Crisis 101 from the Real Olivia Pope – Judy Smith

January 21, 2015


Last night, I had the privilege of attending a great Andreessen Horowitz event featuring Judy Smith, the real-life inspiration for one of my favorite television shows – Scandal. If you’re in PR, the show’s lead character, Olivia Pope, likely tops your list of superheroes. 

As introduced by Ben Horowitz, Judy is the “world’s greatest crisis manager. If you’re ever in trouble, Judy is the person to call.” Judy’s firm has advised such notable people as Monica Lewinsky, NFL quarterback Michael Vick, and Sony Pictures Entertainment after their 2014 cyber attack.

Based on the conversation, I can certainly say that Judy is every bit as wise and confident as Kerry Washington’s character, if not more.  And for all you fans of the show, the real life Harrison was also in the audience. 

Here are a few of my key takeaways from Judy’s Q&A with Ben:

Crisis management is a developed skill: Calm, cool and collected isn’t just a talking point. Your client needs to feel this from you from the first moment they talk to you. Also be prepared to not only defend your strategy, but have 4-5 examples of people or companies that chose an alternative route and what happened.

There is an opportunity that comes from crisis: Judy shared a story about how she and her childhood friend got into many scuffles trying to play peacemaker on the playground (crisis management starts when you’re young folks!). In this case, her opportunity was signing up for karate lessons and earning her black belt – there’s always a silver lining even if it isn’t clear at the time the crisis hits.

Your strength often ends up being the thing that gets you in to trouble: If you have a client where this is the case try pointing out the things that led them to this point. They need to recognize the weakness in the strength so they can watch for it moving forward.

Only take on clients you can help: As Judy said, some things just aren’t fixable, and when that’s the case it’s in everyone’s best interest to pass on working together. When asked about clients that don’t share the whole truth, Judy also noted, “you can’t help people if they don’t tell the truth. You can’t plan a winning strategy if you don’t have the facts. When you first meet a client facts can be ‘evolving.’ A lot of time crisis work is like a chess game, you want to anticipate moves.” By telling the truth, you can frame the narrative vs. reacting to it.

Be authentic: “When you screw up you have to own that. Be authentic. People can smell the BS. You have to really mean it.” Judy mentioned she doesn’t like to script or write statements; she asks the client “what would you want to say?” That’s where you start.

Trust your gut: A consistent theme on Scandal is Olivia trusting her gut. For example, Judy said she likes to understand, from either an individual or a corporation, what will be the outcome of her help. Will the client make changes so they don’t go down a repeat path? She joked that while repeat business is good for the bottom line, you want to know that your help is resulting in a change for the better. Your gut will guide you to this answer. 

Social media has changed crisis management: According to Judy, “Social media has given the individual so much power. We used to say get out in front of it. Now you have to catch up with it, and insert your position. Stories move with lightening speed. Make sure you assess how you want to respond and what you want to say and when. Otherwise, you are left behind.”

One of my favorite stories of the night had to do with the topic of loyalty. Judy worked for President Bush on his re-election campaign. When all signs pointed towards a loss, other members of the team immediately began looking for other jobs. Judy commented that when she commits, she gives 120 percent and then some, and never took her eye off the ball or thought about what’s next. Out of his respect for her loyalty, the President spoke highly of Judy to several of his contacts in the business sector. In less than a week, Judy received calls from seven Fortune 100 CEOs, each offering her a position at their company. I really connected with this story, as loyalty is a quality I highly admire in our own team.

On a personal note, it was great to say hello to Ben and the Andreessen Horowitz team. I started my PR career working on Opsware and it was so much fun to be at an event featuring the best in the PR biz hosted by one of my first clients. One of the night’s best audience reactions came from a question to Ben about who he would want to play him on TV. In true Ben fashion, the response…Drake!



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