'Humour is a powerful tool for persuading people' - Grilled with Ayesha Hazarika

Ayesha Hazarika is a broadcaster, journalist, political commentator, author, stand-up comedian and former Labour adviser.

'Good PRs are intuitive,' says Hazarika (photo by Steve Ullathorne)
'Good PRs are intuitive,' says Hazarika (photo by Steve Ullathorne)

In your early career you worked in PR at the Department of Trade & Industry. How did you get into PR and how would you describe the experience?

I fell into political PR a bit by accident – I really wanted to work in journalism but couldn’t get an ‘in’. I’d moved from Scotland to Hull to study law, then did a postgrad in London, in broadcast journalism and politics. I applied to tonnes of places in politics and didn’t even get an interview.

I joined the Ministry of Agriculture press office as an admin assistant because I desperately needed a job. But I loved being in the Civil Service and became a press officer, and ended up working at the Home Office, Downing Street and the Department of Trade and Industry. I found working in political comms fascinating because it was the interface between what the government was doing and working with journalists.

Describe your typical day.

I have a portfolio career, so no two days are the same. Today [for] example… I got up at 5am [and] wrote my column for the Evening Standard. With my comedy hat on, I then did an interview on Today, on whether the BBC is biased in favour of left-wing comedy. I was then interviewed on Times Radio looking ahead to Prime Minister’s Questions; as a political adviser I used to advise PMs on PMQs and I’ve written a book on it called Punch and Judy Politics. I’m also a presenter on Times Radio – my show is from 4-7pm every Saturday and Sunday – so I prep for that during the week. I later watched PMQs, then went to speak at a socially distanced event with a women’s leadership group called Pipeline.

How big a problem is lack of ethnic diversity in the media?

It is a problem and it is real. I don’t think it’s very fair from a moral point of view to deny talented people the opportunity to be part of a really vibrant and creative sector. There’s a representative democratic deficit. The media should, of course, reflect the stories in our society with integrity and authenticity. I am dismayed by the lack of diversity in newsrooms, both print and in broadcast. There are hardly any Black or Brown faces in senior management roles. In those meetings where you’re having a debate about shaping programmes, there aren’t those voices – that applies to ethnic diversity, class and gender.

What makes a great PR?

Somebody who is energetic and takes the time to get to know what you need as a journalist – what you’re covering, what your product is. The massive mistake is when PRs send stories that don’t even fit the mould of what I’m working on. Good PRs are intuitive and think about what you’re looking for. If you’re an editor or have a show like mine, if you’re trying to find content – producers, presenters and writers like me are always looking for good content – push at an open door; package it and make it easy for us. The worst thing is to pitch when you have no idea what the programme sounds like or the page looks like.

Which individual or organisation is best at handling PR, in your view?

I love what Yorkshire Tea has done recently – savvy, fresh, and it’s interesting seeing corporates not shy away from social issues. It has been courageous and done it with humour. As an individual, Nicola Sturgeon has handled her political comms brilliantly. I may not agree with her on everything, but her comms style is impressive; she inspires confidence by being clear and visible.

... and which is the worst?

We’ve seen a lot of political leaders failing during COVID-19, and comms has been a huge part of it. …Where they have been ego-led, unwilling to be questioned, making no effort to answer a question – it’s testing people’s patience.

Are the skills of a comedian better suited to PR or journalism?

To politics right now. Being a comedian gives you transferable skills. You have to be a self-starter, you have to take risks. Humour is a powerful tool for persuading people.

More articles from the BME special edition:

'Making PR anti-racist' - PRWeek spotlights BME comms pros in special edition

'I’ve started a new chapter and I don’t want to go back' - Chuka Umunna on Edelman, ESG, purpose and politics

'Being different is an advantage' - Preena Gadher, Riot Communications

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