On Message: UNHCR's Melissa Fleming on changing the refugee narrative

Melissa Fleming, head of communications and chief spokesperson at the U.N. Refugee Agency. Photo by: Jean-Marc Ferré / U.N. / CC BY-NC-ND

The plight of refugees and migrants is among the most urgent global development challenges of our time. The current narrative, however, is brimming with problems. Fueled by politicians and the media, the refugee “issue” has become a hotbed of populist rhetoric, fear, and misinformation. For humanitarian groups working directly with refugees and migrants, this type of discourse only makes already challenging work that much more difficult.

“We want ... to build empathy for refugees and we want to drive action.”

— Melissa Fleming, head of communications and chief spokesperson, UNHCR

I spoke to Melissa Fleming, the head of communications and chief spokesperson of the U.N. Refugee Agency, ahead of her latest mission to Syria this week, to get her take on how to shift the current refugee narrative.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Could you tell me about UNHCR’s communications strategy, specifically in the context of a very highly politicized digital media landscape?

We are just about to launch our new global communication strategy. Our vision in the strategy is that we want to help refugees thrive, not just survive. Our communication will focus not just on emergencies, people crossing borders, the desperation, and the journeys — but it will also focus on the hope and on the contributions refugees can make. That’s the centerpiece of our strategy.

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We want to position UNHCR as leading the narrative on refugee issues. We want also to build empathy for refugees and we want to drive action. Once you get people to care, we want to offer them things to do [...] a menu for once you’re educated [and] you feel compassion [so] that we’re not leaving people hanging but also giving them something to do.

In general, about 15 percent of the population are core supporters. On the other side of the spectrum, 15 percent are really “anti,” so hatefully “anti” that we don’t even bother with them.

And then there is this huge group in the middle who represent the majority — who we call “the conflicted middle.” These are people who, if you would ask them: “Do you think your country should take in people fleeing war and prosecution?” ... would say “yes.” But they would also say, “But, I am afraid of … terrorism, I’m afraid of cultural changes, I’m afraid of losing my job.”

These are fears that need to be addressed through smart communications.

What do you mean by smart communications? In the communications charter you posted a while back, you spoke about the single person narrative as being central to what UNHCR does. What will be different about this strategy, or how will it be added to?

We understand from social psychology that people feel numb when they are confronted with statistics. We know [that] this is being widely exploited by populist politicians.

We strongly believe that communicating about individuals is the best way to reach people, to get them to care, and to [have them] not feel overwhelmed.

When you talk about impact, what are some things that you’re thinking about? On the policy and government side, that’s a bit more tangible. What about other goals, such as changing perceptions or population mindsets toward refugees?

It’s key that we have that as a goal, to change the narrative. We [have] to make sure that we have a narrative that will resonate and move [people]. Our end goal is to effect change in opinion, in attitude, in stance.

If we had more means to do so, we would do much more public opinion research so that we could measure at the outset, and measure again a couple of years later. We’re doing some. We’ve partnered with the organization More in Common, which has done some interesting audience research in five countries in Europe and in the United States on what people really believe about foreigners. It segments populations in ways that are deep and useful.

It’s not all one size fits all, or one country fits all, or even one community. If we had more resources, we would do that in more countries and more often.

You launched the UNHCR podcast “Awake at Night” this past summer. Why was it important to do something in the audio space?

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There’s been a kind of revival of audio as a medium that is really worth noting. It was an experiment for us. I feel so proud to work at this organization — not just because of the mandate — but because of the colleagues that I meet who are the most dedicated, devoted human beings who I know.

Many of [them] have made incredible sacrifices, including to their physical safety and definitely to their mental health. [...] They [the public] don’t know these colleagues that are really serving humanity in a very profound way.

From the feedback I’ve gotten from listeners, they’re discovering a new type of person, a new type of profession.

You will celebrate 10 years at UNHCR this year. What are some of the unexpected lessons you’ve learned? 

[Before UNHCR] I was the spokesperson for the International Atomic Energy Agency. As you can imagine, that was the most sensitive spokesperson role in the U.N. then and still is now. It was highly sensitive, highly politicized and hugely in demand.

“My job is to tell [refugee] stories. There is a constant feeling of I’m never doing enough. There are so many stories to tell. There are so many stories to communicate on their behalf.”

When I went to UNHCR, I thought, “Great, I’m working for a humanitarian organization. Now I don’t have to do everything on deep background. I’m going to be out there.”  But what I realized soon when I came was that [covering] refugees [is] extremely sensitive as well. They are very politicized. From a communications perspective, it is a very sensitive area to communicate about.

I think the difference is how much it gets to me. These are human beings. Whereas I was dealing with a potential catastrophe: nuclear war, accidents at nuclear power plants, or dirty bombs. Here, I’m dealing with everyday human catastrophe.

My job is to tell [refugee] stories. There is a constant feeling of I’m never doing enough. There are so many stories to tell. There are so many stories to communicate on their behalf. There are so many platforms that one could give them to enable them to speak more.

Update, March 7, 2019: This article has been updated to clarify that 15 percent of the population is really “anti” refugees; and that Melissa Fleming was a spokesperson for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

About the author

  • Carine Umuhumuza

    Carine Umuhumuza is a former associate director of communications at Devex, where she wrote about the latest trends, tips, and insights on media and communications for the global development community. Previously, Carine led digital initiatives at Devex for development agencies, major corporations, NGOs, and social enterprises.