Episode 6: Coping with COVID: How do we spread hope? The Webinar (Part 3)

WiseOwl PH
22 min readJun 11, 2020

Podcast of the Webinar

Communicating hope is practical in social change. But how does it fare in a crisis the magnitude of COVID-19? What role can hope play in media, advocacy, and government?

Listen to this podcast based on our first-ever webinar with the Owls (Oya, Joza, and Mika) and speakers Thomas Coombes, a human rights strategist and the founder of the organization Hope-Based Communications; Roby Alampay, a veteran journalist and the founder of PumaPodcast; and Tabaco City Mayor Krisel Lagman-Luistro. This episode will not be possible without our co-presenters JustLabs and OMCT.

JOZA: Hi, I’m Joza. I’m a co-founder of WiseOwl, a consultancy firm that specializes in communication for social change. I’m also a co-host of this podcast -Give A Hoot. Here, we sit down and talk to strategists, advocates, academics, creatives, and others, who can talk about how we can use communication in creating positive change. What you’re about to hear is part three of our series on hope-based communications. It’s also our very first webinar! Enjoy!

OYA: To start our discussion off, we have with us Thomas Coombes. Thomas is a communications strategist who has worked with organizations like Amnesty International and Transparency International. Thomas is the co-founder of the organization called Hope-based Communications and is an associate of JustLabs.

THOMAS: I want to think about hope-based communications which is an idea that I came across after working in human rights communications for several years and my approach used to be sort of very negative and which my sort of nature being Irish is kind to be quite cynical. And I spent most of my work sort of naming and shaming governments who committed human rights abuses.

Actually I realized the goal of my work, I wanted to create empathy for people who are suffering. And I realize that my work wasn’t achieving that. And so I started finally looking at neurosciences, psychology to see how I can better understand people and do better at changing their behavior. The most important thing that I learned is we always make our decisions emotionally as well as rationally.

Really my biggest inspiration is a communicator from the United States called Anat Shenker Osorio. And she has a brilliant saying which was “It’s not about saying what’s popular. It’s about making popular what needs to be said.” And really that spoke to my burning passion which is how do I make people care about human rights.

And so I had this sudden realization and I changed the way I do my work which is actually what people want from human rights organizations is not to tell them that things are going wrong. But, above all, what they need is to show how things can get better. And so that’s what hope is.

Hope is not actually about being happy or positive and ignoring all the bad things that are happening. Hope is actually about the belief that tomorrow can be better. But it requires action.

So I’m gonna talk about basically three simple steps that all of us can use to tell a story that helps us through the pandemic but also build support for a better world after it. So the first one is like we really need to try, and it’s really hard, but not use the word crisis.

And when people are afraid, when they’re uncertain, they turn to strong leaders who like could promise them a false sense of safety. One of the biggest challenges we’re seeing around the world is that authoritarian leaders use this moment to grab more power. So the more we feed this sense of a world out of control, the more people are gonna be ready to say okay let that leader take more power.

The challenge for us here is how do we help people feel hope, affirmation and also pride at the way our communities are responding to this moment. To replace that sense of anxiety and fear that can turn us away from each other.

Looking here at the neuroscience, there’s this expression called mortality salience.

And it basically means, the more we’re reminded of death, the fact that we can die, we’re you know vulnerable human beings, we’re mortal, research has shown it triggers conservative policy positions. It makes us more likely to support, say, not helping refugees. It’s because when we’re reminded of our death, we seek meaning in life.

You know a leader who comes and says, we’re nationalist or dividing people by religions, people are looking for that identity. And so that sort of becomes really dangerous that people will turn against each other. So psychologists say that’s one instinct is to have that division when you face a threat. But there are other instincts we can try and encourage which is, so for example it’s called tend and befriend, which means again looking to help people. Instead of talking about crisis, let’s call this a moment that we’re living through together.

Just a great example of that you know in Wuhan, right at the beginning. People would say to each other an expression that meant don’t give up. And in Italy children there were writing an expression in Italian that meant everything will be alright on walls and streets.

So, what we need obviously to highlight the things going wrong and show how to make them better. But we also need a certain sense of confidence that we do know how to make things better. And that if we do make the right decisions, things will be okay. That brings us to that second shift which is focusing on the collective action not on the individual.

You know if you tell people, “don’t go out you might get sick,” we found that that wasn’t as actually as effective as saying “stay home, save lives.” So it’s just a simple shift to give people agency and actually say you know this is about you taking action. And there was this sense of we’re all staying home together in order to take care of the people who are most at risk.

And so that’s final shift is how do we confidently start telling the story of those things that happening today that show how the world can be in the future? So if you’re worried about say you know invasive technology and surveillance say, in the future we could have an internet that, say, works for us.

I think the biggest shift that we need to try and make here is our basic worldview of how the world works. And I’ll end on this point, which is there’s been this idea that’s strength comes from military power or from security. But actually what we’re seeing on the side is that strength comes from our ability to care for each other. And you can see the probably most effective response to crisis has been from Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand. And so what we need to do is really start to reinforce and actually what strong leadership looks like is being able to care for each other. And that’s the message we can all start promoting with the stories we tell.

OYA: Our next panelist is an award-winning journalist and the CEO of PumaPodcast, Roby Alampay.

ROBY: Hope? It’s not necessarily what I was brought up to think. Journalism is about providing hope? Not necessarily.

I have always thought of journalism as agnostic. I have always thought of journalism and news and independent media as something that the most optimistic side of it is just it trusts the people. It trusts that when people are fully informed for both what can be perceived as skeptical. But at the same time they are given the information that allows them to think critically and even be hopeful that they can make that distinction on their own. And they can make their decisions on their own. So I start with that. I think when you speak of the moment,Thomas, I think there’s something convenient about the current moment.

My sense of it as a journalist, as an editor, is that people are looking for hope. It’s not a cause that I’m pushing. But purely editorially, I feel that people are looking for stories of hope. Or stories of looking forward, looking up. At its most base, I think the stories that people are looking for are still about health and safety. But I also think that people are looking for reasons and reassurances and reminders on how to move forward, how to pick themselves up.

So I think there’s a way of moving forward on that topic. And then you throw in the final twist. You gave me the topic of hope in particular for human rights. And again, it throws you for a loop. How can a journalist talk about hope for human rights in the Philippines at this particular moment?

One ironic thing is we know that this crisis, and it is a crisis speaking as a journalist. But this crisis, this moment, was in fact aggravated by the lack of human rights in China. It was in fact aggravated from the very start by an absence of free expression and a lack of press freedom.

And we know also that FOI, freedom of information, press freedom, free expression, freedom of opinion, our ability to provide commentary, [are] also the things that will help to provide solutions and get us out of this mess. It’s ironic as I said to look at it that way because just in this past week, we have been given proof of how concretely that is true.

Because of free expression, because of press freedom, because of social media, OFWs were overnight able to overturn an adjustment in their fees. Something that people felt very unjust, very arbitrary. But overnight, because of this social movement, that was defeated.


If the news that’s coming out right at this hour is true, press freedom, free expression, and free commentary on social media platforms and public outrage is going to result in some level of police accountability. It was the outrage of people that really shouted down what people perceived as outright lies from high-ranking police officials. And now it seems according to Malacanang, there will be an official investigation looking at specific and probable sanctions against these high-ranking police officials.


So, you have these evidence that free expression, press freedom, human rights in general empowers us and allows us to find, as you said, our own common understanding of what can get us out of this mess collectively and as a community.

I’ll end with this note, what’s ironic I think and what’s the challenge for us in terms of hope-based communications particularly for human rights. We have proven time and again the value of human rights when it comes to various advocacies. Whether it’s agriculture or putting food on the table or keeping prices in check or demanding accountability of our people or demanding accountability and transparency in the distribution of social amelioration funds on the level of barangay officials.

But when it comes to human rights, advocating for the sake of human rights, that is where there is a disconnect. People will appreciate human rights, press freedom, their ability to provide commentary when it comes to very concrete things that affect their lives. And yet human rights for human rights, for its own sake, remains a very nebulous topic.

That I think is where I will round out to hope-based communications, hopefully helping us to to bring us to a better normal and seizing this moment and our examples to say that in the better normal that we’re working towards, human rights itself, let’s not forget what human rights did for us during this moment, during this crisis.

OYA: Now for our last panelist. Ladies and gentlemen, Mayor Krisel Lagman-Luistro.

KRISEL LAGMAN-LUISTRO: I’m a Cielo Krisel Lagman-Luistro. The mayor of Tabaco City. Tabaco City is where the Mayon volcano is. It is in the southern part of Luzon facing the Pacific Ocean in the province of Albay.

Communication is key. So that people will cooperate. Early on we started using social media particularly Facebook. Our page. We also set up a new page for COVID-related concerns so that there will be two-way communication between government and then the people. It has been very effective to elicit comments, criticisms, both constructive and not too constructive. But at least we knew where people were and we can respond to their concerns and to their needs.

An example would be, it’s a COVID daily tracker that tells us about the confirmed cases, the total PUMs and PUIs, both the suspect and probable. The number of patients that have recovered. And the total number of deaths.

When we registered ah our first positive case in Tabaco, it was very difficult to announce to the public about this. But for us to be transparent, know where the community is, not necessarily the identity of the positive individual, that would help us in contact tracing. This has been a very effective tool to also make people part of tracking where we are in this fight against Covid.

Another would be reporting to the people about our relief operations. They really want to know, tama ba ang nareceive namin? Did we really get five kilos of rice, three kilos of rice, or two kilos of rice. So with this quite colorful infographics, we were able to present to the people what was already given by the government.

One of our posts that garnered more than ten thousand likes was the post on Butchoy. Butchoy is a deaf-mute and he is a padyak or pedicab driver. He returned the five thousand pesos SAP allocation because he has already received one from another barangay. It’s classic example of double entry. He was registered in one barangay but was found to be living during this time in another barangay and so he was counted twice.

Butchoy has five children, very poor. No padyak is operating now in Tabaco City. He badly needs that five thousand pesos. But he came forward and returned it. And it just generated so much positivity and likes that many others followed suit.

The last slide that I would like to share with you is the social distancing hearts. Radyo Veritas posted it on their page. And it just appreciated so much the fact that we have used hearts, Tabaco is the City of Love. To promote social distancing.

The concept actually is follow me, follow my heart. It tells about respect. I respect you, I don’t want you to be infected. And I love myself too so that I will not be too close to you to be infected. Social distancing would be part of the new normal and this is our personal commitment to take personal responsibility to stop the spread of the covid virus.

MIKA: To help structure our discussion we have four guest discussants. First, artist and activist Mae Paner from JustLabs DG. You may know her as Juana Change.

Mae also happens to be our very first guest at Give A Hoot podcast where we talked about the social movement she co-founded called #BabaeAko. They were named as one of Time Magazine’s 2018 most influential people on the internet.

MAE PANER: Hope-based communication is really something that I would really like to personally do in my own advocacy. But a critical mind is very important to have at this time. I don’t think there is a one-size fits all.

MIKA: We can actually throw that question already to Thomas. How do you balance still being critical and that being a need with hope-based communications?

THOMAS: The key thing is that point I mentioned before that to see hope less as optimism and more as a determination to make things better.

There is a danger that what we’ve learned from neuroscience is that if you only show people the problem, they start to accept it as a new reference point. And we also need to show people how things could be instead. So even if you find that the idea of hope hard to process right now, the idea ofhope-based comms in practice involves making five shifts.

One of those key shifts is don’t just talk about the problem, talk about the solution. And don’t just talk about what we’re against, talk about what we are for. And so it’s a little bit like when you have a bully in the school yard, you can’t just say don’t act like the bully, you need a different role model.

MIKA: Roby, maybe you wanna add a little bit about cause you mentioned earlier the role of journalists isn’t so much parang pushing hope? A lot of it has to do with knowing investigative stuff. Exposing parang truth to power. Exposing the devil and all of that stuff. How do we do that balancing act of the need for criticality, the need for the truth, but also not in a way that to Thomas’s point, plays into the narrative of the world is really bad.

ROBY: I think a couple of big forces that influence editorial decisions every single day right? So you have to be relevant to the audience. And that’s why as I said empathy is certainly a virtue. Because it guides you in understanding. And the second thing is you need your audience.

They need their stories that keep them up, that make them happy. At the same time, they need their stories that make them feel attached and connected with other people who are, quite frankly, not as happy as them. Who are more vulnerable, who have issues. And then they need their stories that really take it beyond themselves, that make them part of a larger community.

I think what Mae is saying is that we cannot pretend that we can live off of hope. As much as hopeful stories, such as what the mayor of Tabaco shared does go viral rather organically, but part of what makes us human is the cynicism, the skepticism, the ability to criticize, and so on. And I think we also have to take into context that when people are critical and when they are cynical, they are also coming from a standpoint of hope. They’re critical and cynical because they want to see something better. They’re critical and cynical because they know that there are better options out there.

MIKA: We’ll call on Veronica Uy, our second discussant. She’s currently the head of communications for the Office of Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan.

VERONICA UY: The greatest teachers, the greatest stories are all about love. The greatest teachers, Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad. All taught love. But also coming from the perspective of a journalist, conflict is also what drives storytelling.

So you cannot ignore the conflicts that are also being perpetrated or being promoted actually by the promoters of hate. Also the other reaction is this crisis and the future crisis that we’re going to face are all a reflection of how we are treating each other. And the disconnections that have happened are being engendered by the hate propaganda.

MIKA: Okay, maybe we’ll start with Thomas. I mean when we do hope-based communication, would the bad guys get away with the bad things that they’ve done?

THOMAS: Usually, the bad guys get away with it by making people see that the things they are doing are necessary. So how do we make sure people see something as bad, well you have to define what’s good, right? Because something only seems bad in the context of being good.

And so the point to be really clear is it a hundred percent in absolutely no way does this involve ignoring or not talking about the problems. To bring about those changes people really need to believe they’re possible. I think the really important point though is you know how we promote hope when they’re so good at spreading anger and hatred.

It’s a muscle that we have to train and practice. And so actually that’s why I think it’s so important that we ourselves don’t respond to hate and anger with hate and anger. Because if you respond to fire with fire, you burn everything down. And if we want a world built with empathy, we have to practice that empathy.

MIKA: Thank you Thomas. I wanna go to Roby and ask ‘cause Veronica mentioned how active forces are using new media or platforms to be able to push their agenda.

ROBY: First off, when Onic talks — about social media in particular are being gamed, I fully agree that you could feel resources way beyond what’s within our fingertips.

We imagine the funds to boost these armies their posts and so on. That war chest must be much bigger than what is at disposal from your personal credit card and so on. So you will always lose.

My other concern is what was alluded to earlier which is fighting fire with fire.


ROBY: When there was a social media campaign to have Mocha Uson barred from Twitter. And it turned out to be quite successful. There was really a lot of hand wringing on the part of journalists and free expression advocates on should we do this? Is this something to encourage? On the one hand, you look at this one character representing an entire machinery, and you make her stand in and proxy and iconic for, as you said, people on that side gaming the system.

On the other hand, when you play into that game of using the very algorithms and mechanisms that we are protesting against Facebook and Twitter, precisely because it is so easy to game. Then you’re not just fighting fire with fire. You’re playing with knives. And does it really further your cause?

I think what’s important in trying to communicate to people, hope-based values and communications for particular values you want to put forward is it’s hard to do. But you do have to communicate that this is not about personalities and this is not about certain people and for that matter, it’s not about this particular moment. It is about certain values that we’re trying to uphold: transparency, accountability, honesty, meritocracies. The only unfortunate thing about that is that we know that that’s a much harder campaign. And it’s for the long term and it’s not something that’s actually within our control just as storytellers or just as media.

When we start talking about it’s really about building the values, building resilient people, resilient in information, not just in terms of disasters but this is resilient in terms of knowing what’s fake news what’s news, what’s commentary and so on. It takes families. It takes a long-term investment in education. It takes a long-term investment in media and information literacy. And so on. And I think you have to embrace that very basic premise that there’s no quick fix here.

MIKA: Also joining us today is human rights specialist Edna Aquino. She used to work for Amnesty International in the UK. Edna has four decades of experience in human rights advocacy. She is also a co-founder of #BabaeAko with Mae Paner.

EDNA AQUINO: Hope may be meaningful if we also teach people to look at power. And as a feminist, I make it an integral part of my human rights advocacy that I would always impart this analytical framework to women, especially in the community. To be able to analyze power in their context.

So when we speak of hope, the question that we need to always reflect upon is, who’s speaking? And what interests are behind those messages of hope? For instance the slogan that’s being used by the government right now in the campaign on COVID-19 is “We heal as one.”

And they have been very good in bringing that message across. But then, it takes a political lens to be able to then analyze that the program on COVID-19 is so exclusive. It’s anti-poor, in fact. And it looks at the poor as subjects of charity. Give them dole-outs. And that will be it.

But when it comes to minor offenses like violating the quarantine rules, the self-distancing rules. During the early stage of the lockdown, you know, these people from the urban poor got a lot of beatings. And there are some communities who had volunteered to set up food kitchens for the neighborhood, and they also got arrested and detained.

I don’t have a problem with the message of hope or hope-based communication. But I think that it cannot be in isolation of politics.

I think human rights activists or advocates have to get out of the narrow frame of human rights. Thomas, you and I have seen this during our times at Amnesty International, when the legal framework would dominate the discourse on human rights. We tend to sideline the stories of the victims and survivors. But I think more than that we have to really navigate and cross the bridge between that divide between civil political rights and socio-economic rights. Especially in the context of the COVID-19, it is extremely challenging to be talking about civil political rights when people are much more overwhelmed by the day-to-day need to survive the virus.

THOMAS: I couldn’t agree more. The thing with politics is, and particularly in terms of, you know looking at power relations, is we have to change politics, not act within it.

And I think the challenge with things like bringing feminism and you know all the power structures it’s about not just playing by sort of the existing power structures games but creating something different. And that’s where hope comes into it. Because again it’s less hope about being optimistic about the present, it’s about having belief in a bold vision of something different.

You know so that our organizations can be run on feminist principles rather than to just having women in a position of power but in an organization that’s still run in a masculine way.

Right now politics is about tough men playing war games. And actually we need to redefine politics in more feminist and in other terms. For example, bringing care into it.

But I think what we need to do to do that is that it’s built on our vision and I think what we have to miss there is that picture of what does that look like? What is that alternative way of being and I think a hundred percent so what’s really important what Edna said is that it’s about those visions painted by different people who are currently the dominant voices in our societies, from indigenous people, from women. But that they get heard by speaking the truth of who they are, not conforming to what you know is expected right now.

MIKA: Last but not least, we have Michelle Pascual. She is currently the behavior change communications specialist for Rare, which is the world’s largest organization and leading organization for behavior change for conservation.

MICHELLE PASCUAL: I work with an organization that uses a lot of behavioral science and behavioral insights to think about how people can change their behaviors or you know create nudges for climate change and conservation.

The first statement I wanna make is hope influences human behavior. And I think it’s important to be able to establish that. And it’s so easy to kind of downplay hope because when you think about hope, you know it almost feels like a unicorn, fluffy clouds and lollipops and things like that.

And I saw this really lovely definition of hope in a medical journal and it says it’s actually goal-directed thinking. And this resonates with me because I remember really clearly, I forget which disaster this happened but Anderson Cooper, an anchor for CNN, said hope is not a plan.

And that struck me now, I mean listening to Roby and to Thomas and to all of the other speakers including Mayor Krisel that hope in fact is a plan. If you look at the definition of hope being goal-directed thinking, it’s a cognitive process.

We’re not saying that empathy and feeling and emotion is not part of it. But if you hope to get somewhere you start to lay out a plan for it. You know, I, Mika, Joza and, Oya even before we worked on a human rights campaign and we called it tukayo. And in Filipino that means sharing the same name as a person. And so we basically said, we tried to draw empathy between a human rights victim and someone who shares your name and show that you share the same human rights.


MICHELLE: Now establishing that hope is in fact the plan it’s a cognitive process, except it’s a goal-directed way of thinking, how do you start to operationalize hope?

MIKA: Okay, Thomas?

THOMAS: I think it goes back a little bit to the point we’re discussing earlier around the media you know that sense that it’s kinda rigged against us and social media and how do you respond to a troll army?

In Sweden, they responded to a troll army by creating a love army. And basically they were just mobilizing people whenever someone who would come in and start having negative comments, they would mobilize and start putting positive supportive comments. I think I associate a lot with creating empathy.

And I basically had to ask myself like what is the end goal of human rights actually? I’m still working on it but I think it’s about more empathy for each other exactly like that campaign. It’s about the human part, not the rights part. It’s about that we all see each other as human.

And so, it actually feels like the future of human rights work is about creating activities, and creating moments that we can engage in, where we see each other as human. And the origin of Amnesty International where Edna and I used to work was people sitting and writing letters to other people, just because they were human.

The simple activities like what does it look like to do human rights. And I think instead of say being on a street protesting, maybe the future is less demonstrations, more dinners. Maybe it’s about having you know interactions with people who are different from you.

MIKA: Okay, I wanna turn to Roby because PumaPodcast has been producing a lot of COVID-related content. You have COVID Diaries, you have meditation, you’ve been covering even on the scientific level, the political level, you’ve been covering a lot of topics when it comes to this. To Michelle’s question, how do you operationalize hope, does that come into play when you do the editorial for PumaPodcast?

ROBY: Hope is a value, hope is a virtue. But it’s not my message. Hope is what keeps me going. You cannot be an activist in the human rights field in the Philippines of all places and be criticizing the government and shouting all of these slogans and being rabidly critical of what needs to be criticized. And rabid for the things that need to be upheld. You cannot be in that field without being an optimist.

And yet government casts you as a pessimist. And people say aren’t you tired of just seeing the negative in society? And aren’t you tired — just talking about deaths and torture and so on? But I think Edna’s point precisely is no. Hope is the value that underpins everything that I’m doing. I am dreaming of a better future. I’ve seen better societies. I’ve seen better governments. I’ve seen other leaders. And that’s why I’m criticizing.

MIKA: We’re really about to end but I’ll just give one more to Thomas as kind of like a parting shot.

THOMAS: At JustLabs we wrote this report which is called Be The Narrative and it’s based again on Barack Obama, his message was your campaign is the message. And his campaign was about change. And so if you want to change the narrative, you have to be the narrative. So think of the actions you’re doing yourself and you know we can all start in our own lives by practicing both the hope and the empathy that we want to see.

JOZA: And there you have it. Part three of our series on hope-based communications. Thanks for listening, and thanks to the people who made this possible, specifically PumaPodcast, JustLabs, and OMCT. Shoutout to Tricia Aquino, our producer, and Marc Casillan, our sound guy.

Again, I’m Joza. And you’ve been listening to Give A Hoot. Subscribe to our podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Anchor. And look for WiseOwl PH on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Medium. You can visit our website wiseowl.ph.

And we’d love to hear from you. Send your feedback to hoot@wiseowl.ph.

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