Developing new positive narratives for an alternative future.
Focusing messaging on values, and avoiding reacting to and feeding populist narratives, can engage new audiences with a positive vision of the future as a constructive alternative to fear, crisis and division.
Main Features of the Populist Context
While populism functions differently in various contexts, most populist politicians are known for pushing the boundaries of acceptable speech: making “politically incorrect” statements, or “telling it like it is”. In doing so, politicians get free publicity and shift the “Overton window” of what is considered “common sense” in public discourse. In other words, they frame the debate and control the narrative.
Using these techniques, well-planned campaigns can shift formerly unthinkable and radical ideas into what become regarded as sensible and popular, to the point that the pressure for them to become policy becomes irresistible. This has been evident in changing attitudes towards women and LGBT+ people, but also in the eroding support for human rights, particularly for those migrating or escaping war and persecution. So if strategic use of narrative can help bring about cultural and societal change, why not aim for a 2030 where politics is built on kindness, gender equality, a sustainable approach to the economy and a worldview built on “empathy and responsibility to care”?
Populists are comfortable being criticised by “elite” institutions like civil society organisations (CSOs). Too often, entering into open debate or conflict with them feeds the “us vs them” narratives on which they thrive. When the messaging of CSOs simply reacts to political or world events, it allows others to set the terms of debate. This relegates civil society to the role of reacting rather than making the case for their own values. As cognitive linguist Anat Shenker-Osorio says, good messaging is not about saying what is popular, it is about making popular what needs to be said.
Taking control of the narrative is also important for ensuring the tone of public discourse is conducive to progressive values and policies. A sense of crisis, scarcity and conflict is the perfect breeding ground for populism. A sense of certainty, abundance and shared humanity promotes empathy and taking responsibility to care for one another. Research from Hope Not Hate has found that people who are more optimistic about their own lives tend to hold more liberal views than those who feel pessimistic.
To counter the climate of fear and division that populists are trying to create, CSOs need to cultivate a welcoming terrain of hope and empathy for people who desire a constructive alternative. Research by More in Common in 2018 found an “exhausted majority” of Americans across the political spectrum wanting to move beyond division and polarisation in order to “create trust and connection […] around what unites them”. This means talking less about “fighting” and more about “building”. It means countering dehumanisation with compassion and positive, authentic stories about minority groups with which audiences can empathise.
Main Features of the Innovation
Hope-based communications is a simple methodology that proactively and explicitly promotes the values and solutions we want to see in society. It focuses on creating a climate of togetherness and empathy to avoid being side-tracked by responses to populist frames and narratives. Moving beyond a vocabulary of facts and rational arguments, it encourages greater consideration of the emotions and ideas that CSOs need to activate in target audiences, putting forward an alternative vision of how things could be and how to get there.
The main features of the innovation include:
Hope-based communications developed as a classic case of “intrapreneurship” within an international CSO. It started with a spontaneous blog post, then evolved into a simple informal checklist — inspired by Greenpeace’s Seven Shifts storytelling strategy — circulated internally within Amnesty International and inviting colleagues to ask themselves questions about their work. First presented within Amnesty as an optional framework to use, it received so much interest from other civil society groups that its orginator, Thomas Coombes, has further developed and documented it as a freely available open source methodology and set up the Hope-Based Communications consultancy, dedicated to supporting its application in the sector.
Hope-based communications involves carrying out five simple shifts that can lead to some dramatic changes in thinking.
From problems to solutions: ·· What do we want to see happen? ·· How would your solution work in practice?
From threat to opportunity: ·· Have you shown people the opportunity for change? ·· How can human rights make things better?
From “against” to “for”: ·· What is the alternative to the abuses we are exposing? ·· What wider principles are at stake? ·· If authorities applied your solution, what values would they be living by?
From victims to heroes: ·· Who can our audience side with in this story? ·· Are your protagonists relatable: are their motivations clear, their hopes expressed, their values shareable?
From fear to hope: ·· What positive emotion can people feel — or anticipate feeling in the future — by connecting emotionally to this story?
Such shifts can reframe conversations. For example, instead of sounding the alarm about biodiversity loss, how might one promote a policy that will achieve biodiversity gain?
Above all, focusing on allegorical stories that show your values in action and reinforce your narrative is a necessary prerequisite for making the best use of new technological tools that enable precise targeting of content to different audiences.
Examples of how hope – based communications have been used
Anistia Brasil “Brasil for Everyone”
When opposition to civil society groups became a feature of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s profile, any aggressive counter-mobilisation risked being labeled as “radical” activism. In response, Anistia Brasil applied the hope-based communications approach when launching its first report about human rights under Bolsonaro. The Brazil for Everyone campaign focused on a positive unifying message that promoted diversity and gave voice to marginalised communities in a calm, welcoming atmosphere. They simply say “I am here”.
Amnesty InternationalUSAA longer table
Populists have turned the issue of migration into a powerful recruitment tool, framing it as a “crisis” where borders are “violated”, rousing fears of invasion and unwanted social change. At first, civil society responses highlighted the scale of the crisis, which unwittingly fueled populist politicians who staked their campaigns on stability and security. Yet Amnesty International USA ran a campaign that celebrated positive behaviour. By depicting Americans welcoming newcomers, the organisation reframed the migration narrative around stories of “welcome” instead of “crisis”.
The Longer Table campaign focused on images of Americans and newcomers coming together to eat: the most universal human communal activity that exists. It also promoted authentic stories by asking supporters to organise local community events, thereby bringing people together to replicate the campaign imagery in reality. Crucially, this messaging offered genuine opportunities for supporters feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the “crisis”, encouraging them to become part of the solution.
Amnesty International New ZealandMessages of Hope
In response to the Christchurch mosque shootings in May 2019, Amnesty International New Zealand emphasised what it “stands for”, rather than sending a reactive message “against hate”. Its “Messages of Hope” campaign invited supporters to send messages of solidarity to the directly affected community. Over 10,000 messages were sent, and the organisation posted a selection of them on billboards across the country, promoting healing and togetherness rather than division.
Other notable illustrations of the five shifts (not necessarily in populist contexts) include:
Beyond the civil society sector, the European Green party’s hopeful messaging in its 2019 parliamentary electoral strategy was a response to the threat of strong populist performance across the continent, offering voters a proud, progressive and welcoming message while more centrist parties did not. It built on the “Green Wave of Hope” campaign the German Greens used to respond to the rising anti-migrant populism of the AfD party in the 2018 regional elections in Bavaria, Germany.
Corporate brand campaigns like Nike’s “Dream Crazy”, Gillette’s the “best a man can be”, and TV2 Danmark’s “All that we share” advertisements also illustrate some of these ideas, suggesting that at present companies are more effective in communicating values messages than the very CSOs that exist to defend them.
Feeling good is a political action. Cognitive linguist Anat Shenker-Osorio advises CSOs to exude confidence in countering “crisis- reliant” populists seeking to make people feel like they live in a world spiralling out of control. Organisations must project the sense that “we got this”, or “that there could be some steady, reliable normalcy”. Research by More in Common into attitudes towards populism and refugees in Italy proposed a similarly constructive message: “Let’s get organized, let’s manage this and take advantage of it”. Visual messaging emerging from hope-based communications workshops held in different parts of the world suggest a new direction for civil society communications: “building” instead of “fighting”, connective images of communal activities such as gardening and eating together, holding hands and hugging. Focusing attention and communications on those who are already implementing solutions, combined with expressing support for people acting on values of kindness, tolerance and social inclusion, will have two key effects. First, it will give voice to the “silent majority” who share many of the same values. Second, it will subvert the populists’ claim to speak for “the people”.
Consistent messaging and taking creative risks are essential. To change narratives, messaging needs to flow consistently across communications, not just isolated one-off campaigns. This means that conventionally reactive communications materials, such as press releases, need to pivot from alarmist populist responses to hope-based values messaging. While the media traditionally focuses on crisis narratives, feel-good stories also perform well on social media, so CSOs must create surprising, eye-catching (and, where possible, heart-warming) stories. This might involve taking creative risks, or using unexpected imagery. For example, research finds that showing images of our planet increases empathy, but they are rarely used by civil society groups beyond the context of climate change.
Authentic and compelling people-focused storytelling is necessary to attract the attention for civil society narratives to become salient in public discourse and thereby compete with populist narratives. It also humanises marginalised groups targeted by populists, for example by creating encounters between those groups and the target audience of populists, thus telling a story of shared humanity. To replace populist anti-elitism narratives, civil society groups must show relatable spokespeople and messengers, for example by promoting user-generated content on social media and having supporters “take over” their social media channels, so that audiences can see people “like them” acting on values these organisations want to promote. This will empower audiences to take action on their own accord, overcoming the sense of powerlessness that fuels populist politics.
We have categorised this as an emergent, transformational innovation. It has developed a new methodology for framing campaigns and communications to reach new audiences, but is still being experimented with by a number of different civil society organisations.
Amnesty International is a global movement of more than 7 million people in more than 70 countries who take injustice personally. It campaigns for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all. No government is beyond scrutiny. No situation is beyond hope.
Hope-Based Communications is a new communications consultancy set up to bring this methodology to the sector and to advise civil society organisations on running values-based communications campaigns that promote new narratives to change minds and behaviours.