Advice from the Media | Toby Harnden
1) Describe your typical workday in 140 characters or less.
No day typical. Longest recent day when Boston bomber caught. Out reporting on grnd all week. Started writing 10pm. Filed 5,100 words by 9am
2) What’s the best pitch you’ve ever received?
I am instinctively suspicious of PR pitches so best ones are probably approaches I never knew were pitches. I’ve been invited to go fishing using hand grenades with the French Foreign Legion. That’s quite attractive.
3) The greatest words of wisdom an editor ever gave you?
Always go there. It’s obvious but so many reporters these days use email as a crutch or don’t go to an event because it will be on TV or they’ll get a transcript. Early on in my career, in Northern Ireland, whenever there was a bombing or shooting I’d go, whatever the time of day or night. It was always worth it – I’d get a different angle or I’d meet a potential contact. It astonished me how many reporters were lazy. Along the same lines – always make the call. You never know whether or not the person will speak to you. But if you don’t try, then you can be sure they won’t.
4) If there was one thing you could tell every PR practitioner, what would it be?
The worst type of PR is the art of stopping journalists speaking to the people they really want to speak to. Be confident about your people and the story they have to tell. Don’t shield them from journalists. Also, do some basic research into the journalist if you are making a pitch to them. Be precise and targeted – a scatter-gun or blast email approach just wastes everyone’s time. Also, never lie.
5) What’s your craziest or most interesting newsroom story?
I remember R.Barry O’Brien, a veteran Telegraph reporter, extracting a murder confession out of man who had killed his wife by pushing her down the stairs. The rest of us were filing our copy on deadline on a Friday night. It was a relentless cross-examination at full volume. I’d only been a reporter for a year and I was rapt. Barry had done something the police had apparently been unable to do. Generally, though, the best stories are from outside the newsroom. I suppose that getting arrested and imprisoned in Zimbabwe is among them for me. The Battle of Fallujah in November 2004 had its moment. I am also rather proud of having put Alligator, Mississippi on the map when I decided to turn off the main road and drive there simply because the name sounded interesting.
6) What sets your page apart from the competition?
I believe The Sunday Times combines the best of the US journalistic tradition – fairness, accuracy, seriousness, depth – with British flair, attitude, ability to engage the reader, strong news sense and great writing. I don’t pretend to achieve that every week but I strive to.
7) Any shameless self-promotion you want to add?
I love news but to a large extent my real love is long-form writing. I’ve written two books, Bandit Country, about the IRA heartland of South Armagh, and Dead Men Risen, about a British battle group in Iraq. I’m also currently working on an hour-long BBC Panorama documentary about PTSD and suicide, the first time I’ve presented a TV programme.