Elliane Luthi

COMMUNICATIONS SPECIALIST | UNICEF

What do you do as Communications Specialist for UNICEF?

I oversee all external communications for UNICEF Burundi, so I act as a spokesperson and facilitate media visits to UNICEF projects. I also oversee all of our social media. The third pillar of my job is an especially exciting one and has to do with child participation and youth advocacy. In Burundi, children make up the majority of the population, but are among the least quoted in the media. So in order to amplify children’s voices and enable them to advocate for their rights, we run a child journalist programme, in which children in Burundi are trained in basic journalism techniques, conflict-sensitive reporting and child rights. These children then lead child-centred programming on radios stations that have signed partnerships with UNICEF and regularly participate in youth exchanges and social media initiatives.

What is a typical day like?

Since the current political crisis broke out in Burundi in April, my job has changed considerably. The crisis is disproportionately affecting children and we are working quickly and under high pressure. These days, I do a lot of media and social media monitoring so we are always ready to act in cases of child rights violations. I spend a lot of time on site at different UNICEF project locations, interviewing children and women and writing web stories or producing photo essays. I also work a lot with our child journalists, supporting them with the pieces they produce. If I have requests from media, I might be doing television or radio interviews on the situation of children here.

You previously worked for UNICEF as a Communications Officer. What did that entail?

I was originally brought into UNICEF to develop a social media strategy for UNICEF in Burundi. It was an exciting challenge to roll out a strategy in such an underdeveloped country – only 3% of the population in Burundi has access to electricity, so internet access and social media use is of course extremely low. Still, we’ve found that social media is an exciting way to drive youth engagement, and also to connect youth here with youth abroad.

Can you tell us a bit about the internal UNICEF process for promotions or to change jobs.

I actually came in to UNICEF as a UN Volunteer (UNV). It’s a fantastic programme that places qualified, dedicated volunteers within UN agencies. I was thrilled to be offered a placement with UNICEF and be able to use my communications skills for a very meaningful purpose. I think Burundi must be one of the most difficult places in the world to be a child – it tops the Global Hunger Index, one out of every ten children dies before they reach the age of five, and there are an average of 74 children per classroom here. So I jumped on the opportunity to contribute to advocating for a better future for those children. As it was, a staff position opened at UNICEF while I was volunteering, I applied and was hired.

Prior to UNICEF, you worked as a senior account manager for Ogilvy Public Relations. What did you do there?

When I worked for Ogilvy PR in Singapore, my role consisted of advising corporate, governmental and non-profit clients on communications strategies. This included designing local and regional public relations campaigns. Ogilvy is a very dynamic and forward-looking PR agency, so the job was fast-paced, demanding and required a lot of creativity. In this role, I had the privilege of leading the Asia-Pacific chapter of the award-winning Chengdu Pambassador 2012 campaign, which was a city re-branding campaign for the city of Chengdu, China.

What was being part of the Singapore Youth Olympic GamesOrganizing Committee like?

Singapore 2010 was the first edition of the Youth Olympic Games, which are Olympic Games for junior athletes. It was a thrilling experience to see youth from 204 countries and territories come together. You’d go to the athlete’s village and see the Somali athletes chatting with the athletes from the Vanuatu. There’s no other event in the world that can bring the whole world together like that, and that’s why I still believe so strongly in power of sport.

Tell us about your first job as a Media intelligence specialist for theInternational Olympic Committee.

I started at the IOC in 2005, and was part of the team in charge of reputation management for the Olympic Movement ahead of the Beijing Olympic Games. That was a critical time for the organisation as it was coming under intense criticism for the choice of Beijing as a host city, given the human rights situation in China. My job was to monitor the worldwide media daily in five languages and do risks and opportunities analysis. There were three of us and we’d relay each other during non-working hours so that we were always on top of the situation and ready to react to any incident. I remember the Olympic torch got kidnapped several times during the international torch relay! We didn’t get much sleep those days.

Why did you decide to specialise in communication in international organisations?

I always dreamed of being a writer – I began writing fiction when I was seven years old. My second dream was to become a television presenter! My current job combines the two perfectly – I get to write stories and to tell them too. It was always important for me to have meaningful work, and I was always volunteering for women’s and children’s organisations on the side of my job or in between jobs until I made the full switch to international development.

You hold an MA from the University of Lausanne. How do you use that in you day-to-day job?

I majored in Linguistics and Human Language Sciences, which is closely related to Communications. It gave me a good basis to understand some of the social and psychological dimensions of human communication. I also minored in Russian and Slavic studies, and speaking several languages has been precious to me in my work.

What are the particular advantages and barriers a woman pursuing a career like yours might face?

During my career I’ve had to work harder than men to get to the same recognition. Men – especially white men – still benefit from male privilege, often without realising it. As a woman, especially a young woman, you have to constantly prove how competent you are. But I think that communications is an area in which women can carve out their place with a little more ease, as compared to science and technology.

What would you recommend to a young woman who would like to pursue a similar career?

Talk to people. Talk to as many different people as you can. In almost every career, networking is key. It can be done in many ways - I did a lot of my networking through volunteering. But it can also be through activities, associations, sports, even social media.

What was your first job and what did you learn doing it you still use nowadays?

My first paid job was as an English teacher. It helped me a lot with public speaking skills, since it taught me to explain things clearly and carefully, using simple and concise language.

What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career so far?

When you work in large, decentralised organisations, there’s always going to be a lot of policies, procedures. paperwork. It’s not a rewarding part of the job but it can’t be helped. The most rewarding part of my career have been the moments that I’ve felt like what I do makes a difference in someone’s life. Six years ago while I was volunteering at an NGO in India, I taught a 13-year-old girl to read and write. She was a child bride, shy, withdrawn, and she never looked me in the eye. When I saw her again last year, she was standing tall, had a job working in a sewing centre and making her own income and exuded self-confidence. It’s those moments that are the most rewarding.

What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?

Writing and public speaking are the key skills needed to succeed in communications. To become a good writer, you need to listen to others and you need to read, read, read. Read fiction, read non-fiction, read blogs, read newspapers. To become a good public speaker, you need passion. People will always listen to speakers who are passionate about their cause.

What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?

That the reality is that it doesn’t matter how good you are at doing something if people don’t know about it. So you need to put yourself out there, and it’s not always a comfortable thing to do. Talk about what you do, talk about the results you’re achieving, and show your drive and commitment. People are always attracted to people who love what they do. If you’re committed and you show people how committed you are, that’s what will make the difference.

What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?

Leaving Singapore to become a volunteer in Burundi was the most difficult decision I’ve ever taken. I mulled over it for weeks before finally taking the leap. I drew up a list of pros and cons and talked it over and over with my closest friends. In the end, what made the difference was my instinct. I knew it was the right thing to follow my passion and to dedicate myself to women and children’s issues full time.

What achievements are you most proud of?

I think my biggest achievement has been to lead a balanced life. I have always been careful to not lose sight of setting personal goals and going after them. A few years ago I wrote down a series of goals – they included winning a triathlon, becoming a yoga teacher, going white-water rafting in Borneo and learning a sixth language. I’m pleased to say I’ve achieved all those goals. I guess it’s time to set new ones!

Do you have a role model and, if so, who and why?

My role model and mentor is Saleemah Ismail, the former head of UN Women in Singapore. She is among the most committed human beings I have ever met. She inspires me daily with her amazing generosity and her drive to make this world a better one. She’s been a great advocate for women in Southeast Asia. Her latest project is Early Reader, a Singapore-based, in-home reading programme for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. She’s been a constant source of support for me throughout my career and personal life. She’s always reminded me that to be able to fly, you need to ground yourself first.

Eliane Luthi | Communications Specialist | UNICEF

12 years' experience

CV in brief

Studied Linguistic, Russian and Geography at the University of Lausanne (Switzerland) and McGill University (Canada) 

Previous roles: Communications Officer at UNICEF | Senior Account Manager at Ogilvy Public Relations | International Communications Officer at Tostan | Team leader European NOC Relations and NOC Relations Coordinator at the Singapore Youth Olympic Games Organization Committee | Media Intelligence Specialist at the International Olympic Committee | English language teacher at ISREC

Find her online @ElianeLuthiLinkedIn UNICEF blog

Career opportunities at UNICEF | at Ogilvy Public Relations | at Tostan | at theInternational Olympic Committee 

Exclusive email interview 2 September 2015

Interviewing a schoolgirl in Rumonge, Burundi

"It was always important for me to have meaningful work, and I was always volunteering for women’s and children’s organisations on the side of my job or in between jobs until I made the full switch to international development."
"To become a good writer, you need to listen to others and you need to read, read, read. Read fiction, read non-fiction, read blogs, read newspapers. To become a good public speaker, you need passion."

Shaking hands with school directors in Rumonge, Burundi

"It doesn’t matter how good you are at doing something if people don’t know about it."

Visiting a hospital in Rumonge, Burundi

"In order to amplify children’s voices and enable them to advocate for their rights, we run a child journalist programme, in which children in Burundi are trained on basic journalism techniques, conflict-sensitive reporting and child rights. These children then lead child-centered programming on radios which have signed partnerships with UNICEF and regularly participate in youth exchanges and social media initiatives."