A Good Name in the Public Square: Reframing Human Rights

A blog by Kathryn Quinton, Communictions Director, Equality and Diversity Forum

As the reputation of human rights continues to take a hit in the public square, advocates and activists are working long and hard to promote and protect our human rights legislation.

We need to show how human rights benefit and empower us all, as individuals and communities

We need to do everything we can to neutralise and reverse the increasingly hostile human rights narrative before our vital legal protections are back under direct threat. But we need to go further than that: to show how human rights benefit and empower us all, as individuals and communities.

As this universal benefit of human rights has rarely been part of the UK public consciousness, the communications task is less about rebuilding support for human rights as establishing their value in the first place. This means repositioning them from irrelevant and incomprehensible to relevant and relatable; from unnoticed and taken for granted to visible and valued; and from unnecessary for most of us to vital to us all every day.

At the Equally Ours, we’re developing a long-term campaign to do exactly that. We have been spearheading an approach to social change – often referred to as strategic communications – for seven years through our strategic communications programme. This is a snapshot of the journey we’ve been on and what we’ve learned so far.

Reaching the right people in the right way

There’s a growing body of evidence that we can shift public opinion on social issues if we understand what people think and feel about an issue and why, and frame our arguments accordingly, tapping into their deeply held values, rather than trying to persuade with facts alone.

We need to reach beyond those people who already agree with us – and not waste our time on those who never will – and focus on the roughly 40% of the population who tend to be conflicted about social issues and therefore open to hearing positive and progressive messages.

Equally Ours

Equally Ours started life as a campaign with eight national charities to show how human rights benefit us all in everyday life. Since then, we have put our research into practice, helping organisations reframe human rights and their relevance to older people, children, people with mental health problems, and women experiencing sexual harassment. We’ve worked in a wide range of ways: from developing communications strategies to drafting press releases to producing ground-breaking films.

We’ve delivered strategic communications training across the sector. And we’ve learned from the work others have done and are doing on how to talk about issues like migration, poverty and homelessness. Through all of this we have developed a deep understanding of how to shift public opinion – and therefore policy – in powerful and progressive ways.

So, what have we learned about human rights? Although human rights knowledge is patchy, the conflicted 40% of the public support human rights in principle. However, there are a number of beliefs and concerns blocking positive consideration and support. That human rights abuses only happen to other people in other countries. That human rights are a threat to dominant values of security, tradition and self-direction. That people who ‘don’t belong here’ or do bad things should have limited rights. And that human rights are a badge of weakness, used only by the most vulnerable, those making a fuss or those ‘abusing the system’.

A different story for human rights

We have also learned that we really can build public support for human rights if we frame them in the right way. If we tell a different, positive, story rather than highlight human rights as a means to stop bad things happening or to hold people to account.

Last year we began work on a new campaign, testing propositions, concepts and messages with our ‘conflicted’ target audience. We identified a number of significant opportunities for creating relevance and value. Positioning human rights within our cultural traditions, norms and heritage to evoke pride. Reframing them in the context of family and home, away from abstract institutions, and showing how they work for and protect families. Highlighting and celebrating the rights most precious to our audience. And communicating how human rights empower individuals, helping them to fulfil their goals and aspirations.

By getting the formula right, we saw significant shifts in opinion. For example, from: “Like many people I realise the necessity of human rights but I personally think things have gone too far as some are now downright ridiculous” to  “Previously when I heard the term ‘human rights’ I would cringe… I can now see how it affects everyday life.”

We now need to stir up a carnival in the public square. And that’s exactly what we intend to do.

Ultimately, it’s about showing, not telling; disarming, not being confrontational. And establishing a deeper emotional connection to human rights to anchor them in values, hearts and homes. But it’s not enough to focus exclusively on the benefit of human rights to individuals: we need to show how they underpin all human relationships, and serve and advance our communities and wider society.

Understanding how we can start to reverse the tide of opinion and build public support is an important first step. We now need to stir up a carnival in the public square. And, in collaboration with others across the sector, that’s exactly what we intend to do.

The more we all tell a different, positive, story about human rights, one that speaks to people’s everyday reality, needs and aspirations, the more people will value and celebrate them, and the more unthinkable it will become that they could be eroded or taken away.

This blog is written by Kathryn Quinton, Communications Director at the Equality and Diversity Forum.

Published on 7 August 2018.

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