Reframing the narrative: 6 case-studies and recommendations

The Opportunity Agenda embarked on a six-part narrative research study to explore how narratives over sensitive social issues can change. 

Below are the key recommendations they took from their work. The full studies can be accessed here.


  • Design a long-term strategy that is rooted in values. By clearly communicating what was at stake in the form of core values, many of the actors in these campaigns were able to speak to their audiences’ value systems and emotions. Doing so enabled them to organize their messaging around a constant theme over the long term and use that framework to identify the stories and statistics they needed, depending on the circumstances or messaging opportunity.
  • Know and analyze the counternarrative. While this may seem obvious—we are all too familiar with the narratives that work against our strategies—it’s important to take a moment to assess what is really resonating with audiences about the counternarrative.
  • Identify and dismantle the assumptions the counternarrative relies on. Anti-death penalty advocates keyed into their opponents’ reliance on what was “working” in the criminal justice system. By focusing on that pragmatism, they were able to flip the script to point out the ways that the death penalty was actually an amplified result of so many things that weren’t working in the system, particularly when it came to racial bias. By throwing into question the assumption that the system was fair, they were able to undermine confidence in execution as a penalty and successfully argue, in many cases, for its abolition. The anti-rape movement began by taking these assumptions head-on and working to dismantle the various “rape myths” that pervaded society. By finding ways to consistently counter these dominant ideas about sexual violence, advocates were able to change the conversation, to some extent, in court rooms, pop culture and everyday conversations.
  • Establish your own frame and tell an affirmative story. While counternarratives and external factors beyond the direct control of advocates appear to play a significant role in shaping narratives, these studies also indicate that the advocates best positioned to respond to unpredictable external variables—or the activity of the opposition—all gained ground following the adoption of offensive communications strategies.
    In the case of both the anti-death penalty and anti-gun movements, going on the offensive changed the game. Armed with an effective communications strategy, advocates can reset the terms of the debate and make considerable headway in challenging the efficacy of the death penalty and the imagined dominance of the National Rifle Association. While the anti-rape movement began very much in reaction to rampant myths and the resulting harmful policies and behavior, advocates were able to reframe the debate into a narrative of empowerment and justice. While still being against something—sexual violence and harassment—the narrative started to become more about being for equal treatment and accountability.
  • Center the voices of those who are most affected and connect them to systemic solutions. In the cases of the #MeToo, racial profiling, and anti-gun violence movements, the strategy of spotlighting survivors’ stories was a crucial part of developing the narrative. Equally important, from a strategic viewpoint, was linking those stories to systemic solutions to avoid asking audiences only for sympathy for the individuals involved. Instead, advocates were able to present systemic solutions that would require policy-level change. Also strategic is bringing in new, unexpected messengers, as anti-death penalty advocates did when forming alliances with families of murder victims who oppose the death penalty
  • Broaden the implications of the problem and the benefits of the solution. While it is important from both a narrative and ethical standpoint to center the voices of the people who are most affected, it is also important to compel audiences to see how these issues affect us all. Living in a society that does not tolerate racial bias in the criminal justice system, sexual violence and harassment, the gun violence epidemic to continue to cost so many lives, the inhumane treatment of animals, or people living in extreme poverty in our wealthy nation is better for us all if we want to consider ourselves a nation of conscience.
  • Make a clear plan, but be ready to be nimble. One of the clearest takeaways from our analysis has been the significant variation in the tools and tactics adopted between cases, in large part due to the significant role of external/unpredictable factors. For instance, in the case of the death penalty, overarching discourse shifted significantly due to crime rates and scientific developments (specifically, DNA analysis). Advocates adopted and shifted tactics as a result of these external tipping points with varying degrees of success. Animal rights activists had long protested whale captivity, as well as other use of animals in captivity for entertainment purposes. By leveraging Blackfish, they were able to take what started as a successful documentary and quickly create an entire campaign. The question remains if they could have taken it further by pushing a larger narrative about captivity that may have then become useful with the somewhat unexpected success of the 2020 series Tiger King.