Hope-based comms: a strategy for change
If you don’t make the case for the world you want to see, who will?
Hope-based communications is a pragmatic approach to winning support for policies and advocacy positions by showing how they will work. Hope-based communications acts on the principle that we should be focused on building the world we want, setting the agenda with our values, our goals, our mission. When it is so tempting to reacting to our opponent's frames and actions, it offers a simple formula for telling stories of our own that contribute to the long-term changes in ideas, attitudes and behaviour we want to bring about.
How can you be hopeful when things are so dire? Hope is necessary to make people believe the change you seek is possible and desirable. It is also about understanding the audience we are communicating with, so that we can cultivate empathy for the people whose voices and stories we want them to hear. Hope is about getting through hard times together. The darker the situation the more you need hope. You can read my longer guide to hope-based communications here.
“Hope involves a vision of the good world that might ensue, and, often at least, actions related to getting there.”
— Martha Nussbaum
How we work
Hope-based comms is also a brand new initiative for change-makers anywhere in the world who want to try and develop this positive approach. If you want to be involved in the hope-based community please get in touch. You can find out about services like workshops and campaign support here.
Why framing matters
Why do populists seem to keep winning debates? How have ideas that used to be extreme suddenly move to the mainstream of politics and society?
When you engage with people, their brains take shortcuts to interpret your messages. Those shortcuts are based on the ideas they already have, and affect how people weigh up your messages. When we only communicate on today’s top-of-mind issues without thinking of under-lying attitudes, we are only skimming the surface of our audience's subconscious, and failing to affect their core decision-making functions.
We need to stop "countering" authoritarian populist messages and instead focus on setting
the agenda with new narratives of our own. What is the picture you want people to see when they think of (or read about) you and your cause? Most values (such as justice, freedom, equality) are “contested concept” - they mean different things to different people. If we do not clearly frame our messages, audiences will use frames of their own that may mean our message does not get through. We need to be very clear about what it looks like to act on and apply our values in practice, using metaphors that relate to the daily life and lived experiences of our target audiences.
“Good messaging is not about saying what is popular. It is about making popular what needs to be said.”
— Anat Shenker-Osorio
Values-based messaging creates support for your way of thinking. To do it, you need people across your organisation to play their part. Narratives are brought to life by words, images and stories. If you communicate without awareness of strategy you may inadvertently trigger the wrong way of thinking around an issue. We need to ground our communications in the fundamental values, attitudes and ideas we want to promote in society over the long-term, so that they can be reinforced across all our work.
“Progressives should be talking more about their moral worldview – about responsibility, care and hope.”
— George Lakoff
About Thomas Coombes
Thomas Coombes is a human rights strategist and communications expert.
Thomas set up hope-based comms in 2019 to help NGOs communicate as effectively as politicians and businesses by talking about what they stand for,
With 15 years experience of communications, Thomas helps organisations take the plentiful and rich insights from narrative and audience research and practically apply it to their day-to-day operations. He develops values-based strategies for civil society to develop new narratives for social change rooted in their values and visions for the future.
Thomas runs workshops across the world, trains activists to speak to the media and communicate on social media and supports the roll-out of innovative campaigns that make the case for positive social change.
Thomas has always worked in global organisations, in business, government and civil society: Amnesty International, Transparency International, the European Commission and EU office of PR firm Hill & Knowlton. He has an MA in human rights from the Global Campus of Human Rights, and studied European and post-colonial history at Trinity College Dublin.
“Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us ... who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”
— Barack Obama
The hope-based story
"I got into communications right at the start of my career because I want to make people care about human rights." - Thomas Coombes
Thomas used to see his role as raising awareness about the world’s suffering, and shaming those responsible. In 2017 he completely changed how he thinks about communicating for human rights:
"The work of inspiring experts like Anat Shenker-Osorio, the HeartWired team of Robert Perez and Amy Simon, and Kathryn Sikkink challenged me to think differently, and I had a eureka moment on both a personal and professional level: I realised that it is in the darkest times that you most need hope – that the job of human rights organizations was not the tell you that it is dark, but to show you where the light is."
After talking about this idea at a couple of conferences, he spontaneously wrote a blog post on Human Rights Day 2017. He was amazed by how many people agreed, and wanted to know more and take the idea forward. Hope-based communications was born.
“Anger is not sufficient to maintain motivation over time; you also need to have hope and to believe that you can make a difference.”
— Kathryn Sikkink