Training & Coaching

​New: Messaging Guide For Progressive Civil Society Facing Smear Campaigns

Did you know? Today is International Human Rights Day. So we've released a new messaging guide for civil society organisations promoting human rights & other progressive causes. It's full of tips on how to counter smear campaigns & build public support.

by Israel Butler

Why are we publishing this guide?

Civil society organisations (CSOs) make democracy work for all of us. They give us a channel to communicate with our representatives while they’re in office. They keep us informed about how politicians are using the resources and powers we’ve given them. And they make sure our governments don’t overstep the boundaries set by our freedoms. The more a government is accountable to us, and the more involved we are in government, the more likely that our leaders will do what’s best for all of us.

This has made CSOs a target for political movements and governments with authoritarian agendas. The latter are attacking progressive causes like human rights, social justice, environmental protection and equality, and the institutions that protect and promote them, including civil society organisations (CSOs). One of the reasons that authoritarian forces are able to advance their agendas is that they are adept at communicating in a way that mobilises their supporters and sways persuadable parts of the population over to their cause. Unfortunately, CSOs and others who promote progressive causes have difficulty developing messages that fire up their base and persuade people outside their existing supporters. If CSOs are to preserve and expand the vital role they play in making democracy work for all of us, they need to build greater support among the public for the work they do.

Who is this guide for?

Smear campaigns are a tool to undermine trust in and intimidate CSOs, and are often used by authoritarian governments and their allies to create public support for (or depress resistance against) regulatory measures to inhibit the work of CSOs. This guide is a tool for campaigners who wish to push back against smear campaigns aimed at CSOs that promote progressive causes. The recommendations and findings are also likely to be useful for those working in academia, national human rights institutions and international organisations that promote and protect progressive causes, like human rights, and are interested in engaging a public audience.

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What’s in it?

The guide includes:

  • Sample narratives, frames and messages that campaigners can adapt to use in campaigns to build support for their causes and support for the role that CSOs play in making democracy work for everyone.
  • Examples of counter-productive arguments and habits that campaigners should ditch when facing smear campaigns.
  • A summary of research on public attitudes towards CSOs and what factors affect public trust towards CSOs (with more detailed research in an annex for those who want to dig deeper).

Some insights from the guide include…

· Focus your messaging on communicating your values, because this is what builds trust in CSOs. Those who trust CSOs are more likely to support them in various ways like responding to calls to action, donating and speaking up to defend them. Make clear to your audience how the values you promote have tangible benefits for things they find important. e.g. ‘Most of us want representatives who listen to our concerns so that they can govern for all of us. We make it possible for those of us who want to, to come together to talk to our leaders about what we find important.’

· When reacting to smear campaigns, make sure you tell your audience why you’re being attacked, but don’t engage directly with the lies being told about you. e.g. ‘The public services that our communities depend on are crumbling, because politicians in the ruling party are pocketing our resources for themselves instead of funding the things we need. To distract people from their failings, they’re pointing the finger for these problems at people who come to our country and at organisations like ours who help people who migrate build a new life.’

· Even when you’re being smeared as corrupt or mismanaged, focus your messaging on communicating your values. If you focus your messaging on how transparent and accountable you are it will make people suspect you’re not trustworthy.

· If you work with people from marginalised groups whom your audience may have difficulty identifying with, use one of the ways suggested in the guide to stimulate empathy. e.g. bring the issue closer to your audience by making it about people they care about: ‘When we think of the women in our lives who are in relationships, we hope they’re with partners who love and respect them. But some of us can end up in a crisis marriage where things aren’t working, and a woman and her children are in real danger. We need to show care and compassion and offer them a route to safety. One day your sister, daughter, granddaughter or friend might need it.’

If you’d like to receive a workshop or assistance with your campaign messaging contact us on: i.butler@liberties.eu

Download the guide here.

Tune in to our podcast & listen to Israel Butler discussing examples from the guide.


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