Amnesty International has contributed to historic human rights victories, including the release of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid in South Africa. Despite their history, the organization was struggling to challenge today’s rising wave of dictators, despots and demonizers.

“For more than 50 years, Amnesty’s communications approach has been to name a world leader violating human rights and shame that person until they changed their behavior,” reflected Osama Bhutta, the global director of communications. “Name-and-shame worked brilliantly in the 20th century, but we need a new approach to today’s leaders who enjoy being named and have no shame.”

Osama asked Robert Perez from Wonder: Strategies for Good and Amy Simon from Goodwin Simon Strategic Research to develop a Heartwired training curriculum tailor-made for their human rights staff across the globe.

Winning Over Veteran Communicators

It would be a high-stakes debut for Heartwired communications. If the workshops went well, Osama would have the momentum to chart a new course for Amnesty’s global communications.

He wondered, however, whether veteran human rights defenders who spent decades documenting human rights abuses in painstaking detail, while communicating in a fact-based approach, might be resistant.

Wonder and Goodwin Simon developed a show-not-tell training curriculum. Built around case studies where an issue was stuck and public support had plateaued or was even shrinking, we showed activists how emotionally complex dynamics interfered with people’s abilities to feel or think differently. Veteran human rights defenders listened with curiosity to examples of advocates using Heartwired audience research and messaging to transform progress on their issues.

The Results

Osama immediately got requests from regional leaders for workshops with local staff around the globe.

Thomas Coombes, the global head of brand for Amnesty who attended the workshops, wrote:

“My own approach to communications has completely changed. I have realised that human rights communication needs to be about hope and opportunity, not fear and threat.

Genius communicators Robert Perez and Amy Simon have written in detail about applying neuroscience to cause campaigns. They talk about getting people away from the ‘downstairs brain’ — the primordial ‘fight or flight’ instincts — and into the ‘upstairs brain’ where they can feel empathy for others.

Our duty in the human rights movement is not just to expose abuse, but also to offer people hope. We need to show that we can make things better together.

Wonder and Goodwin Simon trainers have led Heartwired workshops with over 300 Amnesty International staff across the globe, including Amsterdam, Bangalore, Colombo, Copenhagen, Johannesburg, London, Nairobi and Vienna.