Journalist Soledad O’Brien on the importance of sharing authentic stories, making DEI a business imperative, and why we need leaders who stand by their values

headshot of Soledad O’Brien

Soledad O’Brien is a documentarian, journalist, producer, speaker, author, and philanthropist. She is also an advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the media and across industries. At Deloitte’s second annual Chief DEI Officer Forum in June 2023, O’Brien told attendees, "DEI is not about being a good person or doing a favor for a community. It's about sound business strategies, to get market share, to be able to recruit the best."

Throughout her 35-year career, O’Brien has been a frequent reporter and analyst for breaking news stories, natural disasters, and election coverage and has anchored shows on several major networks, including NBC, MSNBC, and CNN, where she also created the In America documentary series Black in America and Latino in America.

O’Brien is the CEO of Soledad O’Brien Productions, a multi-platform media production company dedicated to telling empowering and authentic stories on a range of social issues. She currently anchors and produces the political magazine program Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien.

In this interview, O’Brien shares her perspective on the power and potential of authentic storytelling and getting to the truth in media, what strategies she has seen work in addressing DEI issues, including why she thinks sponsorship is an often-overlooked impact strategy in achieving DEI goals, and the importance of organizations and leaders rising to the challenge of centering and sticking to their values.

Through your award-winning journalism and documentaries, you have focused on telling true, authentic, and often untold stories. What do you see as the value and power of storytelling, and why is it important?

I think we're at a moment in time where people are challenging the truth. One of the things I've loved about doing documentaries, from the very first one I did at CNN, is the idea of being able to really do a deep dive into what actually happened.

For example, our most recent documentary is The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Some people thought that Rosa Parks was this little, frail old lady who was just too tired to give up her seat, but when you start examining the record, Rosa Parks was a hardcore activist her entire life. She was very aggressive in her fight to push back against white supremacy. The idea of this old lady who was too tired to get up, which is a story that I believed, that I learned in middle school, is absolutely inaccurate. As we were doing the research for the documentary, we found that she kept telling reporters at the time that she wasn't any more tired than any other day, but that she was tired of being pushed around —but many didn’t want to hear her because this narrative was so strong.

So I love the opportunity in documentaries to investigate the real truth, wherever it takes us, and share the stories of what really happened and what is the actual narrative. I have found that to be very, very powerful, and I think it can often be inspiring for people. I'm not a believer in Pollyanna-ish stories, like, “Oh, doesn't this make us all feel good?” I want to know the truth because I think it's the truth that you can learn from. That has been my strategy around reporting documentaries.

One of the things Rosa Parks used to do as a secretary for the NAACP was take testimony from Black women who had been raped, even though there was little chance that their stories would ever be adjudicated. And yet Rosa Parks would get on a bus, go to the middle of nowhere, and sit down and say, “We need to know your story; tell me what happened.” When there's little chance of anybody caring about your version of the story, and yet somebody sits there and says, “It's important, we have to write it down. What happened?” I find a lot of meaning and courage in documentaries like that. I think people can learn a lot when real, true stories are told versus stories that make us feel comfortable and happy.

You've worked for and closely with a variety of media outlets and mediums over the years. How do you view the role and responsibility of the media in terms of addressing social justice and DEI issues?

I believe we have to evolve from seeing DEI as “good to do” to actually being a business imperative, just like any other business imperative in an organization. Sometimes people think that figuring out how to center diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging is so complicated, but in a lot of ways it's very much like anything else you do to run a business.

Sometimes people think that figuring out how to center diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging is so complicated, but in a lot of ways it's very much like anything else you do to run a business.

You measure it, you track it, you decide what your goals are, and at the end of the year you look and see, did we hit the goals or did we miss the goals? It's not as complicated as I think sometimes people believe.

I think the media industry has to decide to care and to make sure the higher ups care. If the boss cares, if the boss holds people accountable, if the boss decides, “This is important to me,” then everyone will realize that this is important, and it goes on your list of things that have to get done. And I think news organizations, and media generally, just have to decide what those milestones are that they're trying to hit, and then come up with a plan to get there. It really is not much different than any goal you're trying to hit in a big organization.

What are your thoughts on the importance of mentorship and allyship in terms of DEI in the workplace today?

I think it's mentorship, allyship, and sponsorship. Mentorship is important—having somebody who takes an interest in being helpful to you and your career is amazing. But allyship and sponsorship are a step further. They're more tangible. To me, mentors are like people who are in your corner. Allies are speaking up for you when you're not there. Sponsors are literally saying, “I believe this person can do it,” when you're not in the room. I think the difference is, in mentorship, you're in the room with your mentor. In allyship and in sponsorship, you're not necessarily in the room. And you need people to speak up on your behalf when you’re not there.

When it comes to DEI, it is the action that happens in the rooms you're not in, where people are trying to decide, “Do you think she can anchor this show? Do you think she should be able to have this next job? We need someone for prime time. Can she do it?”. You need someone in the room who's going to say, “Listen, I am telling you, yes, she can.” And if you lack that person, there's a pretty good chance you're not going to get the opportunity. I have always loved thinking beyond mentorship, which I think is great and important to do, but mentorship is more of a strategist role.

I have always loved thinking beyond mentorship. Allyship and sponsorship are often the behind-the-scenes powers. And anybody who works in a business knows that's actually where things can happen.

It’s “I'm going to help you, but you might not have any power behind the scenes.” Allyship and sponsorship are often the behind-the-scenes power. And anybody who works in a business knows that's actually where things can happen.

What have you seen organizations do that has helped improve DEI?

I moderated a talk for all employees of a big insurance company, and they gave their Black employees, of whom they had very few, an opportunity to talk about their lives in an open conference in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. There was this big Black man, a very high-ranking, highly compensated executive, and he told this story, he said, “I'm known for being very friendly.” He's one of those guys that when you meet him, you love him. He knows all the security guards; he knows all the people who are cleaning. He's that guy. He said, “One of the reasons I'm so friendly to the security guards is, I know that one day I'm going to come in and I'm not going to be in a suit and tie, and I'm going to need all these people to vouch for me being here.”

That had a big impact on his White colleagues. He was saying, “That is me. Do you understand that if I come in here in sweats, because I've left something in my office and I have to go grab it, I don't know how I'm going to be treated? I'm friendly because I need to be able to say, ‘Bob, the guy who's sweeping knows me. Susie, the security woman knows me.’” And that was shocking to people. I think it was the first time for a lot of his colleagues to understand what corporate life is like. I thought that was a very effective way to have conversations in the wake of the killing of George Floyd that actually had an impact on people where they began to kind of get it, as opposed to, “That happened in another state, that happened to a guy we don't know. It happened to a guy who, frankly, would never be walking through our offices here, so what does that have to do with me?” I thought that was very well done.

How would you describe what you've learned about leadership over the years? And what type of leaders or leadership attributes do you think we most need now?

The thing that I've learned about leadership over 35 years of covering disasters is that leadership can come from a lot of places. And often there are people who are the official leaders, and you would just see them crumble; they just couldn't manage it. At the end of the day, sometimes the biggest talkers are actually terrible leaders. For me, I think a lot of leadership is just about really caring about the people who work for you and really trying to understand, “How do we forge a path forward?” And listening. I think the leaders who successfully navigated their way through the pandemic, which was stressful in every single way, were really listening to people and listening to their employees.

Right on top of that was the murder of George Floyd. And some people said, “We're a bank, we're a retail store, this has nothing to do with us.” But I think some people in leadership understood. They got it. They felt that the people who worked for them were hurting and they needed to figure it out. They needed to have conversations. I think good leaders can pivot, and then really figure out how to listen to the people who work for them so that they can help them go in a better direction.

I’m optimistic because I have personally seen that more people are measuring it. We are so much farther along than 1987 when I started working in TV news where nobody cared, nobody was measuring, nobody thought it was important.

What do you think it will take to really create a more equitable world? Are you optimistic?

I do think it is very possible to create an equitable world. We're trending toward that. If you look back 200 years to where we are today, the news is good, the trend lines are going in the right direction. At the end of the day, for me, for people who run businesses, you measure what matters. I think the minute you find yourself not just caring about it but measuring it and tracking it, it's important. I am optimistic for those organizations, and it's a growing number that actually have decided to track it and hold people accountable to the goals they're trying to get to.

I’m optimistic because I have personally seen that more people are measuring it. We are so much farther along than 1987 when I started working in TV news where nobody cared, nobody was measuring, nobody thought it was important.

It's frustrating because it's certainly not fast, but I think those conversations have changed a lot. It's slower than I would like, but I'm absolutely optimistic.

This article was written by Marianne Schnall, a widely published journalist, author, and contracted Deloitte writer.

This article is part of an ongoing series of interviews. The individual’s participation in this article is solely for educational purposes based on their knowledge of the subject and the views expressed by them are solely their own. This article should not be deemed or construed to be for the purpose of soliciting business for any of the companies mentioned, nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse the services or products provided by these companies.

This publication contains general information only and Deloitte is not, by means of this publication, rendering accounting, business, financial, investment, legal, tax, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such professional advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified professional advisor.

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