‘Perfect’ outreach tool for relief groups? UNHCR’s Melissa Fleming on social media

The UNHCR sign in Galkayo, Somalia. The agency uses social media to expand its ability to reach out to new audiences. Photo by: UNHCR

The women sit in line, waiting under the blistering sun to receive much-needed famine aid. Their faces show pain and determination.

This scene from a Mogadishu camp was captured in a photo and tweeted by Melissa Fleming through her personal Twitter account on Sept. 1. Fleming is the head of communications and spokeswoman for the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.

Fleming accompanied her boss, António Guterres, during a recent visit to Somalia, part of a major effort by UNHCR and its partners to scale up humanitarian assistance in the volatile and drought-hit country. She reported about his tour of Dollow, a town bordering Ethiopia, on Aug. 30, and of a settlement for internally displaced persons found on the grounds of the capital’s decaying cathedral two days later.

Fleming “is personally pushing a social media strategy” at UNHCR, she told Devex. And by the looks of it, her personal campaign is paying off: The U.N. refugee agency has more than 100,000 Facebook likes and more than 1.2 million Twitter followers, quite a rarity among its contemporaries.

Aside from Twitter and Facebook, UNHCR is using YouTube to host professionally produced videos, and Flickr to publish photos.

“A number of our country offices have their own distinct regional or local profiles and communicate in major languages such as Arabic, Spanish and French,” she said in an email.

In this exclusive interview, Fleming discusses UNHCR’s social media strategy and why it is important to invest in social media.

In less than 140 characters, describe your social media strategy or vision.

Create empathy among vast audiences using compelling information and dialogue. Encouraging savvy staff to write, produce and post direct from the front lines.

What has your social media presence allowed you to do that you may not have been able to achieve otherwise?

Beyond the traditional press release or website story, engagement on social media has immensely expanded our ability to reach out to new audiences through direct communications. For example, we can reach out to 1.2 million followers on Twitter in real time from the remote scene of refugee emergencies using mobile phones to tweet and post photos. I believe this intimacy makes our audiences more likely to pay attention, change their own perceptions and even decide to help the cause, also because the channel is more direct and authentic. Also, the feedback we get from our posts allows us to understand better what kind of communication generates reaction.

Give an example or anecdote for how you’ve used social media in an innovative way.

We have devoted a section of our YouTube channel called “1 Story, 1 Life” to posting short, evocative video stories of individual refugees from all over the world. They tell harrowing tales of survival and the meaning of losing home but also building hope for a new life. We promote these stories on Facebook and Twitter to drive our followers to the channel. The response is impressive. As Mother Teresa said, “If I look at a mass, I will never act. If I look at one, I will.”

What do development organizations, whether bilateral, multilateral, nonprofit or corporate, need to know about social media and how it can help them?

Public information in international organizations is typically highly controlled. A press release, for example, will often go through several layers of a drawn-out approval process before it can be issued.

Successful engagement in social media needs to be fresh, fast, authentic and un-bureaucratic. So many organizations find it hard to let go of information control and oversight and give its communicators license to express themselves. There is a general culture of risk-aversion, so social media posts tent to be dry and formal.

But growing numbers of organizations are realizing that social media can help disseminate information to massive audiences without having to rely entirely on traditional media as a conduit. It is a perfect mechanism for humanitarian organizations to communicate more emotionally and personally, thereby generating sympathy for people in need and to ask for engagement. It can also be used strategically and creatively for awareness raising campaigns and fundraising.

What is often missing is investment – in hiring and training staff and empowering them to write, produce, post and express. I have seen time and again that social media management is delegated to an intern or temporary staff member with little institutional knowledge and authority. As head of UNHCR communications, I seek to encourage staff by personally tweeting and posting [messages. For example] from Mogadishu, Somalia: “The wait, days, in baking sun, for a tiny bit of aid. Kills me their will to survive. http://yfrog.com/h867067351j.” And this: “To be displaced in Mogadishu is to wait, for a bag of rice, a sip of water, a plastic sheet roof, then – rain, peace.”

About the author

  • Eliza Villarino

    Eliza Villarino currently manages one of today’s leading publications on humanitarian aid, global health and international development, the weekly GDB. At Devex, she has helped grow a global newsroom, with talented journalists from major development hubs such as Washington, D.C, London and Brussels. She regularly writes about innovations in global development.