Hope, not fear: A new model for communicating human rights

Thomas Coombes
16 min readDec 10, 2017

Since publishing this story in 2017, the idea of hope-based communications has grown. In 2019, I set up hope-based communications as a strategic consultancy. find out more at www.hope-based.com.

In 2017, my own approach to communications has completely changed. Having spent the last few months diving into the latest studies from cause communicators in the USA, and studying audience research about human rights around the world, I have realised that human rights communication needs to be about hope and opportunity, not fear and threat.

Forty years ago today, on 10 December 1977, Amnesty International was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. At the presentation, the Nobel Committee spoke of Amnesty’s work on torture, the death penalty and, above all, its unique role in supporting prisoners of conscience:

“Amnesty has shone a torch of hope into his cell, maybe precisely when its inmate is sunk in the depths of despair and degradation.”

Today, the human rights movement needs to shine that torch of hope on the whole world.

Yet too often the communication of human rights organisations gives more reason to be angry and pessimistic than hopeful.

As Amnesty International posters read, quoting a Chinese proverb, “It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

If you put all the new audience research together, it seems that every time we curse the darkness and trigger fear, not hope, we are losing people. We need to light more candles.

Why human rights cannot thrive without hope

The human rights movement has focused on exposing violations of international human rights law, naming and shaming governments and companies who step out of line.

Can we continue to rely on “Name & Shame” strategies at a time when politicians are shameless?

If the past few years have taught us anything, it is that focusing on laws and their implementation alone is not enough. As George Orwell wrote in his 1945 essay Freedom of the Park:

“The relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public
opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether
they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general
temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in
freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law
forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will
be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.”

Another thing we have learned in the era of fake news, narrative truth and political bullshit, facts are not enough either. Especially since telling people they are wrong can actually reinforce their opinions if it conflicts with their values and beliefs. This is called ‘confirmation bias’ and people who talk about it warn us that we need to use emotions and facts together to win hearts and minds.

On their own, even stories are not enough if we are not careful about the way we tell them. Studies into ‘psychic numbing’ show that as soon as you start talking about more than one person, your audience struggles to maintain sympathy for the protagonists.

So to win public opinion, we need to make human rights popular. To do that, we need more than laws, facts and stories.

Instead of mobilising shame, we need to mobilise hope.

The findings of linguists and psychologists working with focus groups in the United States show that we have to trigger positive emotions that win over persuadable audiences, the undecided people in the middle of debates who are trying to make up their minds, conflicted by the different arguments they hear, based on their values, their beliefs and their understanding of the world around them.

How does a movement whose job is exposing terrible human rights abuses every day adapt to rise to this challenge?

This refugee’s story changed the way I think about human rights today

There is a story that sums up where we are in the world when it comes to human rights.

It is about a refugee called Sara.

One day the secret police came for her and her family. So Sara and her husband fled, hiring a smuggler to take them across the mountains to the border.

After a gruelling trek, the passeur took them to the border, but it was blocked by a high fence topped with barbed wire. The authorities had closed the border and were sending her kind away, back to the fate that awaited them.

Sara was pregnant, and while her husband lost courage and prepared to turn back, the life she was carrying gave her the energy to start climbing. Her hands and legs were bleeding, but she persevered and he had to follow her. Once she was in the country, the border guards felt they could not deport a pregnant woman.

So they took her to a police station where she filled out asylum papers with her husband, who, in the space on the form asking why they were seeking asylum, wrote: “Because I am a Jew”.

The year was 1942, and Sara Dawidowicz had just fled France and the Gestapo, crossing the Alps into Switzerland. She spent the war in a refugee camp just east of Geneva, while her husband worked in a labour camp. She gave birth during that time.

My grandmother with my aunt in a Swiss refugee camp.

If she hadn’t survived, I would not be here today. Sara was my grandmother.

A story of sorrow? Or a story of hope?

Like most people who work in human rights, this is not easy for me. Because of my family history, I have a fundamentally negative way of seeing the world, and that has affected the way I communicate.

Until now I have seen my grandmother’s story, and the fact that almost all the rest of her family were murdered in concentration camps, as a reason to view the world negatively.

But as human rights defenders today look at the situation in countries like Egypt and Turkey with despair (quoted in an excellent book making the case for hope by Kathryn Sikkink), and as we learn more about the power of positive communications, I have realised I can now see the story of my family differently.

I still see it as a story of sorrow. But now I also see it as a story of survival against all the odds. A story of resilience. A story of hope.

Even in that darkest time of all, there was hope. People survived. So there must be hope now. And here I am today, thanks to Sara’s refusal to lose hope.

My grandmother, grandfather and aunt back in France after the war.

The fact that Sara’s story sounds like it could be set in 2017 tells us everything we need to know about the state of world today.

So you can understand why Amnesty International’s annual report this year talked about a more divided and dangerous world”.

Is that the right message to make human rights popular?

The work from cognitive linguist and communications expert Anat Shenker-Osorio suggests that this might not be the right approach in the long-term. She says that talking about fear and danger makes people more conservative and defensive.

You only make people more open to rational and empathetic responses by making them feel safe. Instead of negative emotions like anger and fear, we need to trigger determination, empathy and hope.

Here are four steps to communicating positively about human rights to win the battle for public opinion.

Step 1. Hope, not fear

Understanding how our communication affects people begins with basic science about the brain.

Fear and threat trigger primordial base defensive instincts in the brain, which leads to defensive political impulses. Safety and calm however, encourage the upper parts of the brain, generating more empathy and welcoming political instincts.

So when human rights people talk about “a more dangerous world” we are triggering a fear response. Every time we trigger that fear response, we are losing. I have been doing that my whole career!

Genius communicators Robert Perez and Amy Simon have written in detail about applying neuroscience to cause campaigns. They talk about getting people away from the “downstairs brain” — the primordial ‘fight or flight’ instincts — and into the “upstairs brain” where they can feel empathy for others.

Michelle Obama hit the mark in more ways then one when she said:

“When they go low, we go high.”

We are starting to understand the direct political ramificaitons this has. A French survey showed that voters who predominantly felt fear and anger voted for anti-immigrant candidates Francois Fillon and Marine le Pen, while those who were enthusiastic voted for progressive candidate Emmanuel Macron. ​

It is hard, but we must find ways to trigger positive emotions: empathy, joy, determination and solidarity instead of fear, threat and anger.

Look at attitudes to refugees. If you ask people if they are worried about refugees, they will say yes. But when people come face to face with a refugee they want to help — it’s just human nature. And when Globescan asked people if they believed people fleeing war and persecution had a right to asylum, people not only said yes: they said that their governments should do more to help.

Many were willing to take refugees into their own home. Human instincts are in the right place, it is emotions that get in the way. If we talk about crisis and people get scared, and seek security of a defensive, unwelcoming policy.

Politicians have become expert at manipulating emotions to stoke fear and mistrust.

At Amnesty International we’ve run our own focus groups where people said that they do not understand refugee’s motives and feel overwhelmed by the sense of crisis and scale. They do not know how the problem can be solved, so they turn away from it.

The way people make decisions is always a mix of rational and emotional. It is up to us to break down their barriers to hearing us — their lack of awareness of an issue, their lack of trust in the people talking to them, their sense of urgency and how relevant the story is to them, and above all, what can be done about it.

We need to make it easy for people to relate to other people. Show them a crowd, they will get scared. Show them an individual who could be them, they will be compassionate. So instead of a prisoner in jail, show a former prisoner who is rebuilding their life. Instead of a refugee at their lowest in a refugee camp, show a refugee building a business and caring for their family. Show people not just the suffering, but the other life that is possible if we do something about it.

So in my case, my grandmother’s story is not just one of survival, it is about the new life she built in France after the war.

My grandparents, aunt and mother outside their shop in Alsace after the war.

And it’s a story I am continuing today.

Step 2. Change the frame

A consequence of my negative world view has been that I communicate confrontationally sometimes, seeking to attack positions that are not human rights-friendly.

If governments say human rights are a barrier to security, my instinct was to show how lacking human rights leads to insecurity. But in doing so I was accepting that the whole debate would be framed around security, triggering the fear response in our audiences, no matter whose rational argument is more convincing.

But now that we know the wrong emotions turn people against our position, it becomes crucial to set the terms of the debate, and change the narrative so that we are talking not about threats, but the society we want to live in.

Ask yourself: Which character best personifies the human rights movement today? Which one are people most likely to listen to?

We cannot depend on “government x is doing bad things and violating human rights” as a narrative. People believe everyone should have rights, but they usually have a superficial understanding of issues. Human rights are not a prism through which they see the world and interpret world events.

Even when people believe human rights are important, it only occupies a small part of their value systems. We need to frame narratives to show people how the most basic, fundamental values that matter to them are at stake.

That is why the most successful progressive campaign of the 21st century has been marriage equality, which reframed a debate from one around discrimination and rights denied to one built around love, equality and family.

This less political, more personal and human framing makes it easy for celebrities, sportspeople and the general public to get on board. It makes it easier for even people who believe gay marriage is against their religion to empathise with a gay couple who love each other and just want to live together.

If the LGBTQI movement made unprecedented gains by replacing the “right to marry” message, what does that mean for the rest of human rights movement? Maybe we need to focus more on the human, and less on the rights. (and here I am indebted to Anat Schenker-Osorio’s mind-blowing cognitive linguistics — buy her book!)

Maybe we need to talk more about human rights as a verb, not an inactive, object noun at the end of the sentence that people are granted or entitled to. We may not have the right words yet. But let’s talk instead about you being able to be who you are, say what you believe in, love who you want to and live a free life.

Step 3. Our vision

If we are going to frame the debate the way we want, we need to get better about articulating what we are fighting for.

We need to show people a credible vision of what a world where human rights are enjoyed by all looks like. At first, this will feel naive. But why would people join us if we do not tell them what we are for and not just against?

We need to show what we are for with positive images. No more bars and nooses. Images of nooses remind people of their own mortality, which makes them more likely to listen to politicians promising to be tough on crime.

A protest against the death penalty. What does a world where the death penalty has been abolished everywhere look like?

When we talk about justice, we need to show an image of justice. An image of hands gripping bars is an image of injustice.

The best piece of writing about communications is the first. In 1922, in his seminal book Public Relations, Walter Lippmann wrote about The world outside and the pictures in our heads:

“In order then that the distant situation shall not be a grey flicker
on the edge of attention, it should be capable of translation into
pictures in which the opportunity for identification is recognisable…Pictures have always been the surest way of conveying an idea, and next in order, words that call up pictures in memory.

It is easy for populists to get voters to hark back to the past because we can all summon a picture of it in our heads. It is a lot harder to paint a picture of the future. But we have to try.

In 1988, when Chile held a referendum on whether to keep General Pinochet in power, the opposition made the brave their decision to run a campaign based on a positive vision for the future, rather than the horrors of the regime.

Learning from Chile, human rights ad campaigns must show what we stand for not just issue by issue, but a world where everyone is born free and equal.

Human rights organisations need to make communicating positive emotions a strategic priority: we need to find and share stories that make people feel safe, secure, compassionate and, above all, joyful.

If we listen to the world’s leading cause communicators like Anat Schenker-Osorio, Robert Perez and Amy Simon, moments of joy are as important as the worst moments of sadness and anger.

Amnesty International’s internal research shows that human rights are often seen as heavy and political, making it hard for everyday people to open up, take it in, and get involved. They need to see what we are fighting for, moments of pure joy like the moment that DRC activists Fred and Yves went free after a long campaign.

This has fundamental implications for how human rights organisations work. We need more research into communities thriving because they have respected human rights. We need stories of positive change, of prosperous and stable communities, police forces who protect their people, of diversity and tolerance.

We need to tell a story about human rights change that is relevant, believable and ultimately successful.

Step 4. Faced with dehumanisation, we have to re-humanise

The potential for demonisation to undermine human rights is really scary. Artificial intelligence can be used to serve up social media ads to people based on their personality, a power that, in the wrong hands, can be abused to stoke fear and distrust of minorities.

We do not have to accept that people are divided according to race, ethnicity or nationality.

People do see themselves as human first, as a survey of millenials by the World Economic Forum showed earlier this year. As the WEF survey said: “Young people feel they are united simply because they exist in the same world together. Both as individuals and as a collective, they share similar concerns and desires. For them, their race is the human race.”

So the findings from neuroscience and HeartWired are a timely reminder that human rights work needs to be about building up a sense of common humanity. In a short speech calling for European governments to welcome in the Vietnamese Boat People in 1981, Michel Foucault defined human rights as the right and duty of citizens everywhere to confront governments anywhere with the suffering they cause:

Amnesty International, Terre des Hommes, Médecins du Monde are initiatives which have created this new right: the right of private individuals to intervene actively and materially in the order of international politics and strategy

But this right will only be useful if people are willing to act on it.

How do we cultivate these better angels of our nature? Telling people their views are wrong or racist doesn’t work. So what do we do? We take them on a journey. We show them other people just like them overcoming their unconscious bias, their fears and qualms, and changing their minds.

One lesson here is that the people telling persuadable audiences stories should not always be experts, activists and survivors of abuses, and certainly not celebrities, but everyday people just like them who have gone on a journey that the audience can also take.

That is why the most powerful and successful Amnesty International video in years simply showed refugees and locals staring in each other’s eyes for four minutes.

Look Beyond Borders, a poignant video experiment breaking down barriers between recently-arrived refugees from Syria and Somalia and people from Belgium, Italy, Germany, Poland and the UK, made by Amnesty International Poland and Polish ad agency DDB&Tribal.

This is not just about buying ads and educating people. It is about getting better at listening to people. Fake news and the politics of demonisation are dangerous because they use personal data to target messages to prey on people’s emotions and personalities.

We have to understand where people are at emotionally, how they feel, what they are worried about, so that we can bring them to a place where they can empathise with others and slowly open up to their fellow human beings

We need to hold discussions and debates to understand their hopes and fears. We need to use focus groups — even if they are just a group of your friends — to see if our narratives make sense and the words we use trigger positive emotions.

If people can be made to fear and hate others that they have never met, then why can’t they be encouraged to love and support them instead?

Zadie Smith put this challenge beautifully in an essay On Optimism and Despair written just after the election of Donald Trump in 2016:

If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world — and most recently in America — the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.

A checklist for positive communication

A Silver Linings Playbook

Just to be clear: human rights organisations still need to investigate and expose abuses. But when we present our findings, we need to talk about opportunities as well as threats, solutions as well as problems.

Whenever you communicate, ask yourself the following questions:

— Are you talking about what you are FOR, or what are AGAINST?

— Are you campaigning for a SOLUTION, or against a PROBLEM?

— Are you warning about THREATS, or highlighting an OPPORTUNITY?

— Are you telling people they need to be angry and afraid, or that there is a reason for hope and determination?

— Are you telling people what to think, or telling them how you came to your conclusion so that they can make the same journey?

— Are you talking about victims, or everyday heroes?

This is going to be hard for a movement of people, who like me, are determined to make sure that the worst abuses never happen again, that injustice must be exposed and broadcast to the world. Our duty in the human rights movement is not just to expose abuse, but also to offer people hope. We need to show that we can make things better together.

The darker the world, the brighter the candle seems to shine. The deeper the despair, the greater the value of hope.

Joy in action: Fred & Yves go free in the DRC.
p.s. Sara Dawidowicz lived to the ripe old age of 102.



Thomas Coombes

Founder, Hope-based comms. Human rights strategist. Blogging about world literature in my spare time.