Poppy Harlow On Breaking Your Breaking Point
August 26, 2021
Poppy Harlow is an Emmy nominated journalist and an anchor in the CNN Newsroom. Based in New York City, Harlow is also a correspondent for CNN, covering breaking news and reporting features and investigative stories.

Harlow covers major international business events and has interviewed the heads of the world’s largest organizations and countless other luminaries. Harlow’s reporting has won numerous industry awards, including the Gracie Award for Best online investigative feature on financial fraud and SABEW’s Best in Business award for online video. In this interview, she shares tips for conducting powerful interviews and why it’s good to take a leap of faith and break your breaking points.

You've interviewed numerous CEOs and business leaders, what are your thoughts on driving gender and racial diversity in upper management and how have your conversations with leaders changed over the last year as a result of the BLM protests?

Well, let me say, first of all, I’m glad things are moving and changing. Not quickly enough but there is change and continued discussion and continued movement. When I started as a business correspondent more than a decade ago, it was mainly all men. If I was interviewing CEOs of major companies, which is what I started out doing, they were generally men. Not just men, almost all white men.

It’s also such a good question. Before any CEO interviews, my producer or I will look into their company’s diversity statistics. What’s important is not just what percentage of the company is diverse but specifically how many of the employees are black. Because they often don’t break that out - the numbers are grouped together. But that’s not enough. It’s about leadership as well. Are the top jobs represented proportionally with black leaders? That’s what we often find is not the case compared to the American population.

It's a pressing question all leaders need to keep answering. And it’s incumbent on us as journalists to keep asking it. “You said a year ago that you were going to make meaningful change at your company, in terms of elevating black voices and black leaders. Here we are a year later. Why don’t your numbers reflect that?” The pressure needs to stay on.

What is the most challenging part of being a woman in on-air journalism?

I have never thought of it in those terms - as being a woman in on-air journalism. I have thought of it as 'what is the most challenging part of being a journalist'. I will grant you that I do have to sit in makeup a lot longer than my male counterparts, that’s for sure, and pick out dresses etc. But the reality is that all of us journalists face the same challenge: you have to be on your toes all the time. You have to stay ready because anything could happen.

One of the big challenges now is how do we best convey a story when people get their news from so many other sources? I think that the unique ability of CNN to be everywhere at all times, especially when it’s needed most, is something that live television brings. It really can’t be replaced with all of these other mediums. But we definitely face the challenge of meeting our audience where they are. That’s part of why I’m so excited about launching CNN plus; it is another way to reach people with our journalism.

Some of the best advice I've ever been given is you can ask anything with a smile.

How do you approach asking the tough questions?

I’m armed with the facts. Most of my job is not on the air. It’s off the air. It’s about reading and preparing and anticipating questions. Anticipating, based on watching past interviews and knowing: “If I ask this, they will answer with X, Y, or Z. And if they answer with X, Y, or Z, what is my response to them going to be? What is the pushback?” Reading what they’ve said before helps you anticipate what they are going to say in the future.

In a tough interview, people will try to dodge questions and not answer you at all. You have to be ready to hold them to account in a polite, considerate way. There’s no point or value in a screaming match.

Some of the best advice I've ever been given is you can ask anything with a smile. And I think it’s true. It doesn’t necessarily mean a literal smile but that there is a way of asking the toughest questions without making someone feel attacked. Because when someone feels attacked, they’re going to clam up. But if they feel comfortable, then they might not.

Who is your favorite person you’ve interviewed? And why?

It’s not the answer you might be expecting. Some of my interviewees are people whose names you don’t know—for example, the people of Detroit. I spent a lot of time in Detroit to report on the city’s economic collapse during the financial crisis and the ensuing bankruptcy. I interviewed a lot of people and tried to convey the hardship of the really hard-working, decent, dedicated people living there and what they were going through. The stories they shared with us touched me deeply. It wasn’t famous people, no big names, but really caring individuals who do their best and give their all.

Do you have any tips for speaking on camera?

You don’t have to yell into the microphone. It’s right below your mouth. Talk to us, like you’re talking to the person sitting next to you or someone you’re having dinner with. And then try to get out of your head. This is what I tell the young women that I mentor. Get out of your head and into the head and the person sitting on their couch at home watching. The less you think about yourself on TV, the better.

You recently announced a hiatus from CNN to study law. What was the reason for the pivot?

Oh my gosh, my crazy leap of faith. My colleague, Brian Stelter, wrote a really great piece this week about my decision to get a masters in law. But I’ll tell you; the original desire came from my father. My dad was an intellectual properties lawyer and taught me to love the law. I would sit with him as a little girl at the kitchen table, like four or five years old, and he would bring home a camera or a printer and take it apart on the table. And I was like, “Dad, what are you doing?” And he would say, “Poppy, this is where they infringed on the patent. This is why we’re going to trial.” He died when I was 15, so part of this is trying to follow in his footsteps.

Frankly, the other part is a deep desire to learn more about these issues we cover every day. In the last five years, we’ve covered huge constitutional issues. I want a deeper knowledge of constitutional law and criminal law, which is a lot of what we cover. That’s what this Yale course offers. It was built for journalists. Law school is about taking a beat so I can learn. I’m definitely not becoming a lawyer!

As a vehicle for learning, mistakes are so much better than success.

What mistakes have you made during your career? And what did you learn from them?

Oh, I’ve made so many mistakes during my career. You’re right to ask what I learned. As a vehicle for learning, mistakes are so much better than success. Before becoming a parent, I had unrealistic expectations of people at work. I would think to myself, “Well, why can’t they have a meeting at six o’clock at night?” I didn’t understand that. Now I do. Now I don’t want anyone asking me to have a meeting at six o’clock at night. I want to be home with my kids. I used to expect and demand of everyone else what I expected of myself. However, we are all in such different life circumstances, and it’s just not okay.

To complete that lesson is Maya Angelou’s quote, “At the end of the day, people won’t remember what you said or did, they remember how you made them feel.” It’s not all about what you do or accomplish, what you present on TV, or the best piece you’ve done. It’s really about how you leave people feeling. I got a lot of nice emails from people after this announcement about school saying I inspired them, listened to them, made them feel heard - and that was the nicest compliment they could give me.

Final question, to what do you attribute your success and who helped you along the way?

Everyone helped me. Just about every single person at CNN. Jeff Zucker, the head of CNN has been such a guiding light in my career. He’s the first one who made me an anchor. He gave me the weekend evening show, then the weekday morning show, and now letting me pursue this extraordinary adventure while keeping me at CNN. I mean, I could never repay him for everything he’s done and for believing in me.

My husband has done a ton for me. Not only has he been a sounding board for me, he’s also given me really candid advice. There are also two mentors, Larry Kramer, who used to run CBS MarketWatch where I had my first news internship; and Andrew Hayward, who used to run CBS News. Those are ones who got really involved and helped guide me.

This has been really wonderful. Thank you so much.

I’ll leave you with one thing, when I was talking about this decision to study law, I heard this commercial that said, “find your breaking point and then break it.” And I was like, “Alright, well, I think I found my breaking point, and I’m going to break it.”



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