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Digital Marketing Handbook for Human Rights

30 September 2021

Effective communication about human rights is essential to raise awareness, build informed understanding, and mobilise constituencies to defend these fundamental freedoms. Public support for the defence of human rights is crucial to maintain domestic legitimacy and to protect and expand the operational space of civil society.

Human rights defenders (HRDs) and the organisations through which they work are under growing pressure and face serious challenges: HRDs are the targets of death threats, torture, harassment, violations against family members, and restrictions on their access to funding. Criminal justice systems are increasingly used to arbitrarily convict and sentence HRDs forcing them to suspend their activities. Restrictive legislation, smear campaigns, and covert forms of harassment are used to hamper and discredit HRDs. This is in part possible because HRDs are a small segment of the population and there is an absence of outrage in the general public towards the abuses they are facing from state institutions and other entities. If large segments of the population vocally disapproved of these growing restrictions, if they took action to defend HRDs rights and their organisations’ work, state institutions and other entities would have a much harder time continuing these abuses. While that is currently not the case it is something we aim to move towards through, amongst other, bolstering public outreach and raising awareness.

Entities with anti-human rights agendas that seek only to empower themselves should not be the main source of information for the general public regarding the work of HRDs and their organisations. At the same time HRDs and their organisations are failing to utilise the possibilities to counter these negative messages through mass-scale and fact-based digital outreach. This underutilisation should be stopped. One step towards taking back control of the narrative of HRDs and their organisations is to effectively implement digital marketing activities so HRDs and their organisations can widely spread their own messages.

Object and purpose

The Handbook on Digital Human Rights Marketing for Human Rights aims to serve as a practical guide for how to tell your (organisation’s) stories and share your messages with the general public through digital means. The communication will be aimed at laypeople who may not already directly support human rights but (through effective marketing) may be incentivised to take action for human rights.

The advice and guidance are aimed particularly at organisations with limited financial resources and staff capacity. As much as possible, tips are provided to maximise impact and output with minimal investment.

What this handbook will not cover

There are several forms of digital marketing. E-mail marketing and newsletter marketing are forms that are directed towards people who are already among the constituency of  your organisation. This includes partner organisations, members, individuals who have received direct help from organisations, subscribers to newsletters, etc. While these forms are not covered in the Handbook, they are important forms for building relationships with your supporters.

It is also important to note that there are non-digital means of marketing, e.g., public events and rallies or partnering with traditional media (television, radio, etc.).

While this handbook does not cover the above-mentioned forms of communication and marketing, these forms can be key aspects of a broader communication strategy and should not be overlooked.

Outcome goals

There are of course basic challenges when starting to engage in a new area, including insufficient resources or lack of the required specialised skills. As more training and funding becomes available for communication and marketing activities, these challenges will decrease. There however remain a number of other challenges that should also be addressed, including:

  • the need to shape audience-oriented rather than inward-looking campaigns that effectively segment target groups and tap into their motivations and attitudes;
  • the need to adopt new frames and create coherent narratives that simplify messages and capture the imagination, to avoid the legal nuances and semantic rigidness of the traditional human rights discourse;
  • the need to recognise everyday peoples’ concerns and connect these to human rights work and discourse;
  • the need to cooperate with a new range of industries (e.g., marketing agencies or professional content creators);

While these are many challenges in mass public outreach that may seem overwhelming, the first step to tackling a problem is to select a course of action and ensure you know how to effectively implement this course. That is the purpose of this Handbook. If you and/or your human rights organisation have decided to try to take back control of your narrative through starting to engage in (or improve upon) digital marketing, this Handbook is a great first reference in ensuring you know the basics of how to do digital marketing so you can reach your (organisational) goals.

Find the full handbook here: