Nicola Kelly: a BBC journalists’ struggles and successes behind the scenes

Written by: Celia Pannetier, the co-editor for this blog. Celia is in her third year studying International Relations in the department of War Studies, motivated by creative political expression,  political theory and intercultural perspectives. 

Comfortably sitting at a café on the sixth-floor of the Southbank centre, overlooking the Golden Jubilee Bridge,  Carina and I were enthused to meet BBC journalist Nicola Kelly. We had gotten in contact with her through “Women in Foreign Policy”, and she had been enthusiastic about dedicating her time, in between two trips as a radio reporter.

Here is a quick summary of her career; starting in the field of communications, Nicola’s first steps into professional life were spent working for the government, first working at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London, then working as Press Officer at 10 Downing Street. She was later promoted to work as Deputy Spokesperson in Brussels, and a little less than three years later, she moved on to work as  media advisor for the Syrian National Coalition at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), based in Istanbul. She then worked as a communications specialist, producing field reports and campaigns, as well as providing media training for journalists and NGOs across Africa and Asia. She is currently working at the BBC as a radio reporter, on issues ranging from sexual violence against aid workers, to reporting the importance of solar energy in Kenya.

Sitting amongst suited-up professionals and conference callers, we first asked Nicola why she had chosen a career in communications.

“I fell into it”, she confessed. “I never really knew what I wanted to do, but I knew I loved writing, I loved talking to people, learning about the world, travelling and all the things that come with that.”

Nicola had moved to Italy after obtaining her degree and found a job at the embassy, and had then steered her way up into diplomatic services. In just a couple of breath-taking months, she had moved from Italy, to London, Brussels and Istanbul. She openly spoke about how intimidated she had felt on a couple of her first jobs, recounting the times she would chair press conferences of over 70 people – which might echo a genuine horror story for some of us. And yet, she radiated confidence and warmth.

“I often had no guidance (…) but I would ask some select questions and go off and do it, and if no one said anything, great! No news, is good news.”

It was especially refreshing to see that she had built her confidence from within; with no prior guidance necessary. She had always navigated the best way she knew how, occasionally retracing her steps when criticised, but never keeping herself back in the absence of the apparent ‘thumbs up’. Referring specifically to age bands and expectations for postings (the ridiculous ‘you-must-have-10-more-years-experience-than-you-need’ type postings), she simply said “I tend to ignore that stuff…you’ll be fine, you learn!”

Of course, this didn’t mean she hadn’t been faced with adversity. She recounted a time at the start of her career, aged around 25, where she had been nervous to share a room with 60-year-old men, all speaking in Arabic-a language she did not know.

“One of them came up to me and said ‘oh hey, you’re probably the same age as my daughter!’ Whatever authority I had as a UK representative going in was immediately undermined.”

Nicola had also learned to grow from her mistakes, taking them as feedback.

“It’s actually kind of nice when someone says you’ve made mistakes (…) and I also like having a peer that I can benchmark myself with, somebody at my level so I’d more or less know how I was doing.”

She described one of her biggest mistakes early on in her career- and that story definitely wasn’t a let down: she had been working on EU sanctions policy to Syria, and spoken to journalists about the negotiations, specifying she should be attributed under “EU diplomat” as opposed to UK spokeswoman. It turns out they had ignored this attribution request, directly tying the quote to her, and hence to the UK government.

“I saw it come up on Reuters, and the Ambassador walked out into the corridor,” she said. Nicola had joined him, knowing full well this attribution could only be her, and knowing that everyone in Downing Street, at the Foreign Office and in Brussels would know as well. What she hadn’t expected, however, was for the UK government representative to tell her that the Syrian government had come back with a response to her directly, as UK spokeswoman. Whoops. Talk about a lesson learnt the hard way. From then on she had been extra careful emphasise the importance of attribution to journalists.

On the subject of working in male-dominated environments, she admitted it had been challenging. A general trend made apparent the fact some male colleagues would be consulted more often, and would stand brighter in the room in the eyes of her interlocutor or boss. She recounted several stories, wide-eyed to echo our disbelief. How to cope?

“I always try adapting to different people’s personalities and ways of being” Nicola said. “Sometimes you’re faced with really dogmatic people, and I’ve learned through the years (…) to call someone out very quickly, but patiently and calmly.”

Now this can be hard, and even counterintuitive for some of us; if you feel disrespected, why bother being diplomatic back? I certainly know my first response would not be very dignified in the heat of the moment. Yet Nicola’s point is crucial; if you adapt to different people while still calling them out, at the end of the day you’re being useful and constructively cooperative, while being respected at the same time.

She had taken a big leap going from communications to working as a free lance journalist, yet she described the experience as exhilarating, adding that she loved teaching herself new things.

It was refreshing to see someone so successful disregard competition, someone so experienced make mistakes, and for someone to be eager to learn and work outside her comfort zone.

“There’s loads of things that I’m still figuring out, and if I’m ever not learning, I want something to change.”

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nicola-kelly

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