Melissa Fleming Wants to Change the UN’s Public Image. Can She Do It?

Melissa Fleming, the new head of the UN’s Department of Global Communications
Melissa Fleming, the new head of the UN’s Department of Global Communications, in New York, speaking at a Holocaust memorial ceremony, marking 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Jan. 27, 2020. Fleming, who is from the United States, was most recently the spokesperson for the UN refugee agency. Her goal now is to reshape the public image of the UN through a solutions-oriented approach. EVAN SCHNEIDER/UN PHOTO

The United Nations turns 75 this year, all year long. As its purpose is being questioned by some of its biggest donor nations, including the United States, the UN has a new person to reshape its public image through its global communications office, starting with how it presents its news. PassBlue obtained an exclusive copy of the new plan, which is being carried out by Under Secretary-General for Global Communications Melissa Fleming. She explained the plan and her vision in a recent interview that is also recorded on PassBlue’s latest podcast episode, UN-Scripted.

Fleming, who is American, wants to reform the UN news service and how it creates its own stories. The multimedia service, called the UN News Center, attracts nearly a half-million followers on Twitter alone, conveying UN-related activities.

“In our communications strategy, the first objective is to lead the narrative,” Fleming told PassBlue. “That means we need to be and continue to be the source of authoritative, factual, neutral information. . . . And we need to make sure that the information is rigorous, that the same journalistic standards apply. We just want to add a new element, and we’re going to be working with the Solutions Journalism Network.”

Before working for numerous international organizations, Fleming started her career as a public-affairs specialist for Radio Free Europe in Munich, Germany. She then headed the press and public information team at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In 2003, she became spokesperson for the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna and then moved to Geneva to work for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, when the current UN secretary-general, António Guterres, was in charge. She has followed him to New York, arriving in September in time for the UN’s big birthday.

During her time in Geneva, Fleming stood out for taking UN communications in a bold direction. She hosted a Ted Talk that got more than 1.3 million views, wrote a book called “A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival” and even hosted her own podcast, “Awake at Night.” She plans to use some of these diverse communication strategies in New York, but whether she can adapt them to the UN as a whole remains to be seen.

This interview has been edited and condensed for concision.

Stéphanie Fillion: How do you approach your new role at the UN headquarters as global communications chief, and how do you feel it is different from your previous positions at UN agencies?

Melissa Fleming: Each agency has a different kind of climate, but the Secretariat at the UN is like being at the seat of government and is very close to the member states. I was at the International Atomic Energy Agency during the lead-up to the Iraq war, when there was a lot of controversy around nuclear energy, and when the weapons programs in North Korea and Iran were becoming a big issue. This was the height of media, public and government focus, and there was huge scrutiny by member states and an unbelievable interest from the media. It was definitely an experience that has helped guide me here. Nuclear issues are hugely sensitive, and I would spend half of my time just building trust internally in order to communicate externally.

When I moved to UNHCR [UN refugee agency], I thought I could be very outspoken, because these are human rights issues. These are human beings. But I realized very quickly that refugees are almost as sensitive as nuclear weapons and have been very politicized, sadly. Here I have a different job, I’m not the spokesperson. And I’m running all kinds of areas of communications, so the job is more expansive. There’s much more of a management role and, of course, it’s covering all the broad range of UN issues. So it’s not a single focus, but it’s the entire spectrum of what the UN is concerned with and about.

SF: As you said, you’re not the spokesperson for the UN secretary-general, so can you explain what differentiates your role? What’s a day like in your life? And what is your thinking behind your new communications plan?

MF: Stéphane [Dujarric, UN spokesperson] has the day-in, day-out job of working with the media, taking in all the requests, running the noon briefing, making sure the phones are picked up when the media are calling. He is also reaching out proactively, serving the secretary-general’s media needs. We’re in very close collaboration on positioning the secretary-general in the media.

There’s this saying that I always have in the back of my head: Statistics are human beings with the tears dried off. There’s growing evidence that people are turning away from the news, and the UN and my team are a provider of news. We run huge platforms. We have UN News, we have our websites, we have our social media platforms. We have UNTV, we have audio. We want people to tune in and not tune out. Why are people tuning out? Because they’re feeling like there is too much sadness, suffering, gloom and doom. It’s not that they don’t feel that they need to be informed about this, but it just feels like it’s too much. And they’re feeling kind of fatalistic, depressed.

To address this we’re going to be testing a new approach, more of a solutions/hope-focused approach to our communications: always talking about what the problem is, what are the facts, being the neutral source of information, but also pointing to what is the blueprint for how this can be solved. Maybe even giving examples of where it is being solved, and creating this kind of sense for audiences that actually it’s not hopeless. The problems of our world are daunting, but they’re not insurmountable.

SF: How closely do you work with Secretary-General Guterres now?

MF: We meet very frequently. We look at his communications milestones, whether it’s events, major speeches or his travel plans. Then we discuss together with Stéphane, his strategic communications director — how are we going to reach the audiences we want to reach through the secretary-general’s activity . . . how we are going to produce around this so that it actually captures the imagination of the world. So if he’s speaking to an audience in a full room, let’s say it’s a university hall, how can we make sure not only does his speech resonate with those people sitting in the room, but that we get it out to as many people as possible through our digital channels.

There are a number of other UN figures that we are really trying to highlight, so that people see the UN not just as an institutional body but as human beings who are really driven to make this world a better place. The deputy secretary-general [Amina Mohammed] — audiences just really are drawn to her amazing charisma and passion for the issues that she is speaking about.

SF: Do you have a specific plan to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the UN?

MF: This year, the secretary-general asked us to take a different track. Instead of talking about how much we’ve accomplished in 75 years and how important the work of the UN is, we are going to use this anniversary to listen. We’re asking our offices all over the world to conduct listening exercises —conversations with people, mostly young people, but all walks of society — to ask them, What is it that they’re concerned about? What is it that they really believe needs to be solved? What are their hopes? What are their dreams? What are their fears? And how do they see the UN being part of the solution? We’re going to be taking this information back. It’s almost like a massive global qualitative survey, and there will be a quantitative survey by a polling company. There’s going to be a big event at the General Assembly in September, and we want to use that as a springboard to say, Look, we have spoken to the people of the world and this is what they want, and this is how we are going to address what they want going forward.

SF: Instead of using the five W’s known in journalism for answering the “what, who, when, why and where”  plus the “how,” you’re now talking about the three Ws. What are they and how did you come up with them?

MF: This is something I brought with me from UNHCR. It’s called the three W’s of cause communications. We work for a cause. We have professionals who were journalists, fantastic, talented and experienced. However, we’re not just there to provide information, we’re there to capture people’s imagination. So the three Ws are: What — what we need to lead the narrative on authoritative, factual, neutral information, we need to be that source; the second W is — Why care, so we can’t just have the objective of raising awareness, it’s just simply not enough to get people to do what we need them to do in this day and age of climate disaster. We’re going to be employing more storytelling, more solutions, hope-focused approaches to our reporting, to really pull people in and to give them a sense of, yes, there are problems that affect me, but yes, there actually are ways to solve them. And then once we get them to care, the third W is  — What now? So what are we going to ask people to do, what is the UN doing about it? But also, how are we going to involve people?

SF: One example of your new approach is based on the Ted Talk that you gave years ago and the book you wrote, about a young Syrian refugee, “A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival.” What effect did the book have?

MF: People really feel numb when they’re presented with statistics, especially when it’s about mass suffering. They feel they can’t absorb it. But when they hear the story of an individual, they can really relate. They feel interested, they want to learn more. I tested this out, and the Ted Talk had well over a million views. It led to a book I wrote about a 19-year-old Syrian refugee who was languishing in Egypt and fell in love. Her fiance convinced her to take one of these awful smuggler boats to try to reach Europe, where they were going to get married and she was going to work and study. She was terrified of the water and didn’t know how to swim, but the hope in the book’s title was just so much more powerful than then her fear.

SF: How will you deal with the problem of fake news in your global communications plan? 

MF: In our communications strategy, the first objective is lead the narrative. That means we need to be and continue to be the source of authoritative, factual, neutral information. There’s a study by the Edelman company, called the Trust Barometer, which showed that the UN was actually ahead of the media in terms of public trust, and we have powerful platforms, we have millions of followers and visitors to our websites, on our social media platforms.

We’re going to be working with the Solutions Journalism Network, which is a really interesting project founded by New York Times journalists, David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg [and Courtney Martin], who have actually trained thousands of journalists in all kinds of newsrooms, not just in the US. They’re finding that the readers have a real appetite for it.

SF: How well do you think reporters cover the UN? And how can they do their jobs better? What’s underreported at the UN?

MF: I have a lot of sympathy with the press corps here. If I had one message, it would be to the editors of the world, please, covering the UN is important, and it requires capacity. And I think most of the reporters here are really overstretched.

SF: As an American having lived in Europe for decades, how was it to return to the US? Do you think the perception of the UN has changed since you left?

MF: I think there are certain parts of the media that sometimes use the UN as a scapegoat. It is very difficult to counter that or to provide an alternative other than to continue to robustly promote the good work of the UN. When you have a divided Security Council, that is really the focus of the press coverage, then of course people are going to get the impression that the UN is not deciding on anything and that it’s blocked and there’s no progress.

In the digital age, there’s a scarcity of foreign correspondents. This means that in many parts of the world where the UN is really shining in the work that they’re doing, helping people, there’s no journalists. So we have to cover those places with really minimal resources, offer that coverage to news organizations.

SF: Coverage of climate change, for example, the COP25 — the most  recent annual climate change conference in Madrid — makes people feel hopeless. Are you trying to combat this narrative?

MF: We were disappointed with the outcome of Madrid. We are disappointed with the lack of urgency and some, in particular, the big emitters in addressing climate change and in tackling their emissions. So, of course, we’re frustrated and we have to communicate this frustration. We have to also raise the alarm bells and showcase the drama and make the link between the fires burning in Australia, for example, and global warming. At the same time, we need to also say that it can be addressed, it can be mitigated; in certain areas, things can be reversed. We need to point to the countries that are doing the right thing. Solutions are being created by individuals, cities, mayor’s scientists, all kinds of people who are taking the situations locally into their own hands. We also need to also communicate about where things aren’t happening. And it’s due to government policies. The secretary-general is going to continue to go to those leaders to raise his voice and to say, if we are going to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, this is where the responsibility lies. This is where the big difference is going to be made.

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