The woman behind some of the biggest scandals in America is about to become a TV show. ABC’s Scandal chronicles the adventures of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) as she pulls political, corporate, and celebrity clients out of hot water. Premiering April 5, the show is the latest from Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers, the Emmy-winning executive producers of Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice.
The inspiration for Scandal is Judy Smith, one of the nation’s top crisis managers, who has guided the likes of President George H.W. Bush, NFL quarterback Michael Vick, Monica Lewinsky, injured Enron parties, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia through times of trouble.
Lest you think you have to be a head of state or sleeping with one to engage her services, Smith has distilled her 25 years of experience into a practical advice book for folks from all business levels wanting to avoid or recover from public or private crises. Good Self, Bad Self: Transforming Your Worst Qualities into Your Biggest Assets (Free Press/Simon & Schuster) outlines seven shared character traits—ego, denial, fear, ambition, accommodation, patience, and indulgence—that lead to trouble when out of balance, and how to recalibrate them when they do.
Smith’s approach blends an unusual combination of business practicality, political savvy, legal prowess, psychology, dry humor, intuition, and Zen mastery. Her main requirement for clients: Own your stuff.
“Most people somehow look at people in the crisis industry as fixers, but some things can’t be fixed by an outside person,” Smith tells Co.Create. “There has to be some honest discussion and owning your mistake. There’s always an opportunity with crisis. Just as it forces an individual to look inside himself, it forces a company to reexamine its policies and practices.”
While maintaining an overall message of redemption, crisis recovery has to be niche-targeted to different audiences affected or angered by the missteps. “My theory on an existing crisis is that you have to be very strategic about each case’s unique elements,” she says. “If a crisis involves a legal component, you need a communication strategy that complements the company’s legal objective. A strategy for a plea deal is different than a case going to trial. The interests of shareholders are different than those of the general public.”
Smith’s background includes a combination of corporate communications, law, and politics. She served as an attorney in the Office of the Independent Counsel, where she worked on the Iran-Contra prosecution of Oliver North; prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., where she was involved in the prosecution of then-D.C. Mayor Marion Barry for drug possession; and as White House deputy press secretary for George H.W. Bush, before setting up her own D.C.-based crisis management firm, Smith & Company. She’s also counseled Fortune 500 companies, the Haitian, Zimbabwean, and Saudi Arabian governments, NBA player Kobe Bryant, and the United Nations Foundation’s and World Health Organization’s response to the SARS epidemic.
With all this, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that a 15-minute meeting that Smith’s book agent arranged with TV producers Rhimes and Beers stretched to three hours, followed by another 18 months of fleshing out stories for a series.
“We didn’t take actual cases that Judy has worked on because she’s very loyal to her clients and and keeps their confidentiality,” Rhimes said during a Television Critics Association press conference earlier this year. "But I would call her up and say, 'What if I have this conservative soldier who is secretly gay who just won a Congressional Medal of Honor? What would you do in this instance?' Then she would tell me, 'Here’s how I would solve this problem.' It got to be really fun because you could call her up and say, 'A madam’s been arrested, and she’s got a client list. What would you do?' And then Judy tells us how you solve the problem. And that’s been a fascinating and amazing resource for us.”
For her part, Smith is just as tickled by the ride. “It’s been a humbling experience,” she says. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and crisis is in my DNA. I love what I do, and to be able to see a show that is inspired by my life’s work is exciting, because it exposes people to what a crisis manager does. You never know what the day will bring. At 10, I could be working on a corporate product recall; at noon, a class-action lawsuit; and by 4, a CEO resignation. It really is a 24/7 kind of job.”
And now, advice on a scandal, from Judy Smith
Entrepreneurs are just as prone to crises as corporations. Here are a few general steps that individuals and businesses can take to avoid a crisis, and successfully emerge from one.
1) Acknowledge your weaknesses Carefully weigh getting involved in things in which you lack expertise.
2) Know your industry’s weaknesses Certain crises are likely to happen in given industries—like recalls for consumer products. Prepare an advance game plan and a solid execution strategy for these potential mishaps.
3) Maintain good internal communication Some issues and problems can be sorted out before they reach a crisis level.
4) Have a plan of attack If you or your company fall into a crisis, own up to your issues and face the reality of your situation, be honest and transparent, act decisively to begin to remedy the situation, and have in place a strategy to rehabilitate the brand.