I’ve been working with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) for nearly 10 years. Most recently, I’ve held my dream job of leading the digital communications efforts for Climate Promise – a program supporting over 120 countries and territories to prepare and deliver on their national climate pledges within the framework of the Paris Agreement – the legally binding international treaty on climate change.
Communications – or creative storytelling, as I like to think of it – is so integral to the mission of any UN agency. Turns out, a well-told story can move mountains – delivering accurate information and inspiring people to take action. That’s why UN agencies are often looking to recruit candidates who juggle a mix of substantive skills on climate change, human rights, and international development, with creative juice and experience - from social media engagement to writing clean and concise copy, to Photoshop and video editing.
In my most recent position, I've been lucky enough to recruit six comms specialists to expand my communications team. In doing so, I have had the chance to observe what most successful applicants do well. I want to share my reflections here with hopes that they can help someone in their next application.
Here are four quick tips.
1. If you’re applying to a UN communications role, ALWAYS submit your portfolio/work samples, even if the post doesn’t explicitly ask for it.
When you’re applying to a communications post, go beyond submitting your motivation letter and CV. Make sure to include your work samples also. Do this even if the job posting isn’t specifically asking for it.
They don’t have space for you to submit your portfolio? No problem. Combine your work samples with your motivation letter and CV into a single PDF, and submit them all as one document.
The person on the other end of the screen will want to understand whether your work is exciting, creative, and well put together. Whether you’ve drafted blogs, social media posts, or multimedia content, don’t just talk about them, show them.
Doing so will set you apart from tens, if not hundreds, of applicants immediately.
2. The requirements listed in the post ad matter. A lot.
This seems common sense, yet is so often overlooked: if the ad says 3 years of experience is required, your application must clearly demonstrate that you have at least 3 years of experience.
If the ad says you must be fluent in French, remember to state explicitly that you are fluent in French.
Your application must make it visibly clear that you fit the mandatory requirements. Do this by making sure the keywords in the job ad appear in your application. Think of your CV and motivation letter as living documents – and tweak them as needed to fit each job you’re applying for.
Also: avoid applying to jobs you may be overly qualified for. If the job is asking for 3 years of experience, but you have 12, that’s a problem. The team will likely assume that you’ll get restless in the job quite quickly (and they might be right).
So this tip is not just about having the minimum required years – it’s also about not being too far from it.
3. Don’t reach out directly to the person hiring for the job via DMs and ask them questions about the posting.
Networking is over-emphasized, particularly in Western job markets and culture. We are constantly told to talk, shop around, and market our “selling points.” The proliferation of social media has made this kind of networking even more widely available, in the process probably also eroding some ethical boundaries along the way.
As the team lead, it’s my responsibility to post about the job opening on my social media channels and make sure the opportunity reaches as many people as possible. But I am also bound by the rules and regulations of the United Nations to be fair. Recruiters cannot provide additional or insider tips or support to a select few.
It’s also helpful to remember that each hire is decided by a panel of experts, not a single person, so the recruiter you’re trying to reach may not even hold the amount of power you think they do.
All this is to say if you’re not hearing back via DMs, it’s not personal. “Slipping into someone’s DMs” just doesn’t have a payoff.
You are welcome to ask around about the job and gather some intel. You are also welcome to follow or add people working in certain circles (or even the person you eventually wish to work for). I would encourage you to network based on your values, skills, and goals, instead of on specific job openings.
And have trust that if your application is strong enough, you will pass the long-listing and short-listing.
4. Applying for a communications post? Proofread twice.
When you’re applying to a communications role, typos come across even worse than for other types of jobs. It’s not just about spelling or grammar (which undoubtedly also matter) but also about your attention to detail, which is a very important quality in a communications specialist.
Attention to detail can be picked up on by the recruiter in places you don’t even expect. If you’re applying to many positions at once, make sure your cover letter speaks specifically to the post you’re applying to. I have seen applications (good ones!) from so many people who forget to switch the name of the organization in their cover letter, causing an otherwise well-prepared application to go in the reject pile.
Follow these tips and keep trying.
If you want to work for any UN agency but aren't hearing back from jobs, don't give up.
Telling the UN’s important stories on climate change, sustainable development, justice, peace and humanitarian assistance is a great privilege. But that also makes it an extremely competitive process.
Still, in an increasingly digitalized world, the UN and its agencies are in constant need of creatives – people who want to communicate, design, and build campaigns and stories for a better world. They’re in need of people like you.
And there's a team out there waiting to meet you and benefit from your skills.
About the author
Mehmet Erdogan leads communications for UNDP’s Climate Promise initiative, with a focus on creative campaigns and human-centered storytelling. He is also spearheading UNDP’s Webby-winning advocacy campaign, Dear World Leaders. Mehmet has worked with UNDP for nearly a decade, including his previous role in the Istanbul Regional Hub for Europe and Central Asia. His experience with digital communications builds on his educational background in conflict resolution and public health, as well as his passion for photography, music, and the visual arts. Follow him on Twitter at @mehmeterdoganIV.
The views and opinions expressed in this think-piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SIPA or Columbia University.