Melissa Fleming


What do you do?

As Head of Communications and Chief Spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), I lead communications efforts around the globe and serve as chief spokesperson. Operating in 120 countries, UNHCR provides help and shelter for over 30 million people who have fled wars and persecution. In my role, I have introduced strategic and crisis communication planning designed to have more impact on the varied audiences, which include media, donors, governments and refugees themselves. I also direct global advocacy campaigns with a strong emphasis on social media.

How did you get there?

I was always interested in history and foreign affairs and ended up with a major in German Studies at Oberlin College. When I got the chance to study in Germany, it instantly felt like home. Europe felt like an adventure and I was determined to return. While I was working on my Masters degree in journalism at Boston University, it so happened the new Dean was German. He helped me land interviews, and the one that was successful was with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich – a station with a political purpose that served as surrogate national radio stations for countries behind the Iron Curtain. The knowledge I gained there about the countries that would soon be in transition was a perfect foundation for my next job as as spokesperson and head of media at theOrganization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) in Vienna. When the Bosnian war broke out, the organisation grew from 30 to thousands and it became the centre for diplomatic negotiation, conflict prevention and election monitoring for all of Europe. I found myself travelling from Sarajevo to Belgrade to Warsaw to Tirana and from Moscow to Dushanbe to Almaty. I built a press team to respond to the enormous media focus on this troubled period of evolution and conflict.

After six years at the OSCE, I was ready for a new challenge and networking in Vienna led me to a position as Head of Media and Public Information at theInternational Atomic Energy Agency. Little did I know that the Agency would be thrust into headlines for years for its role as inspectors in Iraq, Iran, Syria and North Korea; for its work on nuclear security in the age of post-9.11 terrorist fears and for its work on nuclear safety as nuclear power was starting a revival. Never could I have imagined I would be accompanying the Director General, Mohamed ElBaradei to Oslo for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony (2005). As chief spokesperson, I was so much in demand the reporters knew my children’s names as they called from different time zones and during dinner time, bed time and on weekends.

When chief spokesperson Ron Redmond at UNHCR was about to retire, he called me and encouraged me to apply. After eight years as a communicator on all things nuclear, I was ready to move to a humanitarian, human rights role; the cause of refugees, according to Ron, was ‘doing God’s work.’ I have never regretted this move. There is no group of people on Earth more vulnerable and in need of help and advocacy and communicating on their behalf is tremendously fulfilling.

What does your "typical workday" entail?

The day starts with a quick editorial meeting to update on events that could impact our work and multi-media and social media coverage plans for the day. We are under extreme pressure at a time when there are more people forcibly displaced than any time since World War II – 50 million - and where conflicts in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and the Central African Republic are driving thousands of people across borders every day. On one hand, as media officers, we respond to the demands of the press. But we also need to be proactive and push out news on conflicts no reporters are covering. We also operate like a small news and feature agency producing video, photo and written material for our own platforms but also for placement and distribution to media organizations around the world.

You’re very active on Twitter. How is social media supporting your current role?

Social media is a blessing for communicators. We now have the opportunity to communicate actively and directly with people all over the world and from all walks of life. We engage with journalists, celebrities, activists, members of the public and refugees themselves. I try to lead by example on Twitter to encourage my colleagues in the field to become social media advocates as well. I have noticed a particular fascination the public have with the aid worker and what their day-to-day life entails. One colleague working in a remote outpost in South Sudan started an Instagram diary and soon had over 30,000 followers.

What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your job?

The most rewarding is to work on a media campaign according to our formula which has, as its centrepiece, a strong news story and then offers other ways in via multi-media – a compelling video, an individual story of survival and resilience, a Facebook post full of emotion, an infographic that brings alive the statistics. When I see the results are strong global media coverage, good web stats and great social media engagement, I feel like we have raised significant awareness and empathy for refugees. If there is an added fundraising result, this is another plus point on our scale of satisfaction.

Least rewarding are situations where we work for weeks on a very important issue of need, i.e. a food crisis for refugees in Africa, and to see the impact is not what we hoped for. Mostly because other situations with more geopolitical interest take over the news agenda.

What advice would you give to somebody who would like to do a similar job?

Study journalism or work in the field for a while. Embrace new media trends and be personally active. Develop a network through internships, associations, Model UN. Read an array of news sources. Listen to the BBC and watch Al Jazeera. Watch TED talks and learn how to be a strong public speaker.

What are the key skills that make you good at what you do?

I am quite good at writing, public speaking, on-camera interviews, social media engagement and have a strong understanding of global affairs. But if I didn’t have diplomatic skills and the ability to build internal trust, I could never be successful at this job.

What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?

That there is a great deal of indifference in this world. And ignorance.

What is the mistake you wish you hadn’t done?

I wish I had known the importance of learning foreign languages and started my life becoming fluent in French and Arabic.

What are the achievements you are most proud of?

Building strong, proactive and modern communications teams that drive awareness, empathy and action for the cause.

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

My role models have been my last two bosses – Mohamed ElBaradei and António Guterres. I admire their incredible grasp of how the world works, or why it doesn’t; that they are visionaries and speak truth to power and that they use the public stage to advance their cause, and not themselves. 

Melissa Fleming I Head of Communication & Public Information of UNHCR

25 years' experience

CV in brief

Studied German Studies at Oberlin College | Masters in Journalism from Boston University

Previously worked at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty | Organisation for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) International Atomic Energy Agency

Find her online: @melissarfleming

Inspired by Melissa's interview? Take a look at these career opportunities: at UNHCR