Thomas Coombes: the Hope-Based Communicator

28 October 2020
SERIES Narrative power & collective action: conversations with people working to change narratives for social good 12 items

[This conversation was originally published in part 1 of ‘Narrative Power & Collective Action’, a collaboration between Oxfam and On Think Tanks. All conversations were edited by Louise Ball. Download the publication.]

Thomas Coombes is a human rights communications strategist based in Germany. After a decade managing press relations, social media, running trainings and writing speeches in the corporate, government and NGO sectors, he founded Hope- Based Communications, a new approach to help NGOs shift the way they talk from problems to solutions, from what they are against to what they are for.

We need to make it explicit that cultural and policy change go together. When you’re campaigning for a certain piece of policy it changes people’s minds. But if you change people’s minds, it’s easier to change policies.

The power of narrative

When I was working at Amnesty, I was troubled by the rise of populism and that concepts like human rights weren’t resonating with people. But then you would hear someone from Black Lives Matter say ‘this isn’t about politics, it’s about human rights.’ So, to me, the concept still had value.

Narrative is powerful because if research shows us that concepts like human rights and civil society don’t resonate with people, we can change the associations people have with those words.

I spent most of my career trying to get media coverage and awareness on these issues. But I realised that I was always using frames and narratives of opposition.

Human rights should be something people feel excited and passionate about. But there’s still a lot of unanswered questions about what we actually want the human rights narrative to be about.

When you speak to people in civil society, they say they want people to think of it as community – people coming together to change something.

But civil society as community isn’t the story we’re telling. We’re telling the story of a brave, but small, number of activists that have been cracked down upon.

Social listening tells us that conversations using the words civil society and civic space predominately have an emotional tone of despair, disgust or conflict. It’s always about civil society fighting, rather than community or bringing people together.

One of the first steps civil society must take is to do its own narrative work: think about what story we want people to hear, what we stand for. And then have a smart strategy for getting debates and conversations going around these ideas.

Working with values

Civil society works on a lot of different issues, but rarely on values. Yet values really matter.

Most NGOs work with similar values and visions for society; if I ask people working in human rights to draw their vision for a world with human rights, they tend to draw a landscape that’s remarkably similar to what environmentalists draw.

These organisations could come together to create that shared worldview and values that could be the basis of a narrative we can all get behind and promote.

Ultimately, if you don’t define your identity, somebody else will. And then you’ve lost control of the story.

Policy versus cultural change

I’ve seen a lot of campaigns calling for policy change. For example, to implement the Istanbul Convention to outlaw domestic violence.

But that doesn’t change the cultural practices. Campaigners will then say it’s about policy implementation and call for more measures.

It’s like we’re incapable of seeing the cultural element and just keep calling for more policies, even though we know what’s needed is an attitude change campaign.

I’ve attended workshops where people have said ‘really we need to change men’s attitudes, but we can’t do that, that’s a cultural thing, so let’s focus on an awareness raising campaign for young girls.’ That’s important too, but we’re afraid to try to create social change.

We need to make it explicit that cultural and policy change go together. When you’re campaigning for a certain piece of policy it changes people’s minds. But if you’re changing people’s minds, it’s easier to change policies.

Our current skill set is focussed on laws and policies. To change culture feels like too big of an unknown.

Working on campaigns I’ve noticed people tend to focus on the problem, not the solution. They say ‘what if our solution doesn’t work? Our credibility comes from having moral high-ground and facts.’ So, there’s a lot of fear of the unknown.

New versus counter narratives

We talk a lot about civil society being threatened, defenders under attack, shrinking civic space. Even the word defender is so… defensive. No one’s favourite player is a defender, it’s the goal scorer, the one who gets things done!

Our current approach is to call out and say what we don’t want to see.

Neuroscience research shows that in doing so, you confirm the thing you want to reject as the new normal. So our approach cannot be counter narratives, it has to be new narratives.

It comes back to the question: what are we trying to achieve? What kind of change do we want to see and what work will actually promote it?

And we’re not only not talking about the things we want to see, we’re also not doing them ourselves.

In our conversation, we asked Thomas about his work with JustLabs Narrative Laboratory and his publication Be the narrative: How changing the narrative could revolutionize what it means to do human rights.

The focus on ‘being the narrative’ is inspired by Barack Obama. When coming up with his campaign slogan he said ‘what you do is the message.’

So if you want civil society groups to be seen as ‘community’ and ‘grassroots’, they actually need to be community and grassroots.

What is a world with more human rights and fairness? In practical terms, it is people caring for each other, more kindness, more empathy.

You realise, these are our goals and policies are a way to achieve that. Then should the activities we do be about spreading empathy? If we organise an angry protest, that might actually reduce empathy. It projects a vision of society in conflict.

A lot of us don’t believe the vision we are working towards is actually possible. Which means we work from our opponent’s worldview: humans aren’t great and we need laws to manage the worst of them. As opposed to a humanity worldview: human nature is fundamentally about caring for each other and we need human rights and civil society to bring the best out of people.

Research shows that the more people think with the humanity worldview, the more likely they are to get involved in civic activism. The more people think with the inhumanity worldview, the less likely they are.

A hope-based communications shift

I developed five hope-based communication shifts so people could go on a journey to discover the changes they require. Everyone has the answers within themselves.

I want people to ask: what’s the biggest picture thing we want to achieve? What’s the solution? What’s the behaviour we want to see? Anat Shenker Osorio said it perfectly: ‘It’s not about saying what’s popular, it’s about making popular what needs to be said.’

The five shifts take you from fear to hope. From talking about the problem to how the solution will work. From showing what values or behaviours we’re against, to celebrating what we’re for and encouraging people to do it more.

Instead of threats, or trying to guilt or make people act through fear or urgency, give them opportunities to be part of change, and belong to something.

Instead of showing our story characters as victims, show them as everyday heroes, and bring out their humanity.

An example of hope-based narrative change

In New Zealand, after the Christchurch attacks, civil society’s starting point was ‘we are against hate’.

Then they asked themselves: if we’re against hate, what are we for?

They came up with the messages of hope campaign. They asked people across the world to send messages of hope to support the community that had been attacked.

Instead of making the story about white supremacy, they made it about the 99 % of other people who stood in solidarity with that community.

But they didn’t just issue a statement. They brought it to life with billboards broadcasting those messages of hope across the whole country.

There’s a key insight here for social change work. The messages aren’t just supporting the Christchurch Muslim community: they’re showing New Zealanders how people support that community. It’s basic psychology: people are more likely to take actions they see others taking.

That’s why it’s so important to not only expose behaviour we want to see less of, but promote and celebrate what we want to see more of. Tell people what they should do, not just what they shouldn’t.

For human rights, this means focusing on the ‘human’, not just the ‘rights’. I believe the future of human rights work must include efforts to improve human behaviour and interaction, not just the legal frameworks that govern those relations.