If there ever was a trailblazer, it’s NBC News Correspondent Kelly O’Donnell, who today is the first woman to receive the Career Achievement Award for Distinguished Reporting on Congress from the Radio and Television Correspondents Association. Having spent 25 years at NBC News covering everything from Capitol Hill to the White House, along with high-profile races and high-stakes issues including immigration and gun rights, Kelly has claimed a front-row seat to history. Here, Kelly shares her story along with some practical advice to help navigate this fast-moving, reactive world.
What has led you to where you are today?
After graduating from Northwestern and a start in local news, I've spent more than 25 years at NBC News working in Los Angeles, New York, stints in Denver and London before reaching our Washington bureau. My work has taken me to all 50 states and 56 countries. I am grateful that so many different experiences and assignments across the country and around the world enhanced my knowledge and perspective before I was able to apply those to covering politics in Washington.
What pivotal moment throughout your career most stands out in your mind?
"I felt the impact of all of that energy and emotion as I reported that news."
It’s hard to choose just one, but more recently I recall the weight of the moment when I broke the news that Hillary Clinton had conceded the presidential race in a phone call to Donald Trump. That one act, steeped in the history of campaigns, is riveting because it so captures a final and consequential point when a long, costly and emotional campaign journey for the country ends. The concession call brings peak emotions to each side. I felt the impact of all of that energy and emotion as I reported that news. I could feel the giant page turning.
What do you see as the major opportunities and challenges for women today?
It’s important for women journalists of each generation to take time to learn about the sacrifices, boundaries and barriers that the women who came before us faced, endured and surpassed. Few things in life are new and a connection to the story of our own career field and the women who paved the way is important.
What advice or tips can you share?
"Opinions and advocacy may be on trend at times but it’s not the foundation of what we do."
One bit of advice: actively practice your ability to separate your own opinions and emotions from the stories you cover. Developing the skills and instincts that result in fair-minded coverage takes thoughtful effort. Opinions and advocacy may be on trend at times but it’s not the foundation of what we do.
A simple tip: label all your stuff. In busy workspaces, file centers, hotels and the like, I have left behind too many essentials but I have also had fantastic moments when someone returned my missing phone or charging cable because it had my name on it. Kindergarten rules can pay off.
How has the role of a reporter changed for women in her 25 years?
The good news for women is that more opportunity exists with more expectation that a work-family balance is possible and even expected. One challenge for young women is that faster success and opportunity can come with the risk that bumps in the road are more visible and costly.
Who has helped you in your journey and how have they shaped your thinking?
Beyond supportive family and close friends, special colleagues over the years have always lifted me and helped me find my way through the rough patches. Television is a team sport and the collaboration involved has always pushed me to be better and made the ride more fun.
How do you think about and approach work-life integration?
Being honest with yourself about what is realistic. After 25 years at the network, I still work weekends and holidays frequently. That is the nature of the work and accepting that makes for a much happier experience. Prioritize those family and personal events that are most important and be there but most everything else falls behind the demands of work. It’s all about expectations.
Knowing what you know today, what one thing would you have done differently early in your career?
I wish I had started a journal of my experiences. That would be a treasure now. I have scripts, photos and mementos to help me remember but a personal narrative would mean so much.
If you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, money or talent would be no object, what would you be doing?
If only I could be a time traveler so I could move back and forward across time to see how things all got started and how they work out.