Nicola Kelly


What do you do as an International Communications Advisor?

The primary focus of my role is consulting overseas teams on their communications outputs. I work in 44 countries around the world, developing communications plans, media engagement work, helping different teams to set up digital channels and providing advice remotely. I also visit those countries to provide communications training; next week I will be in Burkina Faso, then on to Senegal.

The second part of my role involves overseeing communications for a programme funded by the UK Government. I work with BBC Media Action and Internews and various other media organisations to train journalists in order to improve their written and oral communications.

Separately, I have been doing some freelance journalism, making short audio documentaries. I recently did some work on sexual violence in Northern Burmaand I am planning another story around arts initiatives in Senegal for disaffected young people. I will be interviewing street artists, rappers, spoken word poets and various other sources there. I’m very keen to develop my production and reporting skills.

You spent about four years working for the UK government, starting as a strategic campaign officer for the Foreign Office.

Yes, my first role at the Foreign Office was focused almost entirely around Iran; first on the nuclear programme, then on human rights. I led a big human rights campaign in the lead up to International Women's Day, working with prominent Iranian women based in the UK, such as Shami Chakrabarti and Camila Batmanghelidjh.  I also worked with the The Speed Sisters in the West Bank, a group of Palestinian race car drivers. 

There's quite a strong trend in your career in that you've done quite a bit of work with the Middle East and women's rights. Is that a choice or is that by chance?

My strong interest is in the Middle East, particularly Syria. In Brussels, I was almost entirely focused on the Arab Spring. Now that I'm working in international development, women’s rights are one of the key priorities for DfID, so I spend a lot of time on that.

Let's go back to the Foreign Office. How did you join? Were you a contractor? Were you a civil servant?

I was one of the lucky ones who didn't have to take exams to get in. Immediately before that I was working for a consultancy, Weber Shandwick, and I went to a lunchtime talk with a guy from the FCO. I approached him afterwards and he suggested we meet for coffee. That resulted in a short-term contract. Once I got in, I spent a lot of time meeting people from different teams, asking questions, shadowing and gaining different experience. A lot came from that one coffee!

You've got to be brave. It pays off.

Definitely. Don't be afraid to ask questions and ask for advice. I think, in general, people like being asked for advice; it’s something I continue to do. Being proactive often leads to great opportunities.

Before becoming a full time foreign office employee, you worked on Downing Street for a really short period of time. I wanted to talk specifically about your work on bilateral visits.  Take us behind the scenes... 

The first thing will be meeting with your planning team. That will include the events team, who manage all the logistics for the Prime Minister and any other Ministers that might be involved. As a Press Officer, I supported them to develop the itinerary and factor in photo opportunities and big set pieces, such as press conferences. I may also need to liaise with my counterparts at foreign services overseas and other government departments in London, such as the Home Office, to discuss and agree their expectations for the visit.

I would then begin to anticipate questions from the media, update press lines and scripts and draft Q&A documents for the Prime Minister.

I also looked after some of the logistical planning on the media side. Making sure journalists and camera crews can get through security. Ensuring they have all the information they need about international pools for stills and moving pictures. Coordinating the Prime Minister's entrance and exit. Essentially, I would act as the first point of contact for media handling before, during and after the visit.

Then after that you moved to Brussels. What were you doing there?

I began by working on domestic policy – environmental and employment law, predominantly. About four months in to that role, my boss left and moved to Downing Street and I ended up covering the foreign affairs, development and defence brief as Deputy Spokesperson.

On a day-to-day basis, I managed around 60 journalists, primarily British, but also from other EU Member States. I briefed them on the UK’s position on key pieces of EU legislation, ensuring I kept them regularly updated as negotiations progressed. I was in regular contact with my counterparts for the other Member States, within the European Commission, the European Parliament, the External Action Service and across European capitals.

The second part of my role involved providing media handling advice to the Foreign Secretary, Ministers, Ambassadors and senior officials. I prepared written and oral briefing, chaired press conferences and coordinated interviews.

That role was certainly the most dynamic, challenging position I’ve had so far in my career. I learnt a huge amount and worked with very talented people.

Why did you leave Brussels?

Towards the end of my time in Brussels I was travelling a lot with the Foreign Secretary around Europe. What started as a Brussels-based job had then become a Europe Press Advisor role.

The media interest in Libya had moved on to Syria. I built up a lot of contacts within Europe but also within the Middle East from working on those stories, which resulted in a job as the Media Advisor to the Syrian National Coalition in Istanbul, working with the moderate Syrian opposition.

The objective of the job was to professionalise the profile of the National Coalition in the lead-up to the Geneva II negotiations. I prepared a communications strategy and organised media training so that spokespersons could interview on-camera and come across as a cohesive, coherent body at the negotiations. This continues to be a struggle for the team of consultants working with the Coalition, but we certainly made some solid progress.

Did you enjoy your work with Syria?

Yes, I really did enjoy it. The content of the work was intellectually stimulating, my Syrian and Lebanese team were fantastic and I loved learning more about the regional dynamics. It was quite an intense role, but I felt personally and professionally invested in it and I continue to work on these issues from London.

You studied French and English at Exeter University. Do you find it useful in what you do now?

I do, yes. At the moment, I'm preparing for trips to Burkina Faso and Senegal, so I will be interviewing in French. I’m also learning Arabic, slowly but surely! I’m always keen to improve and I would encourage anyone interested in an international career to learn languages. They are an invaluable skill. 

If you were giving advice to say a young girl sitting her secondary school exams who would like to do something similar to what you've done so far, what would you say?

Being proactive and enthusiastic is vital in this competitive marketplace. Being yourself and remaining down-to-earth is also very important.

Try lots of different things. Speak to people. Ask for advice. Go for coffees, lunches, after work drinks. Read broadly. Travel. Whatever you’re passionate about, give it a go; you never know what could come from one coffee or email.

What's the hardest challenge you've ever tackled?

Working in the Middle East was a challenge as a young woman, particularly one who was just starting out learning Arabic. Coming up against linguistic and cultural barriers can be quite tricky, but from those experiences, you learn to assert yourself, navigate different environments and turn obstacles into great opportunities. 

What are you most proud of in your career?

Dealing with cases where I have really understood what's at the core of the story is when I have felt most proud of the results. The story that jumps to mind is a consular case of a British family who were murdered in the French Alps in September 2012.

I was in Cyprus with the Foreign Secretary on an informal visit. I was called and asked to go to Annecy to handle the media for that story. Instead of dealing with Ministers and high-level policy, I was dealing with human emotion, getting to know the family involved and helping to support them through some of the most dreadful days of their lives. I remain in contact with them and I very much hope they get the clear answers they deserve in the near future. 

What's a mistake you've learned most from?

Where I have taken a wrong turn, I have learned it is possible to get back on-track by taking a step away and reassessing. Those setbacks and obstacles are when I have learnt some of the most valuable lessons. 

Nicola Kelly | International Communications Advisor

Eight years' experience

CV in brief

Studied BA in English and French at the University of Exeter

Previously worked as Media Relations at The Home Office | Media Advisor to the Syrian National Coalition at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) | Deputy Spokesperson in Brussels for the FCO | Press Office at 10 Downing Street | Strategic Campaigns Officer at the FCO | Account Executive at Weber Shandwick

Find her online @mllenicolakelly | LinkedIn | Soundcloud

Languages spoken English, French, Arabic

Inspired by Nicola's interview? Take a look at these related career opportunities at the Home OfficeForeign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Weber Shandwick

Exclusive Skype interview 15 January 2016

  Providing a comment at the G8 summit

Providing a comment at the G8 summit

"I guess the Middle East has become a strong personal interest as well as a strong professional interest just based on the way my career has gone and the big headline stories that have emerged."
  Visit to meet conflict-affected communities and internally-displaced people living in refugee camps in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar

Visit to meet conflict-affected communities and internally-displaced people living in refugee camps in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar

  Delivering media training in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to local teams from Oxfam, BBC Media Action, Action Aid and the Met Office

Delivering media training in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to local teams from Oxfam, BBC Media Action, Action Aid and the Met Office

"I work with about 44 different teams all over the world. I tend to do things more in the strategic communications side - things like helping them with communications plans, the big events, helping set up digital channels and advising."
  Doorstep with Foreign Secretary

Doorstep with Foreign Secretary

"... I just worked hard and was eventually interviewed and offered the job in Brussels. I got in permanently through diplomatic service just going up and having a chat with somebody, really."