Harriet has built a career working for household brands in media and technology, including CNN International, BBC Worldwide (now BBC Studios), Freeview and FutureLearn, the UK’s first platform for free online courses from UK and international universities. She is currently Head of Communications at the PA Media Group, the parent company of PA Media (formerly the Press Association), the national news agency for the UK and Ireland.
She oversees all aspects of communications for the news agency, the overall Group and the individual specialist media companies within the portfolio.
Harriet started out at Nelson Bostock, working on accounts like Freeview and the telecommunications company, Arqiva, at the cusp of the digital switchover in the UK. This sparked an interest in broadcast and the evolving media sector. She went freelance after a couple of years to focus on those sectors, beginning with projects for the Chrysalis Group’s radio brands at The Media Foundry.
An in-house role at CNN International followed, which involved publicising the channel’s digital products and working with on-air talent like Christiane Amanpour and Richard Quest. She then moved to the commercial arm of the BBC, working across its international channel portfolio and the Global BBC iPlayer.
Harriet took a three-year break from the media industry to join the tech start-up, FutureLearn. After executing its public launch, she helped to grow its learner base to almost two million across 196 countries before being tempted back to media to work for some of the industry’s finest journalists at PA.
● Describe yourself/your background in 5 words max?
Frustrated carpenter of Ghanaian extraction
● How did you get into PR/communications?
By walking away from a law degree. Till that point, I had followed the path encouraged by my parents and secured a place at Bristol University to study Law. (My childhood dream of becoming a carpenter had been knocked on the head several years before.) I finally rebelled during the summer before my first term, withdrew from the course and applied to UCL to study my first love, English Literature.
Upon graduating, I had no career plan, just the knowledge that I wanted my job to involve some kind of advocacy. PR fit the bill and I got myself a work placement at Borkowski PR.
● What do you love about your job?
The fact that I work for people and brands that I respect. At its heart, our profession is about making something or someone else look good, and we all know how easy it is to resent the time spent working on a client you don’t particularly care for. It is gratifying to know that everything that comes out of PA’s newsroom is of importance to someone, somewhere, and I get to support the people who dedicate themselves to delivering the news.
● What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of having always followed my gut and taking calculated risks that paid off. I was warned against studying English Literature because it offered no clear career path. The idea of voluntarily going freelance after a couple of years in PR was also met with horror by my peers. The term “career-suicide” was used more than once. The choice to enter the higher education sector when I had built up so much equity in media was also baffling to some.
But by pursuing areas that I was genuinely interested in, I have had fun along the way and re-energised my career when I’ve needed to.
● What’s been the hardest lesson to learn?
That sometimes your best PR counsel will fall on deaf ears and all you can do is adapt your plans to mitigate the fallout.
● Who are your favourite people in PR and why?
Tessa Matchett was my last manager at the BBC and one of life’s great straight talkers. I learnt from her the power of a simple message.
Susanna Flood, who hired me to my first in-house role at CNN International, is one of the most formidable women I’ve ever come across, in PR or elsewhere. She remains a friend and a sounding board – if I can’t convince Susanna of an idea, it’s time to rethink my approach.
● What skill do you think every PR has to nail?
How to pitch to media. I wince every time I hear a PR excoriated by one of PA’s news editors because they have phoned the desk to sell in a story in the middle of a breaking news event. Take time to identify the specialist correspondent or regional reporter who will be most interested in your story and cultivate a relationship.
● What is your favourite social network and why?
I find LinkedIn the most useful. People in the news industry move around so much that it’s a good way to keep track.
● What’s your favourite podcast and why?
It’s an obvious one given my background, but The Media Show on Radio 4.
● Who is your favourite journalist and why?
I’m on dangerous ground here, given that I work for a news agency. However, I have a lot of respect for Amelia Gentleman’s work on The Guardian, particularly her campaign to expose the injustices faced by the Windrush generation.
● What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Feel the fear and do it anyway. That’s not to suggest anyone should play fast and loose with a client campaign, though!
● Biggest PR campaign fail and yay of 2019?
Jaguar Land Rover’s emotive ‘Dear Dorothy’ campaign to mark the 70th anniversary of Land Rover was pretty special. It’s hard to inspire that type of sentiment for a car.
April Fools’ campaigns are a tough one to get right and in 2019, the British Transport Police’s joke fell a bit flat. By announcing a £2000 fine for eating smelly food on public transport, they had people asking whether they didn’t have anything better to do, which is exactly the wrong impression you want to have of a police force.
● Finally, on the D’ word… What can the sector do to encourage diversity?
We should make more effort to target job ads at the groups we want to attract. A large part of what we do involves directing the right message at the right audience, so there’s no reason we can’t apply the same thinking to recruitment. If a particular client or brand would benefit from a diverse range of perspectives, then position and target roles at those groups.
Harriet is one of 18 mentors for the 2020 BME PR Pros/PRWeek Mentoring Scheme. Applications for mentees are now open – click here to find out more. The closing date for applications is Friday 14 February 2020.