Emily Robinson talked with Melissa Fleming, Head of Global Communications and Spokesperson for the High Commissioner with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Robinson: Can you start off by telling us a little bit about your background?
Fleming: I hold a Master’s Degree in journalism from Boston University and started my career at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. For seven years, I headed the Press and Information team at the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe. In 2001, I joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as Spokesperson and Head of Press & Public Information. This was a period when the organization made headlines for its inspection work in Iraq, Iran and North Korea and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. Since 2009, I have been working at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, as Head of Global Communications and Chief Spokesperson of the High Commissioner. I am also the proud mother of two amazing young people–one studying international relations in Beirut and the other theater near London – and the wife of an enlightened man who has encouraged and supported me to pursue this career.
Robinson: You are currently in charge of communications for UNHCR, what does that role involve?
I feel strongly that if the public had the chance to get to know them, they would care. That is my job: get their stories out not just with the facts, but also in a way that builds compassion.
Fleming: While at IAEA I was dealing with potential human disasters. Here at UNHCR, I am dealing with actual human catastrophes for the lives of people fleeing war and persecution. It is very compelling because the numbers of forcibly displaced people keep growing while political rhetoric and policies have hardened. I feel strongly that if the public had the chance to get to know them, they would care. That is my job: get their stories out not just with the facts, but also in a way that builds compassion. So the objectives of our Global Communications Strategy are to not only ensure that UNHCR leads the narrative on forced displacement, but that we employ communications that build empathy and also drive action. We don’t only communicate statistics, which can strip people of their humanity, but we tell individual stories of survival, resilience
Robinson: What kind of impact does communications work have on the wider objectives of UNHCR?
Fleming: Strategic communications is essential to help UNHCR meet its operational objectives – whether it is to influence decision-makers in opening their borders or whether it is to build empathy when large numbers of people are seeking refuge and need help. Communications is also key when we try to mobilize action, like donations to UNHCR or volunteering, even to take refugees into one’s home. These are small actions, but they can make a world of difference for individual refugees.
Robinson: What first sparked your interest in working with refugees?
Fleming: I have always felt deep pain when I saw injustice and a real sense of horror when I witnessed the impact of wars on ordinary human beings. There is one category of people who in my view are especially in need of protection and in need of our sympathy, and that is refugees. So, when I got the opportunity to serve at the UN organization that is mandated to protect refugees, it just felt like it was a calling.
Robinson: What’s been the proudest moment of your career so far?
Fleming: I meet so many remarkable refugees in my work, but there is one who for me is a real-life hero: Doaa Al Zamel who survived one of the worst shipwrecks on the Mediterranean Sea. Five hundred of her fellow passengers, including the love of her life, her fiancé, drowned in front of her eyes. And when she was rescued, after four days and four nights on just a child’s swim ring floating in the middle of the Mediterranean, she had managed to save a little baby. I first told that story at the TED stage and then I wrote it in detail at a non-fiction account. And, my proudest moment was when I saw it first in print on a bookshelf in Barnes & Noble, at Union Square in New York City, which was the first stop of my book tour.
Robinson: You’re known as a champion of social media engagement, can you give us some of your top tips for making the most of your presence online?
Fleming: Engage personally: You or the principal you are working for must write your own copy. It needs to be your own voice. Otherwise, you will not come across as authentic.
Figure out who your followers are and, if they don’t include relevant influencers for your subject, reach out to them by engaging with their posts or direct message, to bring them into your community.
Focus on sharing your perspective on your specific field, and give followers the chance to delve deeper by sharing links to further information or articles.
To the extent possible, react and respond to comments, retweet or share the messages of others and give credit through tagging.
Our video team captured this scene when we visited the destroyed town of Souran, #Syria, where some refugees and displaced are returning to. No playgrounds left, just collapsed buildings and rubble. But kids being kids (resilient), they discovered this way to have some fun. pic.twitter.com/jnw82OPLWt— Melissa Fleming (@melissarfleming) March 30, 2019
Robinson: Do you have different tactics for the different social media platforms you use?
Fleming: I treat every social media platform as different. Sometimes I might share the same piece of content, for example on Twitter and on Facebook, but I will adjust my introductory copy. On Instagram, I focus on the photos I take and describing the scene and what it means to me or why it moved me.
Robinson: What made you get involved with UNSocial500? Do you think it’s had an impact on how you use social media?
Fleming: I think it is a great tool to see which UN staff members are actively engaged and how we measure up against each other. This also allows us to learn from the other UN colleagues who are active on Twitter and to support them and the issues they are promoting.