Rhonda Powell on News vs. Entertainment
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Here are some highlights of my interview with Rhonda Powell:
I’m a coach-style general counsel, here for direction and support, and ready to congratulate you when you hit your home run.
When you combine [entertainment, news, and opinion] together, it is important for the audience to be able to discern what they’re experiencing.
I try to be fully present at work [to] give myself the opportunity to be fully present at home.
It’s incredibly encouraging [to see the] increased willingness and ability of women and men to speak out on issues of sexual harassment in the workplace.
The hyper-sexualization of black women in American history is a big issue that leads to the feeling that an allegation of sexual harassment will not be believed.
I want young lawyers to understand that they are so important to our desired outcomes in this country and in the world.
I would encourage [new lawyers] to be forthright and steadfast in those things that they desire to achieve, to set about doing that and not to be afraid to ask for help.
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Hi listeners, this is Chris Batz, your host of the Law Firm Leadership podcast. Season one is about to wrap up. Thank you to everyone who has made this season so fun and informative. Thank you, legal executives. Thank you, listeners. Speaking of legal executives, today I have the pleasure of speaking with the general counsel of BuzzFeed. She is no stranger to the media industry and sensitive subjects. We discussed her new role, the Me Too Movement, the notion of fake news, and mentoring young people. Lots of takeaways for everyone in this episode.
Just a reminder, the PDF transcript of this audio is available to download. Go to LionGroupRecruiting.com/podcast.
As many of you know, we interview corporate defense, law firm leaders, partners, general counsel, and legal consultants. You’re listening to episode twenty-nine of the Law Firm Leadership podcast.
Chris: Welcome to the Law Firm Leadership podcast. I’m your host, Chris Batz, with the Lion Group. Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Rhonda Powell, general counsel of BuzzFeed. Rhonda is no stranger to media and entertainment law. Prior to BuzzFeed, she was the chief legal officer of Complex Media. She also worked in several roles for 12 years at Scripps Networks Interactive, which included leading of support team for Food Network and Cooking Channel. She started her career in corporate transactions at LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, and Proskauer Rose and received her JD from Michigan Law School. Welcome, Rhonda to the Law Firm Leadership podcast. It’s great to have you on the show.
Rhonda: Thank you so much, Chris. It’s really, really exciting to be here, looking forward to speaking with you.
Chris: Rhonda, you just made a recent move from Complex to BuzzFeed. What led you to that transition?
Rhonda: It was the opportunity to be at a company that really epitomizes what should and could happen on the digital platform. BuzzFeed’s reach and connection, particularly with a younger generation of news consumers and content consumers was very intriguing.
Chris: Can you share your role as general counsel and your management style as you lead a legal team?
Rhonda: My management style is fairly hands-off. I’m very interested in not just getting the work done, but in how the work gets done and how I can enable my team to get their work done and also to follow up and follow through on any personal and developmental goals they have while they do it. I’m more of a coach-style general counsel, where I’m there if needed to provide direction and support, but I’m not going to be the person who’s with you while you’re at the plate trying to hit your home run. You can go and hit your home run and I’ll congratulate you when you’re done.
News vs. Entertainment
Chris: Earlier, we talked about the notion of news versus entertainment when it comes to the issue of fake news. Can you elaborate for us?
Rhonda: The conflation of news and entertainment is, in some ways, a byproduct of things that have happened across media generally, not necessarily involving news per se. If you look at reality television, the use of something that purports to be someone’s real life experience, when we know that it has been curated for television, has created some confusion in the marketplace about what’s real and what’s not.
The same sort of thing applies when you’re looking at it from a news angle. You have pure, factual reporting, but then you have this mix of reporting and opinion and sometimes entertainment as well. You’re getting some very directed opinion, especially if you watch the Sunday morning talking head shows. Then, you have some that are sort of like puff pieces or they’re straight-out entertainment.
When you combine those things together, it is important for the audience to be able to discern what they’re experiencing and when they’re experiencing it. When that becomes unclear, you leave yourself susceptible to some fake news allegations. But it’s really not fake news. It may be opinion. As long as it’s opinion in opinion’s clothing, there’s nothing fake about it. There may be entertainment, but as long as it’s entertainment in entertainment’s clothing, there’s nothing fake about it.
It has given an opportunity for those who want to go after news organizations or individual people, to make allegations about fake news, but I think at the root of it all, it’s not fake news but a labeling issue. Most news organizations get it right.
Being Fully Present in Life
Chris: You mentioned, “work/life balance” are words you don’t care for. Can you share your perspective?
Rhonda: The words work/life balance create pressure and a standard that’s impossible to live up to. As a salaried professional, you cannot view your life effectively, in terms of work/life balance, if you mean that you’re devoting a certain number of hours per day or per week to your work and the rest to your life or vice versa. It’s not realistic and can cause anxiety.
I look at things from the perspective of being fully present with what I’m doing. I try to be fully present at work and give myself the opportunity to be fully present at home. The reason that’s so important to me is, in most cases, when folks are discussing work/life balance, they begin with things like working from home, alternative arrangements and what not. That can create more anxiety than it solves if the thing that you think will help you achieve work/life balance is taking work home with you.
I look to balance myself is through this concept of being fully present. I take vacations very seriously. If I or someone on my team is on vacation, we make it a point to not contact that person with business matters unless it is absolutely positively necessary.
For myself, I have a ranking hierarchy on communications. If I’m on vacation and someone has an emergency, then they know to call me because I will always answer my cellphone, even on vacation. If it’s something that’s particularly important, but they want me to know, they email me because I will check emails generally, but I don’t necessarily respond. I’m really only going to respond and take my attention to urgent things.
I model that for my team, both here at Buzzfeed and in previous roles I’ve had. I hope that my team feels capable to do that under my leadership. It’s a reason I feel very strongly about having interoperable teams so people can cover for one another, so when someone takes a vacation, it truly is a vacation.
Me Too Movement & Open Communication in the Work Place
Chris: With some major trends that have been happening because of incidents occurring with Harvey Weinstein and then many of the movements that have followed him, would you share the reality of you being a woman of color in a professional environment that’s mostly white males?
Rhonda: I am incredibly encouraged by the increased willingness and ability of women to speak out on issues of sexual harassment in the workplace and men, quite frankly. This is not something completely confined to women and we’ve learned about men who have experienced issues of sexual harassment in the workplace, but I will say that it is an area in which women dominate in terms of the number of victims. I’m very encouraged by that.
I do very firmly believe that women of color under report this type of behavior. I think that is because many of the women who step forward, number one, are fairly powerful women in their own right. The second, I don’t think women of color feel there’s a safe space. There are assumptions made about women of color, black women in particular, that operate and militate against coming forward and making this type of allegation.
One is very historical. The hyper-sexualization of black women in American history is a big issue. Right or wrong, coming forward with an allegation of sexual harassment sparks in a lot of black women the feeling that they will not be believed. Another piece of it is that in corporate America, even though you do see much greater success in terms of women moving into executive level positions, when you look at black women, the same level of success has not been had. There are fewer people to step forward and provide that visual for other women of color to support them and hold their hand through this process.
It’s not to say that white women who have stepped forward are completely irrelevant, but we all know the influence and power of having someone who looks like you do or say something. Until that happens with greater frequency, we will have underreporting amongst women of color.
Chris: Do you think what happened with the Kavanaugh hearings should have happened the way it did?
Rhonda: I was aghast at the Kavanaugh hearings but not surprised because we have the Anita Hill model for what happened there. Though I would say the outward behavior might have been modestly improved, the outcome and the inferences were the same.
If the victim, in that case, had behaved in the same way as Judge Kavanaugh behaved, she would have been run out of the hearing room. She would have been portrayed as a hysterical type of person who could not be relied upon for any sort of factual information, that maybe she was hallucinating, this was all in her head. Instead, you had this very composed, though clearly shaken, doctor sharing her story with an incredible level of detail and presenting that to a group of – I believe with the exception of maybe one – entirely white men and still being treated with such disregard. It was very, very, very disturbing to me.
Chris: Rhonda, what advice would you give to create a culture that allows people to talk about these things?
Rhonda: Communication and the ability to have open communication is key. That’s true from a preventative standpoint and from an addressing matters that come up standpoint. It’s all about your communication with men and women.
One of the things I am very concerned about is this feeling of backlash that men are encountering that’s causing them to withdraw from full participation in organizations. They do not want to put themselves in situations with peers, subordinates or even their bosses for fear that something they say or do will be misconstrued. There has been some conflation of a remark that was mislaid, misinterpreted or even inappropriate in the context being aligned with the behavior of Harvey Weinstein. Clearly, these are not the same thing. When we engage in that conflation, we start to get into dangerous territory and undermine the cohesiveness and community that we’re trying to create.
It’s so much about talking. At BuzzFeed, our HR department does an excellent job of making conversations happen. I hope that in my group I’m doing a good job of making conversations happen and not only conversations about what constitutes and doesn’t constitute sexual harassment. I mean just conversation, getting to know and understand your peers, your direct reports and your bosses.
That is what really lays the groundwork for eliminating some of what has happened in the past because when you actually know someone and feel you can have a genuine conversation with them, you’re less likely to either misinterpret something that they say that might be errant or you’re more likely to call them on something that they say or do that might be misinterpreted or errant and feel comfortable doing it.
I’m very encouraged by the generation behind us because they are comfortable saying more, sharing more and being assertive. It’s interesting because we’ve studied so much about how social media and technology can be detrimental to building a social contract, but in some ways, it has helped because folks now communicate to one another immediately. You get immediate feedback, for better or for worse, on whatever it is you’ve said or done, which helps you understand where you can or cannot go. If they’re bringing that immediate feedback into the work world, it may stave off the more egregious abuses that have happened in the past.
The Positive Side of Social Media & Paying it Forward
Chris: Rhonda, let’s talk about the trends that you’re seeing for children or kids and them stepping into their authentic selves.
Rhonda: Absolutely. I do think there is much greater empathy and sympathy for those who were formally thought of as being on the outside looking in and marginalized. I think that’s because social media creates a larger universe and allows you to find like-minded folks who are not in your high school, living next door to you, etc. While there is a clear downside to technology and social media and a lot of time has been spent talking about bullying, which does happen with disastrous effect on social media, the opposite is also true. Social media has enabled folks who were otherwise felt to be sort of left out the social contract to be brought in.
The evolution of United States society continues to be one that goes towards inclusion, one that respects and welcomes diversity. I don’t think we’ve lost that. I think if you look at younger generations in the country you’ll see that we demonstrably have not lost that.
My daughter goes to a school where there are not very many African American children. There are not many Latino children either. However, I would say that her experience has been one of building bridges, developing understanding. It is really encouraging to see her flourish there and be able to be a participant in her life and watch her success. My boys both go to the local public high school, which is much more diverse than my daughter’s school, but, again, their friendship groups are very diverse. There’s no isolation of any kind. I’m looking forward to this being the model with which we see our world.
Chris: Rhonda, let’s talk a little bit about your love to mentor.
Rhonda: Absolutely. I love mentoring, period. I’ve mentored high school student, college students, law students, and lawyers. I think it’s important for those of us in the legal profession to reach out, particularly to people of color, who are interested in the legal profession but not exclusively so, and help our new lawyers or soon to be lawyers to understand the power of the undertaking in which they’re engaged.
I say the power because of understanding, not just laws themselves, but the process of legal evaluation. Learning the law and learning about how the law is applied and how to effectuate change of whatever type through the use and observation of law is like learning another language. You develop a much different and much deeper understanding when you study the laws of this country and what undergirds this society.
The review of the law helps you understand how your society operates and why it operates in that certain way, what it prioritizes and what it does not. It also helps you understand how groups of people are differentiated amongst and why certain situations may be perpetuated throughout history. Your laws set in place a system that militates in favor of whatever that legal status quo is. If you want to change that legal status quo, it is a tremendous and almost endless undertaking to do so.
We’ve observed some really amazing efforts that have resulted in a very, very deep change in the way that this country does things, but it’s not easy. I want young lawyers to understand that they are so important to our desired outcomes in this country and in the world, quite frankly.
Confidence at a Young Age
Chris: Rhonda, can I ask you what formable experiences you took to where you are now?
Rhonda: My sixth-grade teacher told me at the beginning of the year that she felt that I should be valedictorian of the class. At that time, I was a very good student, but not the top student in the class. There was something about what she saw in me that made her make this statement.
I took that up as a challenge. I worked really hard and at the end of the year, I was valedictorian of my sixth-grade class. That was an incredible experience for me. It enabled me to have confidence and security in the fact that the things I set my mind to; I could do. It was at the heart of why I chose a lot on my path, why I went to Harvard and felt comfortable that I was going to succeed there even coming out of a public school that was described in many areas as an inner city school in Mount Vernon, New York, but, nonetheless, a school that routinely sent kids to Harvard.
I also attribute a lot to my father, who had a limitless amount of support for me in everything that I tried to do, whether it was trying out for the football team and he said, “Go for it, kid,” although that did not end well. There was no limit. I don’t have a recollection of ever being told, “No, you can’t.” That’s unique. I was so fortunate. I don’t take it for granted. I make sure that my kids understand there is nothing that you can’t do. There are only things that you don’t know how to do and things you don’t want to do. It’s not you can’t do.
Family Life & Reading Recommendations
Chris: Rhonda, share about your family life?
Rhonda: I enjoy just hanging out with my kids and husband. We are a fun family, although, I would say that my husband is sort of the comedian and I’m still more of the coach.
My kids are very warm and very caring. If there is one thing that I have striven for that has manifested itself in spades, I have children who care about the world around them and the people within it uniformly. I attribute their easy-going nature to their dad, but I say the hard-driving piece about fairness and justice for all comes from mom, even though my husband works for the National Labor Relations Board and advocates on behalf of individuals on a daily basis and has achieved some amazing impact in his career as well.
Chris: What sources of reading would you recommend for my readers to follow up on?
Rhonda: Definitely read BuzzFeed news articles. I also recommend balance. I like light-hearted things as well, so I will read everything from Metropolitan Diary and The New York Times. I read some of our fun listicle and quiz content on BuzzFeed. I do New York Times crossword puzzles compulsively. I absolutely love them. It allows me to get out of my own head and just do something for fun. I like to read about real estate. Then I love to read what I call beach novels too, things like The Shopaholic series or all of the Bridget Jones books.
I also read books my kids are reading while they’re reading them because they are often books that I read before, but haven’t read in 20 – 35 years. It’s amazing what you bring when you’ve had life experience behind reading them. Some of the books that they’re reading are serious, like The Plague, The Bluest Eye, but I really enjoy reading with them and understanding how they’re experiencing that book as a young person and then reflecting my experience the first time I read it versus my experience now. I spent some time reading my daughter’s American history book a couple of years ago and was amazed how I still connected with the book and the conversations my daughter and I had around it.
Chris: Rhonda, I know you have some history in nonprofit leadership. What are you involved in right now and why?
Rhonda: Sure. I’m on two nonprofit boards. I’m on the board of Power My Learning, which is an organization that has developed a proprietary technology that allows for communication through a website and application for parents, teachers and students to work together on academic issues and to improve overall student performance at school so that is an amazing organization, just a very, very forward-looking organization that has its program in several schools in the New York area and around the country.
The other is Food and Finance High School, which is a public high school here in New York City that has a full culinary program in addition to its academic program. It prepares students for culinary or culinary adjacent careers while also preparing them for a standard college experience as well. These students emerge from the school able to really take their own direction, whether it’s a four-year college, two-year college, culinary school, or straight to the world of work with their Food Handler, ServSafe, and other relevant licenses.
It sets them up well and it couples with instruction on finance, particularly for those who are interested in culinary careers that may involve either restaurant management or opening their own culinary related business. It’s a tremendous high school, where the graduation rate is well above the New York City average with students who have won awards in culinary competitions that have enabled them to go to quite elite schools, including The Culinary Institute of America.
Advice for Minority Attorneys
Chris: Last question, what advice would you give minority attorneys entering the workforce?
Rhonda: I would advise them to reach out to seasoned attorneys, both within your chosen area of development and in other areas. I would encourage them to be forthright and steadfast in those things that they desire to achieve and to set about doing that and not to be afraid to ask for help. All of us who have succeeded have succeeded because we’ve had mentors and supporters and advocates and no one does it alone. I certainly didn’t do it alone. I could run with the people both of color and not, who have supported me at every single step along the way of my career. I am eternally grateful to each and every one of them. In return for that, I try to do the same for others.
Chris: Rhonda, it’s been an honor and a pleasure. Thank you for your time today.
Rhonda: Thank you so much, Chris. It’s been wonderful.
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