Amnesty International is a non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on human rights. This year, Amnesty partnered with Blue State to refine the organization’s worldview into a brand platform that enables ordinary people in the human rights movement to show humanity in action and bring out the humanity in everyone. 

Samir Patel, Chief Innovation Strategist in our London office, oversaw the work. Thomas Coombes, currently setting up a one-man consultancy called Hope-Based Communications while on sabbatical from being Amnesty International’s Head of Brand, led the project from the NGO’s side. The two recently sat down to talk about marketing trends inside the NGO space — as well as what nonprofits can learn from other sectors. 

What follows is an edited and condensed version of Samir’s conversation with Thomas.


Tell us a little bit about you, your background — what brought you to Amnesty?

I always wanted to work for a good cause, but it’s hard to find your feet in the NGO world. When I was starting out, I didn’t actually know what role I could play. I got a master’s degree in human rights and I came out and wondered how I could do that for a living. I had done some journalism in college — what I really liked doing was changing people’s minds. When I worked on the opinion section of my college paper, I remember someone saying, “You really changed my mind on the Iraq war with that piece.” And I thought, okay, that’s how I can contribute.

Because most people start their career in NGOs unpaid, I first had to work in corporate PR at Hill+Knowlton, now HK Strategies, in Brussels. Then I went to the European Commission where I did communications. We pushed the roaming regulation, which to this day is one of the most popular bits of European law, and also did speech writing. It was very much about how to sell Europe to people, to show how Europe helps. From there I went to work with anti-corruption group Transparency International, which was my first step into the NGO world. Now I’ve spent the last four years with Amnesty International.

So you knew you wanted to work for a cause. Did you know you wanted to go into communications?

Back then, I don’t know if I wanted to be in communications — if  I even knew about those roles. But because I grew up in the west of Ireland in a Jewish family of Holocaust survivors, I had this desire to make people care about human rights: It was always very painful to me that no one around me cared about the Holocaust or about suffering in general. So when I was looking for a way I could play my small part, I came naturally to communications when I saw how I could contribute like brave people all over the world who do amazing work. I could help make their voices heard.

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Can you tell us a little bit about your role in Amnesty International?

Originally I saw my role working in media at Amnesty, raising awareness and getting as much media coverage as possible of the horrible things going on in the world, but then I moved into a more strategic position in the brand role. People see Amnesty right now very much in terms of its logo and its name. Funnily enough, those are quite old — about 60 years old — and actually don’t reflect the current situation of what the organization does now.

Because people who came before me did fantastic work to standardize the brand across the world, people don’t necessarily know about the diversity of the organization. So to me, I didn’t see the role as branding in the traditional sense, but more as a strategic communications role. The very first branding question in my head was: What is the picture that, if people see it on Instagram or in the paper without any logo or Amnesty branding on it, will make people know it’s Amnesty? I come from that PR background, and I’m always more concerned about what is seen by the third party on earned media.

Amnesty is such a well-known organization with iconic branding. Is there anything about your time there that might surprise people?

Most people think of it as quite a big brand. But it is also a movement. It’s actually a little like a political party, in that any individual doesn’t have that much power or influence over it.  Because we do so many different things, there was ambiguity around our mission and what we do.

There has also been a shift in activism — some of the older forms of activism are less exciting to people now. I wanted to make Amnesty “cool” again, but it was hard to do that because, in a big organization, there are always many people with their own idea of what the core role is moving in different ways. That’s why we started working with Blue State — instead of telling the story of what we do, telling the story of why we do it and the values that underpin everything we do.  I think it had been a long time since anyone tried to articulate that with shared vocabulary.

What do you think are the biggest communications challenges human rights organizations face today?

The first thing I did when I became Amnesty’s head of brand was to carry out a brand audit. I found a particular set of challenges. One was “What is Amnesty’s story?” The answer is really different for different people. But that makes it harder to influence what other people think we are.

Another challenge was: Who tells that story? Our spokespeople are all very high-level — usually, it’s our secretary general or really inspiring researchers. But Amnesty is a movement — surely the face of Amnesty should be our supporters.

The next grand challenge I identified, was: What does it mean to be a human rights organization? We talk so much about human rights in terms of abuse and what we’re against — human rights as an object, but not human rights as something you do. For example, people are very worried about climate change, and people at Amnesty want to do something about it and get involved. What does it mean for someone to tackle climate change via a human rights organization? 

That actually speaks to the fourth challenge: We’re supposed to be a global movement, but we’re actually a collection of lots of national organizations. If you’re a part of Amnesty in one country, you might never meet a member of Amnesty in another, even though you have a lot in common because you share the same values. So many human rights NGOs are operating on a national basis, fighting national governments. But if you want to change the system — if you want to fundamentally change things — but you’re still operating in the old way of doing things, can you actually ever really change it?

You might not expect it, but my preferred definition of human rights from Michel Foucault who once gave a really short, simple speech about how the concept of human rights is actually about the right and duty of governed citizens everywhere to stand up for other citizens and to have your voice heard on the world stage. It’s not just leaders who make the big decisions. He talked about how suffering can’t be the silent residue of policy. That idea has always struck me about Amnesty: You don’t get to just take action within your own community — you get to make your voice heard on the world stage.

Instead of telling the story of what we do, [we need to tell] the story of why we do it and the values that underpin everything we do.

You’ve been writing about hope-based communications and a new model for communicating human rights. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Well, confronted by world events of the past few years, I had to reevaluate my approach to communications. I saw so many people seek refuge and be denied it, the rise of populist leaders, and above all, dehumanization at a really scary level that I didn’t think we’d see again. I expected a better reaction to it. I thought surely now we will see a huge positive response. My first instinct was to get really angry, but then someone explained to me that if you tell people that we live in a really dangerous world, they’re going to want to elect a leader who offers to make them safe. If you talk about floods, they’re more likely to elect a leader who talks about building a wall. That was when it dawned on me that what people need most in dark times is hope. This is not about being happy and cheerful. I am not an optimistic person by nature. I’m positive for work, but I’m very negative in my spare time because I have high expectations for humanity. This shift to hope-based communications was based purely on the evidence and experience of the moment we are in that showed me that this is the way to win, the way to help people and prevent a repeat of past abuses. Because human rights are too important not to do whatever it takes to win.

I started to think about how we can start giving people hope. I was reading George Lakoff’s ideas about framing — there’s this line where he says that the conservative worldview is all about fear, and the progressive worldview is about empathy and about taking responsibility for others. Once I realized I needed to look at the framing of the main messages a lot more I started wondering: What is our frame? What is our narrative? What do we want to bridge to? From then on, when I would write something about something I was opposed to, I would try to flip it to be about something I was for. These are shifts that anyone could make.

Right now, even brands are talking about “purpose.” Do you see Amnesty as competing with brands? How do you navigate that as a marketer?

At the moment NGOs don’t just compete with brands — we compete with other NGOs over who can get the most media coverage. Some people think it’s not good coverage if our name or logo don’t appear on it. But I have come to believe that it is not just about how much coverage there is, but more about the tone and content of that coverage. What is the story in that coverage? With hope-based communications, we need to focus on how we can tell a different story. After all, good public relations is about having an influence on what the story is: hope-based comms is about using that influence for good.

NGOs and causes are very suspicious of brands embracing their values. But what we also need to see is that it’s a sign of progress. The more big brands start pushing our values, the better.  We need more people to promote our values: compassion, kindness, empathy, taking responsibility for others. And how do we get those things seen out there as much as possible?

What’s really powerful about social listening is that you can see that there’s quite a huge chunk of people who agree with us, but they’re silent. Conservative politicians always talk about the “silent majority” of people who agree with them, but these days it’s more the other way around. There are more people who agree with fundamentally decent values, but no one’s talking to them. There’s actually fear in our world about saying what we actually believe.

When brands help build awareness for causes, do you think at some point they have any responsibility to take that farther? Would you like to see more cooperation between brands and nonprofits?

Amnesty International’s vision is a world where human rights are enjoyed by all. In that world, companies will also respect and share that vision. So if we want to get that world, at some point some companies are going to start making the first steps, and we’re going to have to help them. We can’t always be in opposition to governments and companies. We also have to talk about what would it mean for a company to be good, to get a pat on the back. We have to articulate the behavior we want to see, and celebrate it when we see it.

Also, the very concept of civil society has come to mean a professional NGO like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, but actually civil society should and could also be thought of as community groups, sports clubs, and that’s potentially where the NGO and business world meet. That means modeling behavior — whether it’s gender equality in the workplace or giving jobs to people who come from other countries.

That first step is articulating that shared vision. If we think of the big cleavage in the world as between “open” and “closed,” companies should really be on the front line for a more open world. They benefit from mobility and dynamism as much as anyone, so we need to start mapping out the steps that NGOs and companies need to start making together.

Good public relations is about having an influence on what the story is: hope-based communications is about using that influence for good.

Are there aspects of political campaigns that can be applied to marketing an organization like yours?

Great candidates like Elizabeth Warren don’t just give a list of issues. They use those issues as a part of their personal stories. To me, the biggest problem in the NGO world right now is that we focus on issues, but we take values for granted. We take the issues that most matter to us and hope that they reach audiences who would care about them. But we leave the cognitive efforts of applying our values to the situation to our audience, and we fail to do the imaginative heavy lifting of telling them how things can be different.

Migration is a  good example where the issue on its own is really hard to talk about without triggering frames that inadvertently weaken support — the words are so loaded. Migration itself is a term that has to do with nature, and it actually dehumanizes the people we’re talking about. We need completely new vocabulary to talk about that issue, which has to come from values. Talking to people in Canada, where they’ve made great progress, helped me realize that we shouldn’t be talking about immigration at all — we should just talk about how Canadians welcoming people is a part of your wider vision for Canada, a country where people take care of each other. Above all, the most important thing to learn is to talk about issues in the context of values. I think the work Blue State and Amnesty did together on developing a brand platform based on the idea of “shared humanity” as our core belief is really relevant there.

We’ve touched on this a bit already, but what can brands learn from the nonprofit world, and vice versa?

Ironically, big brands like Nike and Gillette have been very good at articulating what they stand for with very emotive storytelling. Nonprofits need to follow that example, particularly when it comes to finding shared values with people with whom we might disagree with on the issues. I’ve been trying to build hope-based communications into a workshop, and as I talked to other NGOs — focused on the environment, development, justice, etc. — I realized all of them were failing to answer the same sort of questions: What would the world look like if you succeed? What does it look like to act your values? It’s hard to articulate what those values look like in our sector.

I think when people talk about their values, they’re often talking more about their politics, not necessarily the way they believe people should behave. We need to actually articulate the values we need on a practical level. Selecting those values and actually applying them to our moment — not just using terms that mean different things to different people. If companies were to be motivated not just by profit but by genuinely bringing a set of values to life in the communities where they operate; if nonprofits and brands could find a way to work together in that spirit, it could be a game-changer.


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