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Framing the issue

Categories: Food for thought

Posted on 03-15-13 at 9 a.m.

Image for Framing the issue

During the last presidential debate on foreign politics, as U.S. President Barack Obama cited his accomplishments, the policy he was the proudest of - besides vaporizing Osama Bin Laden - was his position on shale gas and accelerating the exploration process.

Meanwhile, north of the border, Quebecers massively reject shale gas exploration. Likewise, a number of groups are fiercely opposed to the Northern Gateway, the pipeline from Bruderheim, Alberta to Kitimat, B.C.

Why do similar issues elicit such viscerally opposite reactions from just across our shared border? Sure, this could be about values - perhaps Americans and Canadians have different principles when it comes to energy or resources. However, we think the key factor here is not the answer but the question, and how it's structured. It's not about the picture - it's about the frame.

It's all about how you frame the issue - and the results are dramatically different. In the U.S., the administration and the energy industry frame shale gas as an "energy independence" issue. Shale gas exploration will make America energy self-sufficient - or even transform the country into a net exporter of oil and gas by 2020. Here, nationalism is cannily tied to oil and gas extraction. The question is: "Do you want to depend on Middle Eastern countries and their oil oligopoly for your energy supply... or are you a proud American?" Cue the fireworks and the flag-waving - the answer is never in doubt because the issue has been deftly framed to elicit the desired response.

In Quebec, a CROP poll conducted for the Fédération des chambres de commerce du Québec revealed that Quebecers are almost twice as opposed to shale gas as to the tar sands. Think about what that says when you consider how much negative media coverage the tar sands have received. Quebecers would prefer to buy their gas from other provinces or states rather than exploit their own. In Quebec, the discovery of a new resource is practically treated as bad news.

From the get-go, the energy industry here has been unable to frame the issue to its advantage. Meanwhile, its opponents did just that, pointing to possible contamination of the groundwater. In Quebec, the question is now: "Do you want to pollute your water?" And you know the answer to that one. Once that frame is snapped into place, it's very hard to remove. Not even a spokesman as credible as Lucien Bouchard (he almost made Quebec a country singlehandedly) can pull it off. In fact, rather than enhancing the image of shale gas, the issue is reducing his likeability.


Framing an issue starts with robust data about public opinion. You need to clearly understand the strengths and weaknesses of your project, as well as who are your allies, your opponents and the silent majority that you may be able to convince. Finally, it's important to understand the nature of the opposition, rational or emotional, in order to fine-tune the tone of communications.

Now the industry is stuck with an image problem, and has to find a way to reframe the issue. That won't be easy, but it's absolutely necessary to winning hearts and minds. Your mother was right: you seldom get a second chance to make that first impression.