Melissa Fleming

In the face of public apathy, can one human story illuminate a large-scale crisis? We put your questions to the head of communications of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Melissa Fleming on stage at the 2017 European Communication Summit / Photo: Bernal Revert

When 19 year old Doaa and her boyfriend Bassam, Syrian refugees trapped in a grinding existence in Egypt, handed over all of Bassam’s life savings to refugee smugglers for a journey on a rusting fishing boat, little could they have imagined the horrors that lay ahead. After their boat was attacked and left to capsize in the Mediterranean, Doaa – but not Bassam – was finally found by rescuers after four days in the water, one of just 11 people who survived from the boat. How do we know this? Because Doaa’s experiences before, during and after these harrowing events have found a storyteller – Melissa Fleming, head of communications for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – who developed Doaa’s narrative into an online article, then a Ted Talk, then a book... and soon a major motion picture produced by Steven Spielberg. In the first of our new series of #keepquestioning interviews, we invited communication professionals from across Europe to put their questions to the head of communications of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) about the strategy behind UNHCR’s storytelling, the fight against apathy and their long-term vision for supporting refugees.

Karin Helmstaedt, Television and Event Presenter: “You’ve taken Doaa’s story a long way: it's become a book and it is going to become a film. Yet this story will also run its course, it will reach a point of saturation. Do you have other stories in the pipeline to replace it when you need to make the next assault on the lack of empathy?”

It is amazing to me how Doaa’s story has not run its course, but actually keeps resonating with new audiences. If I accepted all the speaking requests I am getting, I could be telling her story full-time around the world! But yes, there are so many other important refugee stories that I and my team are committed to telling. To build empathy, these stories must show the person’s resilience, and also that there is hope. For one, a young Yazidi woman from Iraq recently reached out to me wanting me to tell her story. She and her two younger sisters were kidnapped by ISIS and held as sex slaves. She managed to escape after two years in horrific captivity and get resettled to Canada. But her sisters are still enslaved.

Ivo Banek, Managing Partner, Communication Works
“How do you balance empathy and the professional distance you need in order to be credible as a communicator?”

In my field, if you don’t feel empathy yourself with the refugees you are representing, then you will have no credibility. As the saying goes, “statistics are human beings with the tears dried off.” Communicators who speak about people as statistics might make headlines but they won’t build compassion, foster change and inspire action. That is why I travel frequently to war zones and refugee camps to meet refugees and learn about their circumstances. That said, taking in refugee stories can be overwhelming too. You feel a kind of secondary trauma, which can cause a lot of stress and feelings of guilt. So it is important to recognize how lucky we are to live in a peaceful place, to have passports, to have a home and to be able to chose where we live. Only then can we have the strength to help others.

Helen Palmer, Strategic Media Director, Weber Shandwick: “The stories you have told are heart rending and it is hard to comprehend how people could be unmoved by them. However, apathy and prejudice about refugees still persist. How do we reach and move those people who will never watch a TED talk or read a newspaper account of a refugee’s story?”

We are doing audience research in a number of key countries to determine people’s attitudes toward refugees and also where they get their information. We also test how various groups respond to certain messages. This allows us to decide not just whom we should target but also with what kind of news and stories, via which medium and how we want them to respond. We are trying to move away from just preaching to the converted and working to reach the undecided and anxious middle. People who care about a fair society, human rights and helping people in need but who have very legitimate worries. We don’t bother trying to convince the far right who operate on a platform of hate toward migrants and refugees.

Kathleen Noonan, Director of Philanthropies and Education Communications, Europe, Microsoft: “In the past, UNHCR worked closely with celebrities and ambassadors to draw attention to specific programmes and crises. You are now expanding beyond that approach and doing innovative partnerships with Humans of New York and working with virtual reality to draw attention to the Syrian Refugee crisis. Why have you made the decision to shift your storytelling strategy, and how you have implemented it?”

We haven’t fundamentally shifted our strategy – we are still working with traditional media and with celebrities as Goodwill Ambassadors. But we have expanded our reach through other partnerships. Your Humans of New York example is a good one. We reached out to Brandon Stanton when the U.S. government and media were expressing concerns about resettling Syrian refugees. We arranged for him to meet with refugees in Jordan and Turkey who were scheduled to depart for the U.S. His photographs and storytelling generated an enormous wave of sympathy and funds. One of the refugees, a Syrian inventor, was even invited to the White House and seated next to Michele Obama for the State of the Union address. We have also recently partnered with Google to create this innovative website, Searching for Syria which shows Syria then and now. Media partnerships are absolutely crucial to getting our message out and placing our content.

Maribel Koeniger, Head of Communications, ERSTE Foundation: “Previously, the fate of millions of refugees was seen as a topic for civil society insiders and you had to fight for awareness. Then, from summer 2015 to spring 2016, nearly everybody wanted to have you on stage, retweeted you and quoted your press releases. But with the rise of populist parties and their anti-immigration agendas, you have once again had to defend the Geneva Conventions and ask for empathy and action. What’s worse, some European politicians accuse organisations like UNHCR of cooperating with smugglers. Ignored, admired, rejected, accused - what lessons have the ups and downs of public and media reactions teach you?"

We were well aware that the initial “welcome refugees” reaction in Europe would not last if people continued to arrive in large numbers without a proper registration, screening and distribution system in place. We were unprepared for the hateful backlash and the populist political opportunism that stoked fear to win votes. For us, it is clear that acceptance and empathy go hand in hand with humane and fair Europe-wide policies that regulate the arrival of migrants and refugees. If there is no faith in the system, generating compassion is much more difficult.

Shweta Kulkani, Head of Communications EMEA, Bemis Company Inc.: “Once awareness has been raised around issues faced by refugees, what are some of your efforts to change perceptions about refuges themselves?”

It is really important to introduce refugees as individual people who had regular lives like we have, as people who had no choice but to leave their homes to save their lives. We tell the whole story – the horrors they survived, the homes and family members they lost, what dangerous journeys they took but also their resilience. People are attracted to refugee stories if they feel it is a story that is not just of tragedy, but of hope.

"We tell the whole story – the horrors they survived, the homes and family members they lost, what dangerous journeys they took but also their resilience."

Lubna Haj Issa, Global Head Corporate Publications, Dufry: “How do you communicate the message about how a society can actually benefit from immigration by refugees?”

There are numerous studies that show that immigration fuels economies, which we highlight. We also highlight success stories of refugees integrating, starting businesses and giving back.

Atte Palomäki, Executive Vice President, Communications and Branding, Wärtsilä: “How would you effectively integrate refugees with the mainstream society and cultural setting in a mutually beneficial way?”

Integration is a huge challenge for receiving countries and also for refugees. Learning the language is key. Most European countries require refugees to enroll in language classes and will only provide assistance for a certain period of time, after which they are required to work. Children are particularly adaptable, especially when they are enrolled in school right away. The sad thing is that most refugees – 86 per cent - live in developing countries who welcome them but lack the infrastructure and means to support them. Half the world’s refugees are not in school and very often, adults are not allowed to work. They wait in limbo until the war ends, if it does. There are refugees like Somalis who have lived in exile in a camp for 25 years.

Herbert Heitmann, President, European Association of Communication Directors: “As well as being a humanitarian emergency, the refugee crisis also represents a significant “brain drain”, as it is sometimes called, which can make it impossible for those countries to ever get back on their feet. How should neighbouring states be encouraged to accommodate refugees closer to home and prepare for the big job that needs to be done one day in the home country?”

This is such an important point, and the neighbouring countries who host the vast majority of the world’s refugees are not supported by the richer world the way they should be. This is short-sighted. Investment in refugees is an investment in a future of peace and prosperity next door. We have been recently working with development actors like the World Bank to bring support to the neighboring countries that host so many refugees to support their infrastructure. And we are calling for a massive investment in refugee education to allow children to heal and learn and become a generation of peacemakers, teachers, architects, engineers and doctors.

Rui Martins, Corporate Communications and Public Affairs Director, Dianova Portugal; "How can we efficiently address and tackle the challenges resulted from last year's unprecedented humanitarian aid in which conflict, violence and acute vulnerability drove 65 million people from their homes?"

When the refugees started coming to Europe in large numbers, the world woke up that there is a giant humanitarian crisis that needs to be managed differently. Last September at the UN General Assembly in New York, world leaders signed a declaration to tackle refugee and migration issues differently. For refugee situations, there should be more predictable funding for humanitarian organizations and the countries that host them and also more development aid and involvement of the private sector. The New York Declaration “expresses the political will of world leaders to save lives, protect rights and share responsibility on a global scale.” This commitment is being tested now, and we are seeing some positive change, but not yet to the level that is required for the vast population of people who were forced to flee their homes.

Florence Ranson, Communications Director, FoodDrink Europe: “The support to refugees coming from authorities is clearly not sufficient. You have highlighted to need for private sector engagement. As communicators we could bring our expertise in awareness-raising, network building. More generally, how do you see partnerships being built? What are your most obvious needs?”

Support from the private sector is absolutely critical for our response to refugee emergencies and for helping us to give refugees a dignified life in exile. We are working with companies big and small in a wide range of sectors to help us achieve greater impact and efficiency and improve the lives for refugees. Collaborating with UNHCR provides businesses with branding, marketing and growth opportunities. Joint initiatives can also instill pride and loyalty among employees, as well as trust and credibility in customers and decision-makers. Benefits include positioning the company as a social actor, building an international profile, understanding new and emerging markets, identifying local and international partners and, in some cases, co-developing new products and solutions. 

Inge Wallage: "Melissa, you are very inspiring in your work and the questions you pose are fair. If you could be the UN's Secretary General for a few days, what would you set in motion?”

I had the honour to serve on the Transition Team for the current UN Secretary General, António Guterres, and I would do what he is attempting as a priority – to work to unite the world to prevent conflicts and stop the ones that are currently causing so much suffering, displacement and destruction.