential. This frames why the issue is important to all of us by articulating how human services help everyone reach their potential and contribute to our communities.

Use the construction metaphor

  • Avoid comparing human services to a “safety net.” The term has partisan associations, which can also conjure up “politics as usual” and government is inept and corrupt mindsets that can activate fatalism and shut down conversations.
  • Advance the explanatory construction metaphor. The metaphor allows you to describe what human services are, as well as how they work to build well-being to generate greater public understanding and support.

Adopt an explanatory tone

  • Avoid crisis framing. Crisis messaging can overwhelm the public with problems, making it harder to see and be motivated to work towards solutions.
  • Advance an explanatory and pragmatic tone. A can-do tone can convince your audience progress is possible.

Explain how it works

  • Avoid opening with a statement of the problem. Starting with the problem can cause people to default to fatalism.
  • Advance an explanation of the problem. After asserting the value of potential and including a description of how human services build well-being, extend the construction metaphor to explain how well-being is undermined, demonstrating how cause results in effect.

Focus on solutions

  • Avoid overly emphasizing the problem you’re seeking to fix. Stressing the problem can lead people to conclude it’s impossible to resolve.
  • Advance how your proposed solutions address the challenge. Apply the construction metaphor to describe how human services restore well-being when it’s disrupted by life’s storms and include life cycle examples to avoid a perception that the problem is too big to fix and lacks answers.

Embed data in context

  • Avoid presenting data without context about the scope of the problem. A lack of background can allow the public to fill in their own story and default to fatalism.
  • Advance data as proof points. Supply data that support the challenge and solution in the Building Well-Being Narrative to strengthen your case.

We’re confident that incorporating these tricks and treats into your communications will prevent you from being “haunted” by fatalism.


SPOTLIGHT: The Kresge Foundation’s Framed Program Overview

The Kresge Foundation, “a private, national foundation that works to expand opportunities in America’s cities through grantmaking and social investing in arts and culture, education, environment, health, human services and community development in Detroit” features a nicely framed human services program overview. It focuses on solutions, alludes to the construction metaphor and includes the value of human potential.

“The Human Services Program is laser focused on achieving person-centered systems change that accelerates social and economic mobility for children and families using a racial equity lens. To accomplish this primary goal, we work with local, state and national partners who are reimagining support systems and co-creating solutions with children, families and community partners to meet them where they are and provide the support they need to build well-being and reach their full potential.”

As Newsletter readers know, The Kresge Foundation is a generous funder of the National Reframing Human Services Initiative.