"Being a spokesperson for a cause you believe in is hugely satisfying"

Head of Communications Service/Spokesperson for the High Commissioner, UN High Commission for Refugees

Interview by David Phillips

These interviews focus on communications professionals who are leading international careers, hence the title. But for this issue, ‘Border Crosser’ seems particularly apt, given your role as head of the communications service at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. We’ll move on to your work in this field, but could you first describe why and how you moved to Europe?

I was always attracted to foreign affairs and what was going on in the world. It wasn’t necessarily Europe, but it was working for organisations that work internationally, and they happen to be based in Europe. Also, I was always interested in organisations that deal with political issues, and my first job at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, broadcasting over the Iron Curtain, had a political role as well. This was fascinating - it was just before the fall of the Iron Curtain, and it was a front seat on history. Moving on to the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) – it was still the CSE Conference on Security and cooperation in Europe when I joined – a secretariat of 30 that quickly became an organisation of thousands as its role in dealing with crisis management and post-conflict resolution expanded with the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the Caucuses, and then all kinds of issues in Central Asia and other parts. The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) was kind of a quiet and technical and relatively unknown organisation when I joined, and then quickly became the most sought-after UN organisation for journalists as events unfolded in Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and all kinds of nuclear terrorism and proliferation issues during that period of time.

So even early on in your career, you were working in the eye of the storm in terms of recent history. To go back to your time at Radio Free Europe, that conjures up in my mind a kind of Third Man-esque, cloak-and-dagger experience. What was it like to work there?

When I arrived, the motto was “We’re in the business of going out of business”, which meant exactly what was supposed to be happening. But nobody ever thought it was going to happen there. So it came as a big shock and surprise when the whole system came tumbling down and all of a sudden all of these individual countries were declaring themselves democracies. I joined the OSCE in 1994, and that was just at the beginning of the conflict in Bosnia, and I think it’s when the world started to realise that the collapse of communism brought with it enormous potential for conflict due to ethnic tensions. The glueing together with an authoritarian hand of all kinds of ethnic groups and just lifting that hand suddenly resulted in evil on a scale that no one could imagine, and organisations like the OSCE would find itself with a new role. There was no EU foreign policy then, and so it was really the OSCE in that moment in time that was in charge. So some people joke that the conflicts and the news follow me, but I think I just happen to be lucky because I am a person who thrives on engaging with the news media and the energy of emergencies. However, I’m also hugely disturbed by the consequences to mankind.

So why did you go down the communications route?

I studied journalism – my goal was to be a foreign correspondent or a news anchor. I was in the US and I was kind of disturbed even then by the lack of emphasis placed on foreign news and the lack of space – I studied television news – in the TV broadcasts. So I thought I’d go to Europe and I had this opportunity at Radio Free Europe, which was full of substance and full of issues, so that was very interesting. The job that was then offered was a public affairs specialist, so it wasn’t journalism but it was a communications role – there is a big difference but certainly a background in journalism, and a huge interest in journalism and the job journalists perform, make you a much more successful communicator.

Why did you decide to join the UN, and why the IAEA in particular? What were your first impressions of working there?

I spent eight years at the IAEA, eight very intensive years in which we witnessed the inspections in Iraq, where we were declaring that there was no evidence of a nuclear weapons programme, and despite that the Bush administration pretty much ignored what we were saying and forged into war. Our inspectors were kicked out, and you know the rest of the story. Meanwhile, Iran was pursuing a nuclear programme that was making the world nervous, IAEA was at the centre of attention, its reports really crucial. The AQ Khan network – this was a Pakistani nuclear scientist who was selling on the black market all kinds of nuclear ingredients that ended up in Libya, for example, and other places in the world – was hugely disturbing. And again, the press office and I were the centre of the news story. And then North Korea decided to throw out its inspectors and start a nuclear weapons programme. For all of this, the IAEA and its director, Mohamed ElBaradei won the Nobel peace prize, and I was very honoured to be able to accompany him to the ceremony, and to take the first calls when it was announced!

Did that in some way make up for IAEA’s frustrations during the build-up to the Iraq war?

I’m an American too, and I was absolutely shocked. Because the IAEA is an organisation hugely respected and supported by the US government, and its top nuclear inspectors and experts were combing Iraq, a country it knew very well, and saying “it actually is not true, what you’re saying, that they’ve restarted a nuclear weapons programme – there is no sign of it whatsoever”. And so to then speak publically about mushroom clouds over Chicago – it was stunning to us, it was very shocking. Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general, was very consistent in his statements – he was also absolutely stunned that they would be ignored. However, later, certainly, it was the IAEA that was recognised and vindicated as having actually been the ones in the right.

And you were there for eight years. Was there any particular decision behind your moving on?

Dr ElBaradei left and went into retirement, and having been there for eight years, I was actually approached by the head of communications at the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), who was retiring, and who asked me to apply for the job. This is an organisation that’s won the Nobel peace prize twice, it is an organisation that has operations in 120 countries in the world, serving a population of over 42 million people who’ve lost their homes and almost everything they have – it was a very compelling organisation to become the head of communications for.

Clearly you weren’t looking for a change of pace in terms of intensity or work demands.

No. We say the UNHCR is the pulse of human suffering, and what I’m learning in this job is that there is endless human suffering in this world. And probably one of the biggest tragedies is being forced from your home, and forced to flee from your country. And if there wasn’t the UNHCR, you’d be forced to flee into a void with nobody to help you, and at least this organisation exists to provide assistance and shelter and solutions for your future, if you had to undergo that tragedy. Right now, we’re working on the Libya Crisis, we’ve been helping tens of thousands of people, not only giving them temporary shelter but evacuating them home. And then there are those who are true refugees, who can’t go home because their country is at war, and we’re helping them in the meantime just to have a dignified and warm and safe place to stay.

How would you compare the current situation in Libya with other recent refugee crises?

What it’s been so far is primarily an evacuation of foreigners. There were a million and a half foreign workers in Libya – they virtually kept the country running, frankly. Huge numbers of them have wanted to flee, so about half a million of them have fled. There’s still a million in the country that might want to flee, so we’re braced for that. Increasingly we’re seeing Libyans themselves who are fleeing the violence. As we know, there are two sides to this conflict, and when one side, Gaddafi’s forces, have been moving and taking over these rebel-controlled areas, these people – the civilians there and some of the fighters – are becoming targets, and they are scared and they are fleeing across borders. This is what we’re trying to help with.

You yourself have been to Libya: could you give us an impression of your role on the ground?

Here in Geneva, I do regular press briefings together with the other UN chief spokespeople, to update them on the situation wherever it is in the world we’re concerned with, so on Libya we’ve been doing regular press updates. I’ve travelled to the Tunisian border with the high commissioner, we’re travelling to Egypt the week after next, next week we’re going to Liberia because of the Cote d’Ivoire crisis. When we do this we try and get maximum media attention, we line up reporters. One of my jobs is also to deploy people – press officers, spokespeople, news gatherers, video producers, camera people, photographers, working for us, to these people where we’re having an emergency, because we not only try to engage with the news media directly, but we have our own platforms for publishing, so we speak ourselves, we write for our website, we engage really intensely in social media platforms. We have 1.2 million followers on Twitter, for example. We distribute our video to international broadcasters and we edit and publish video on our website and on Facebook. So we’re very active in multimedia directions, and this is something I’m responsible for as well.

You are a prolific tweeter. Were you responsible for engaging with this channel, or was the strategy already in place before you joined the UNHCR?

When I joined the job we already had a pretty strong Twitter and Facebook presence, but what we didn’t have were people supplying the content to the extent that we are now. What I’m doing is tweeting and encouraging my colleagues, particularly those in the field. It’s not that easy to convince people that they can publish – most people are used to writing a document, getting it cleared by about three layers, and then finally maybe seeing it on the website. What we’re asking them to do now is to shake off that, use your own judgement – what people who are on Twitter want is immediacy, and they want to know you are there, that you are witnessing this, and what your views are, and we’re giving you licence to express this. So I think we’re at the beginning of having a small army of UNHCR tweeters, but right now I’m leading by example.

What are your priorities when tweeting; what do you hope to accomplish with it?

At this moment, we measure by the number of retweets; there are a tools you can look at, like klout.com, to see how influential you’ve become depending on how many retweets you have and who are the people who are retweeting you. So there are kind of online measurement tools. I think we probably could be more strategic, and if we had the time we could sit back and contemplate what really worked well and what didn’t – at the moment, we’re just saying, wow, people really responded to that personal tweet you did on that little girl you witnessed and the photo you put up, do more of that kind of thing. But that’s really the extent of it.

With mainstream media fragmenting under commercial pressures, and the rise of alternative news and opinion sources flooding the market, do organisations like UNHCR become news sources themselves, a trustworthy and authoritative voice on complex and emotive subjects? Is this a conscious aim of UNHCR?

It’s a conscious aim, absolutely. Number one, we’ve witnessed, let’s say, the weakening of foreign news coverage. Not in all media: for example Al Jazeera is hugely well-resourced and is really covering the conflicts and the untold stories that we’re dealing with. But the US media and to a certain extent the European media have cut their foreign coverage, and we’ve felt this – however they haven’t cut their news output. For example, there are so many 24 hour television stations who still need news and they’re very willing to take our video, they consider us credible, we don’t try and do a salesman job, or fundraising. We are providing them with news and guidance, it’s just raw video footage loosely cut, “here, you can have it, we’ll give you the background and context, and if you want an interview you can have it”. We also self-publish on our various web channels; we’re trying to improve these. Soon we’re going to be launching a new storytelling web platform where we’ll be doing something I think quite unique that is not traditional news, it’s taking individual refugee stories that are video stories, very short, three minutes, and they look at you always with the same backdrop, from all parts of the world, individual refugees, and tell you why they fled, what they went through, what their life is like now, and what their hopes and dreams are. And then once you’ve watched that you have the opportunity to engage on social media or to donate.

Is this storytelling approach your way of bringing perspective?

Yes. I think one thing that we all know as communicators is that while you have to provide statistics and you have to provide the context, people respond to stories and they respond to stories of individuals. Also, if our goal is not only to inform but also to stir and move people, and to get them to care and do something, then we need to communicate a bit differently, on different platforms. We have to be able to tell the human story – there’s so much evidence that that’s what people respond to. Because our ultimate goal is that we want to help refugees and we want to use our communications to change attitudes about refugees and to provide more support so that they can have a future.

So how do you maintain the balance between this more emotive, storytelling approach and your organisation’s role as an observer and resource for hard facts and figures?

That core will not change. In fact, I hope we’ll strengthen that. We want to be seen as the organisation that informs about what’s happening on the ground, that has accurate, reliable information, that also makes statements condemning violence, condemning fighting, condemning whatever’s causing people to run away from their homes. This is what the UNHCR is known for and we’re going to continue that. But, in addition, we believe people would be more interested in learning about those facts if they could get to know some of the people who are affected – who is behind the statistics? And this is one of the reasons why we’re using this approach. We’re about to launch a big campaign for World Refugee Day on the June 20 on the theme of the individual, on the theme of ‘one’, and I’m not going to reveal it now but it will be one that will have a very individual approach and it will be kind of controversial and will have a strong call for action.

How has UNHCR developed its media strategy over the years?

I think it’s gone through strength and weaknesses. There’s been a lot of people who’ve come in with all kinds of ideas. Before it was much more straightforward: you speak to journalists, journalists transmit your messages or they don’t. Now we have a situation where we have a multiplicity of platforms – the new media landscape, 24 hour television news, and the ability to self-publish and speak to people directly. To get that right and to be effective is not that easy. So I think there have been in the past some attempts, some were great and some failed, and I think we’re slowly but surely moving in the right direction. You have to retrain staff, you have to get them interested in these new approaches, and that’s something that’s going to take some time.

Could you describe what you’d consider a failure as opposed to as successful strategy?

I think an approach that does not ask the question ‘Why are we doing this’ and ‘What impact do we want to have’ and ‘Who are the people we need to reach in order to have this impact’, and then, only then to figure out what your communications are going to be – that will be effective in reaching these people. So I think before there was a tendency to start with the tactics and end with the tactics, and what we’re trying to do is have a more strategic approach to how we do our proactive communications.

To what extent does the UNHCR cooperate with governments, and what is your role in facilitating this? Do you feel that the UNHCR is in a strong position to exert pressure or influence governments?

Governments are absolutely critical, and we have a three billion dollar budget that we need to raise every year, and most of this is provided by governments, and many on a very consistent basis. So our relations with governments for funding is absolutely critical. We also solicit funds increasingly from the private sector. But governments are also critical to us because they are hosts of refugees – particularly developing countries, who host three-fourths of all refugees in the world. And then there are countries of asylum where it’s very critical for us – and this is where our advocacy role is crucial – that they open their borders, they open their procedures to allow people to seek asylum, and that people are treated in a fair and equal manner. It’s very inconsistent around the world.

Would you want to see the UNHCR’s role or influence expanded, and how? 

I think there is discussion, as the world is changing, and we’re seeing as the result of climate change more and more people fleeing as the result of natural disasters, UNHCR is increasingly getting involved in that area.

Does the UNHCR have operations in Japan right now?

We have an office in Japan and we’ve offered help but they have so far not requested our help. But we had a huge role in helping people as a result of the Pakistani floods, all the people who lost their homes, for example. So it depends – if the government asks us to do it, we help. Our traditional role has been to help people fleeing from war and persecution, but we’re finding it’s becoming much more blurred as you find floods and drought and people are leaving their homes in very vulnerable circumstances – sometimes they’ve lost everything and they don’t have a place to return home to, so increasingly the UNHCR is being called upon to step in and help these people.

I guess it’s a sign of the times that you find yourself working more and more with victims of natural disasters…

It just seems like every few weeks there’s some horrendous natural disaster, the most recent being Japan –  I never thought during my whole IAEA time that I would see a nuclear accident on this scale, it’s very disturbing.

António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency’s 10th High Commissioner. Could you describe to us your working relationship with him? Is it similar to the way a corporate communicator works with their CEO?

It’s very close. He is a former prime minister, and unlike some who come from a diplomatic background in other UN organisations, he totally understands how vital communication is to reaching your objectives, your operational objectives, your political objectives and your policy objectives. So we have a very close working relationship. I travel with him on all significant trips. He is someone who is a natural, a schooled communicator, probably also from his political days. He welcomes and engages with the media, and is really good at it, so he doesn’t need my help there. But he does need me to echo what he’s saying and to ensure that the big news organisations know what we’re doing and know when we have something to say and make sure that’s arranged.

Did you have a similar working relationship with Mohamed ElBaredei?

At the beginning, there was no instinct to communicate whatsoever at IAEA, and slowly through the years we changed this. ElBaredei’s first words to me when he hired me were “Open this place up”. He was very shy with the media himself, and so it was quite a long process to get him to recognise that everything, every move requires, ‘Ok, so what is our media strategy here, what is our public strategy?’. This he soon embraced, and he became very media savvy and we had a hand-in-hand relationship vis-à-vis the outside world.

It must have been very professionally satisfying to have been able to effect this improvement.

Amazing, I don’t know I managed to! One of the reasons I came to the UNHCR was that ElBaredei told me that António Guterres is one of the best leaders in the UN system – and he’s a man of vision and a man of action and you should go work for him.

Could you be as fulfilled if you were working in the corporate sector? What would you tell anyone standing at a crossroads, deciding whether to pursue a career as an in-house corporate professional or working with an international non-profit organisation such as yours? 

It depends on the person. I think in this field there’s probably things that are quite frustrating as compared to the corporate sector, where in the communications arm in the corporate sector, I’m assuming, everybody understands its significance and it’s well-resourced. Whereas in this sector you tend to have to really fight for resources, because we’re always struggling for funds ourselves. You have to be very convincing internally about the importance of your existence and your budgets, so for some people that might be…

It’s a constant struggle, is it?

It is a struggle, I think. But being a spokesperson for a cause you believe in is hugely satisfying, and feeling like you can learn something about humanity and world affairs just by coming to work every day, and maybe even having a feeling that you’ve made a difference to some human beings is also enough to say this a career that I would never regret choosing.

So finally, what are your next moves in the coming weeks/at this busy time? Are you going back to Libya?

Next week I’m going to Liberia because of the refugee crisis there – 90,000 refugees have fled in the last three months from the Cote d’Ivoire. And then the next week I’m accompanying the high commissioner to Egypt where there’s also a situation at their border with Libya, with thousand of refugees coming through every day – those are the short-term plans.  

Interview by Dafydd Phillips

Melissa Fleming

As head of communications and chief spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Melissa Fleming leads all communications efforts around the globe. Operating in 120 countries, UNHCR provides shelter and help for over 30 million people who have fled wars and persecution. In her role, Melissa has introduced strategic communication planning designed to have more impact on the varied audiences, which include media, donors, governments and refugees themselves. She is also leading a rebranding project for UNHCR, and is launching a new digital platform for interactive engagement and individual giving. She joined UNHCR from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), where she served for eight years as spokesperson and head of public information during the period the organisation made headlines for its inspection work in Iraq, Iran and North Korea and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. Prior to IAEA, she headed the press and information team at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and as a public affairs specialist at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.