Jan. 21, 2021

International Journalist to Crisis Communicator | Renee Kemp

International Journalist to Crisis Communicator | Renee Kemp

I did a lot of stories out of Africa. that changed how I look at myself, as a person who has one foot down, in Africa, where everything started, we're all mankind's, you know, originated, and then in this extraordinary place, called America. Where it's the land of opportunity. But it has been instructive to get to see up close and firsthand and talk to Africans all over that continent, South Western, southern and western Africa. It's been a real journey. And it has enhanced my ability as a journalist to again, look beyond today's story into how does this relate to a bigger context?
Renee Kemp 26:24

In this dialogue Michelle St Jane and Renee Kemp cover pausing during a pandemic, crisis communication for first responders, through to Renee’s experiences as an international journalist in Africa under apartheid.

Bullet Points

  • The Democratization of Journalism [Renee Kemp 4:14]  
  • Agility and diplomacy in Renee’s work [Renee Kemp 8:03]  
  • Setting up a TV station on the campus of a high school for junior journalist.  Hear more about the flow of opportunities [Renee Kemp 10:56]
  • Leaning into a legacy of leading and being led [Renee Kemp 11:46]

Knowledge Bomb

  • The Sullivan Principles designed by Reverend Leon Sullivan.  Doing business in South Africa during the apartheid boycott [Renee Kemp 14:04]
  • What does leadership look like after colonization and war [Renee Kemp 15:14-17:09]
  • What do you need to get into a journalism career [Renee Kemp 17:17-19:10]
  • How crisis communication and making the case training is a necessary skill for leadership [Renee Kemp 20:01]

About the Guest

Renee Kemp is an Emmy Award-winning television journalist and PBS radio talk show host in the San Francisco Bay area. She has been one of the is one of the freshest voices inquiring into the most difficult topics during her career. Renee’s focus over her 20+ year career has been producing and reporting on international issues with special focus on Africa. 

Renee served as General Manager of Bermuda’s first public television outlet at the request of the Island’s Premier. She currently acts as fill-in host for “Your Call” on San Francisco PBS radio station KALW.  

Her non-journalistic endeavors include providing media literacy training to corporate executives and first responders. Renee teaches courses in Crisis Communication at California Polytechnic Institute. 

CONTACT:  kemprenee.1@gmail.com

About the Show

Podcast Host: Life & Leadership: A Conscious Journey with Michelle St Jane

A podcast for Global and Re-Emerging Leadership creating a circle of influence, transcendency of compassionate leadership in the world and wider universe. A unique destination for learning about Leadership + Conscious Stewardship + Legacy.

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Michelle St Jane  0:01  

Welcome to Life and Leadership. I believe in creating community and actions and creating space to be curious. This podcast aims to take you on a conscious journey to quality diverse, innovative content in conversation. My hope is that we create a circle of influence, a transcendency of compassionate leadership in the world and Universe.


This is the moment for people of good conscience and for values to align. Renee Kemp, an Emmy Award-winning television journalist and PBS radio talk show host lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Renee, her focus for over 20+ year career has been on producing and reporting on international issues. With a special focus on Africa. She served as the general manager of Bermuda's first public television outlet at the request of the Island's Premier. Renee currently acts as fill-in host for “Your Call” on San Francisco PBS radio station KALW. Her non journalist endeavors include providing media literacy training to corporate executives, and first responders. She teaches courses on crisis communication at California Polytechnic Institute. 


Welcome, Renee. I appreciate you. You're a journalist who has a sense of objectivity. Thank you for all you bring to the world. Welcome to today's episode.  Renee Kemp is one of my favorite pioneers.  One of my heroes in the media space. Renee, welcome. I'd love for you to share with us what you wanted to be when you grow up?

Renee Kemp  1:51  

You know what, anytime I get a chance to look back on the formative years of my life it's a wonderful thing. What's the old saying an unexamined life is not worth living. And, you know, sometimes you get so caught up in the what's next, you forget to kind of look back and think about the things that make you who you are. 


I'm a product of the Midwest in the United States, you know, some of those flyover states in the middle. But having had a Midwest upbringing, I had a lot of exposure to a lot of different cultures. Specifically, I was born in Cleveland, northeastern Ohio. My parents migrated from Mississippi. They were literally sharecroppers.  They picked cotton. And that sounds so anachronistic, I know. But I feel like I've benefited from having one foot down in the rural south and all that that entails. Then the fact that they came North with 6 million African Americans who pretty much fled the southern United States to became part of the industrialization of the country. 


I grew up in the midst of people who were poles and Czechs and Lithuanians.  From all parts of eastern Europe in particular, that's kind of the makeup of northeastern Ohio. So it seemed perfectly normal to me to have friends who ate everything from balaclavas to borscht. I benefited from that. I think because even as a kid, I was pretty precocious, and had the idea that I would see the world and that being multilingual at some point would be important in my life. That has colored the decisions I've made all along. Including the decision to become a journalist. 


I'm certainly a child of television, you know, grew up on it weaned on it. My parents used to call the one-eyed monster. Well, it turns out television was such an influential medium that I'm so grateful to have created a career where I was able to impact, have influence. 


I've worked not only in my hometown of Cleveland, but in Pittsburgh, and then in Birmingham, Alabama, as a television reporter and anchor woman. Currently I am living in the San Francisco Bay Area and doing freelance documentary work. 


All of a sudden, in 2020, the world has shifted so fundamentally, that the whole idea of being a journalist is now dispersed. Anybody with a cell phone is now a journalist. I think that's a good thing. But I also wonder if the democratization of the process hasn't just served to create more silos for people to live in when it comes to the information that they take in and give out. 


My career as a journalist and documentarian has been so rewarding, but I also feel the earth move under my feet. I feel the sky tumbling down. It feels so challenging to be in the information business now given what's happening. in the world. 


That's my story. It's how I found my way to journalism. I'm now transitioning into doing live radio talk, which means taking off the journalists hat and putting on the editorialists hat. Which is a wonderful thing, too, because it gives me an opportunity to have an opinion for a change. It's a great time to be in the opinion business. Particularly in the bay area where people tend to be very well-read, are very erudite, very well written, very well-traveled. It's a career that's coming full circle in a lot of ways.

Michelle St Jane  5:40  

Sure has.  You've also gone global because you were here in Bermuda. You set us on the path to have public broadcast television as well. How did that come about?

Renee Kemp  5:52  

It was nothing that I had on my agenda. I was approached to be the general manager of an upstart television outlet in Bermuda. And it meant, again, that was the first time that I had actually taken off my journalists hat and decided to venture into the management of a television outlet.  Which meant, to some extent, working from the ground up. From build out. To hiring personnel. To deciding on programming. Dealing with the politics of a publicly funded outlet. And also, not coincidentally, in a country that had a parliamentary form of government. 


Coming from the US. I was accustomed to Democrats, Republicans, etc. There being a back and forth in terms of policy making and implementation. Whereas in Bermuda, the party in charge was indeed in charge. The party out of power were literally and figuratively speaking backbenchers. I learned that it gave the party in power an opportunity to actually enact the policies that they were hired to do by voters without interference from a minority party. Then if it worked, great, voters could bring them back. If it didn't work, then voters could vote them out. But at least they had the opportunity to enact without interference from a minority party. It was such an education. I waded into the politics of it. In that way, it was unfamiliar territory, but it was very, very valuable as well.

Michelle St Jane  7:43  

You demonstrated agility and diplomacy. Those were the skills that really stood out for me. What were the lessons learned? How would you speak to that in terms of the impact you had, as well as the influence, because this was the first of government TV wasn't it?

Renee Kemp  8:03  

Absolutely. And it was fashioned after public television in the US, specifically w QED in Pittsburgh, and I was approached to take on the general manager's job, because my former agent is the general manager, or was at the time, of WQED in Pittsburgh. That station had been asked for its help in just laying the foundation for CITV in Bermuda. 


This was unfamiliar territory, because it also meant I had to take on a leadership role and be responsible for outcomes. In my general day as a journalist, we would sit in the editorial meeting, we would pitch stories for the day. Once you had your story, then it was up to me to figure out the best way to tell that story. Because it was television, how to do that in pictures and words, and then to present it either at the end of the day or the end of the week, however long it took. Then once that story was told, start again, and become an instant expert on whatever the next issue was. 


The experience in Bermuda in a leadership role was an entirely different muscle group. There was accountability both up and down the chain. There were people looking to me for decisions. How money was to be spent? How it was to be allocated? What the priorities were to be? To figure out what would best serve the population. What kinds of programming? Then to be responsible up the chain because at the time, the station came in, under Premier. You know that made it intensely political. Obviously, then it is a project that is presented by a politician. Was I prepared for the politics of it? Not at all. But it was certainly a learning experience. I got to determine what is the best way to lead? And if I had to sum it up, I would say, the ability to have a vision and bring people along.

Michelle St Jane  10:30  

Absolutely. You are the epitome of leaning into a legacy. One of my highest values, of the top four values are future generations. The work I saw you do, I was just so proud to be connected with you and support this. 


Could you speak to your legacy leaning and future generations or the other impacts that you made that you were proud of?

Renee Kemp  10:56  

Yes, indeed, Well, it certainly helped that the station was physically located on the campus of a high school. Frankly, I thought it was quite visionary and it was a good idea to put it there. Because it literally created the opportunity for a flow of interns to come into the station. That was one of the first things I implemented. Not only because when you have a new station, you need bodies, you need things to get done everything from filing to shooting video and that was helpful for me. But it also helped to fulfill the vision that I had, which was always an ultimately, to do a handoff. It was never intended for me to come and stay. 


My mission was to come establish the station. Then create a succession plan. What was to come after me. And it was very helpful to see all those young faces every day It reminded me, what is the plan for the future of the station? What do you see it looking like 10 years, 20 years from now. A lot of the programming that I came up with was child-centered. We had a show where that was it was 'Kids Cooking.' And it was based on a friend from the Bay Area idea, who is a native Bermudian. She had started a Kids Cooking School. We ended up doing the show, shot the show where kids were preparing their own meals. We did their own newscast.  We call them Junior Journalists. They came up with their own ideas.  They shot their own video. Some of the segments that they came up with included things that were so specific to Bermuda. I learned so much from it.


One of the students proposed a kind of segment with a hidden camera. The student deliberately kept dropping her groceries outside of the grocery store. She wanted to see how long it would take for someone to come and help. Then we had an elderly person drop their groceries to see, Hmm, Will people stop and help? And it was interesting, I learned, as a big city lady from a big city in America, well, in Bermuda, of course, everybody stopped. If that's just how it is. People stop and they help each other and it didn't take long. In fact, people were scurrying after someone's cabbage as it rolled down the sidewalk. So you had two or three people helping you with the groceries. So it was a learning experience for me about the nature of the place where I was living. That was Bermuda, it's small, and people are related and intertwined in a way that I had not experienced before. So I was leading and being led all at the same time.

Michelle St Jane  13:58  

I see you have a special interest in Africa as well, what led you to that area?

Renee Kemp  14:04  

I started by covering a story with Reverend Leon Sullivan. He was a prominent clergyman out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was famous or infamous, depending on how you look at his legacy, for coming up with the so-called Sullivan principles. It was during the height of the apartheid push back movement in the US. He famously came up with a set of principles that would allow American companies to continue to do business in South Africa. Even in the midst of the boycott. Those principles included hiring practices, investment, non discrimination, etc. But because it was so controversial, it became an issue that black media in the US was very interested in covering. 


I got my first start by Covering Reverend Sullivan's forays into South Africa, and then every other year, the African American summit meetings that were held, mostly in Western Africa. 


From there, I began doing enterprise stories. Including covering the civil war in what was then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The stories became more and more topical. Frankly, much more dangerous, literally covering more zones and kind of flying in under the radar. You know, just kind of making Americans more aware of what was happening on that continent. 


Now looking back, I could see the changes that were coming, I could see that Africa with its natural and human resources, was going to again, as it had under colonialization, to be land and people that were fought over. 


I felt really like I was on the vanguard of covering those stories.  I also interviewed heads of state, at the time, Lansana Conte of Guinea, Gambia, Gabon, Cote d'Ivoire. I even interviewed Nelson Mandela. I also interviewed Jonas Savimbi.  People who would rightly be considered perhaps either freedom fighters, or despots, depending on on how you look at them. I got to see African Leadership up close. 

How they conducted their countries? 

What was happening in South Africa at the end of apartheid? 

Peace and reconciliation gatherings and what that looked like? 

What kind of leadership comes after colonialization and war? 

What that look like in a population? and 

How you get buy-in from people? 

So it was a precious time in my career, when I was covering those stories on a regular basis

Michelle St Jane  17:10  

That's a very powerful journey. What would you share with people looking to go into this type of arena?

Renee Kemp  17:17  

Well, you have to be nosy. You have to be the person who always just wants to know the why. And because we have been so much information at our fingertips. I've always felt that way even before we had Google and all of those other resources and Wikipedia at our fingertips. 


I've always been that library person.  I felt like I was probably born in a library. And so looking at the why of things, I find that everything is so immediate now that we almost never hear a predicate. What happened to get us here? And so you want to be the kind of person if you're interested in a journalism career, you want to understand why you're that person who wants to know, Okay, I understand what happened today. But what happened? There's data here. You got to be nosy. I mean, I'm, I'm the person who, when I'm sitting at someone's desk, interviewing them, if they have papers on the desk, I'm reading them upside down. Truth be told, I'm also the person. If you invite me to your house, I'm going in your medicine cabinet. Right? What can I say?

Michelle St Jane  18:33  

Just curious

Renee Kemp  18:38  

It's a natural instinct. And if you have it, journalism is such a, it's a wonderful career. I started out planning to be a lawyer. And they're very similar skills, quite frankly. That's my guess. You want to know the why as well. You know, being the person asks questions, listens well, and then looks for the antecedents, is something that is a skill set for either a good journalist, or a good lawyer.

Michelle St Jane  19:11  

This is true. And my super, super curious self has now got herself doing less discuss conversations on this podcast. 


Renee, you're also giving back.  Teaching courses at California Polytechnic Institute. Talking about crisis communication and the needs in the current day and age. What are your corporate executives needing? What are the tips? What are the learnings? Where do their skills needing improvement?

Renee Kemp  19:42  

Well, it's almost inevitable that Andy Warhol said, "there will be 15 minutes when the world will want to know what you think." And it happens to the average person more often than you might think. But it certainly happens to people in leadership roles. 


At Cal Poly, I teach crisis communication. So that you'll know what to do. When the media hoard shows up at your door, invariably, it's not because of something good. It's almost always something critical has happened.  You are the CEO of a major hospital, and you have an influx of COVID patients.  Or you have a proposition on the ballot in your city.  You're a mayor, and you need the funding, so that you can function and you've got to make the case. You've got to make it compelling, and explain to people why they will benefit from it. How do you communicate something as pedantic as that? How do you make it through the morass of information that people are constantly being bombarded with?


I teach the skills on how to get media attention when you need it, and how to deal with it when you'd rather not because there's some crisis happening in your organization. Even Japanese auto companies have come to us. I have my own company, when they can think nationally, and in that capacity, I do much the same thing. Just prepare companies and their executives, for what to do when the media shows up at your door.

Michelle St Jane  21:24  

That's an invaluable skill, because I quite agree with you, you never know when your 15 minutes of fame are gonna be upon you and how you're going to deal with it.  Whether you're going to be a Guppy in the, in the face of all these cameras, or you're going to impart some wisdom. Which you do so beautifully. 


My gracious meeting going back to these amazing freedom fighters or despots that you've met. Who really stood out for you?

Renee Kemp  21:54  

Actually, Reverend Sullivan stood out. I hadn't thought about him in years. It's interesting that he came to mind so readily, because he was a very, very controversial character. And it meant that he took a lot of criticism from the African American community, who saw him as a sellout. If you're saying, You're giving these companies, Coca Cola, Standard Oil, if you're giving these companies a way to stay in South Africa, you're a sellout. He said, we have got to find a way for these companies to remain because if they leave, then their influence is lost. Let's give them a way to be a positive influence in the environment. I watched him do what it was like shuttle diplomacy.  He almost felt like a secretary of state, so to speak. He would bring sides together. I watched him cry, in some cases, what he felt that he wasn't getting through, he would weep. 


Reverend Sullivan was in his early 80s, even then, and his daughter accompanied him. He was preparing her to take over when he was finished. I watched the exhilaration. When you can see that year over year, more and more people started to attend these African American summits.


I saw him bring African Americans to the continent. How important that was, in the bigger picture, he had a bigger picture, vision. There were groups of African Americans who came for the first time to the continent. They would get off of the plane and get down on their knees and kiss the tarmac. Understand that they had come full circle in this from being taken from the continent to returning and coming as investors and as Imagineers. So surprising myself, I'll say, Leon Sullivan might have been the most interesting character.

Michelle St Jane  24:06  

Wow, thank you, Rene. I just really appreciate your contribution to the world. Your impact, your influence. As someone who has been an Emmy Award-winning television journalist, was that early in your career? What did you take away from that?

Renee Kemp  24:24  

Well, the first Emmy was for doing a story about the AIDS epidemic in Africa and the extent to which some of the same challenges are happening in the African American community around the AIDS crisis.  I interviewed actor Danny Glover, whose brother had died of AIDS. At the time when the, a word was scarcely being mentioned. When it's still carried with them into the stigma.  I also interviewed the US Surgeon General who was David Satcher. An American who had a particular take on it. I interviewed them on the continent. Then came back to the states and just discussed how disease is just one more thing that creates a bifurcated experience in America. 


It's presenting itself again in COVID-19. The disproportionate impact of everything. You've heard the phrase, when America gets a cold, African Americans get pneumonia. It's been interesting to look at stories spanning the African continent, and what's happening there. Whether it's outsized influence from former colonial countries that plunge those nations into debt, that is so unwieldy that decades and decades later, they're still fighting to get out from under debt. Does that sound familiar in everyday poor African Americans lives debt. The ability to move through the world, unencumbered, it's minimized. The, that was the first EMMY that I won. 


I did a lot of stories out of Africa.  that changed how I look at myself, as a person who has one foot down, in Africa, where everything started, we're all mankind's, you know, originated, and then in this extraordinary place, called America. Where it's the land of opportunity. But it has been instructive to get to see up close and firsthand and talk to Africans all over that continent, South Western, southern and western Africa. It's been a real journey. And it has enhanced my ability as a journalist to again, look beyond today's story into how does this relate to a bigger context?

Michelle St Jane  27:18  

That is such an important contribution.  We don't get here alone. We don't live here alone. And as you said, everything is interconnected, absolutely interconnected. You make a huge contribution to that space. Any last words, before we wrap up?

Renee Kemp  27:38  

I have just been so grateful, Michelle, that you and I reconnected.  We had such provocative conversations over coffee and tea and lunch and sitting in the park.  I think that some of the things that we talked about whether it's philanthropy, or stewardship, or social imagineering or the environment. How to influence, futurize yourself. All of those conversations that I found so valuable over the years. I continue to mold them, and try to fold them into my daily decision making. 


I'm wishing you so well, with the podcast, because I think that to the extent that each one of us on this planet, each and every one of us, if we do that kind of work, that type of personal, mental and spiritual work are bound to have an outsized influence. Our one little life can have an outsized influence. That's the challenge I take, and it's the one that I offer.

Michelle St Jane  28:49  

Thank you, Renee. I definitely am very aware of my digital footprint and my digital exhaust. The fact that every podcast I've put out there as is up for perpetuity and in the hopes of creating an archive of wisdom, and the opportunity to have these less discussed conversations around leadership. If we don't start with leaders, I'm not sure what we're gonna do.  Leaders are leading as examples for future generations. I am making a clarion call for visionary leadership to step up.  The only way I know how to do that is to step up and do the best I can by leading by example,

Renee Kemp  29:30  

Cheers to you.

Michelle St Jane  29:31  

Thanks for Renee. As a student of meaningful leadership in the world, and wider cosmos, I have a passion for service through sharing wisdom, faith, and hope. Thank you for the opportunity to foster open conversation, discussions and an exchange of ideas that create understanding and connection among diverse groups. 

Your support is very you'd like to subscribe, leave a review and a rating. More importantly, share with your connections. Thank you


Reach out.  I am interested, do you have a topic you'd like to explore? It would be great to have your feedback.

Dr. Michelle St Jane

Podcast Host: Life & Leadership: A Conscious Journey 

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Renee Kemp

International Journalist & Crisis Communicator

Renee Kemp is an Emmy Award-winning television journalist and PBS radio talk show host in the San Francisco Bay area. She has been one of the is one of the freshest voices inquiring into the most difficult topics during her career. Renee’s focus over her 20+ year career has been producing and reporting on international issues with special focus on Africa.
Renee served as General Manager of Bermuda’s first public television outlet at the request of the Island’s Premier. She currently acts as fill-in host for “Your Call” on San Francisco PBS radio station KALW.
Her non-journalistic endeavors include providing media literacy training to corporate executives and first responders. Renee teaches courses in Crisis Communication at California Polytechnic Institute.