Real ‘fixer’ behind ‘Scandal’ steps into spotlight
When actress Kerry Washington was preparing for her role as Olivia Pope, the high-octane Beltway “fixer” on the new ABC series “Scandal,” one of the first things she did was launch a Google search for Judy Smith, the real-life crisis consultant on whose professional life the series is based. Washington was somewhat perplexed by how little came up on the D.C. insider who had navigated through some of the thorniest public relations challenges of the past 20 years on behalf of her clients, including Monica Lewinsky, former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig and NFL quarterback Michael Vick, to name a few. There were no interviews and rarely even media mention of the public relations powerhouse.
“That told me a lot of what I needed to know about how she did her job so well, which was to be invisible and make things happen quietly,” says Washington.
Discreet, sometimes downright stealthy, Smith has built her reputation and business, Smith and Co., into a powerhouse full-service crisis management and communications firm by operating in the shadows of the events and people whose public relations nightmares she navigates. Maintaining a low-profile is essential in her trade. Through discretion, strategic thinking and an unwavering belief (in most cases) in the power of redemption, even for those whose bad behaviors have escalated way beyond normal human transgressions, Smith has racked up an impressive clientele.
But as of late, Smith finds herself in a place she has spent her professional life avoiding: the spotlight. “Scandal” premiered earlier this month, and its ratings are holding steady (last week’s episode brought in 7.2 million viewers overall, according to Nielsen.) She is also promoting “Good Self, Bad Self: Transforming Your Worst Qualities Into Your Biggest Assets,” a look at handling crises of all kinds. “I tried to peel the onion back a little,” says Smith. And with a co-executive producer credit on “Scandal,” staying stealthy is no longer an option.
On a Sunday morning over breakfast at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, Smith calmly responds to texts that are streaming into her iPhone. Calm is the operative word here. Smith’s demeanor is controlled, relaxed, calming, even as she juggles meetings with television pooh-bahs, media and the unrelenting demands of her Washington-based business.
So how did the Beltway insider find her way into a network television series created by the master writer-producer Shonda Rhimes? A few years ago, through her agents at UTA, Smith was introduced to Rhimes and her producing partner Betsy Beers. Rhimes had made her mark mining the drama in medical milieus (“Grey’s Anatomy,""Off the Map”) but had been interested in D.C. power during college, when she spent a semester working at a Washington law firm. Smith’s meeting with Rhimes and Beers turned into hours of gabbing.
“I was fascinated by a world in which someone swoops in on the worst day of a person’s life and takes over,” says Rhimes.” I love the notion of a fixer. And I’m always in love with the idea that everyone has dirty little secrets, even the powerful, even our heroes.”
Over the next two years a television pilot was born, with Smith as the inspiration and departure point for Olivia Pope. “It feels kind of weird,” concedes Smith. “But it’s also an opportunity for television viewers to get a real sense of what a crisis manager does, because that has never been explored on television before.”
Pope deals with some doozies — like helping exonerate a gay soldier accused of murder and saving a Supreme Court nominee whose wife’s name shows up on a list of high-end call girls. As co-executive producer and consultant, Smith reads all scripts and is an ongoing resource weighing in on how a top-notch Washington consultant would handle a crisis situation.
“You need to be strategic in your thinking,” says Smith of her work. “You have to understand the problem, the issue and the landscape. It’s almost like a chess game. You want to stay several steps ahead and anticipate someone else’s position.”
Smith’s professional trajectory began in college, where she majored in public relations at Boston University, followed by a law degree from American University — where she was the first African American woman to be executive editor of the law review. Early on she realized that public relations, not law, was her calling.
“I’ve always been interested in image and reputation management,” says Smith. “Because really when you think about it — it is an old phrase, but all we have is our word and our good name.”
In the early 1990s Smith jumped into the pressure cooker of crisis management when she was appointed special assistant and deputy press secretary to President George H.W. Bush. Many times each day she was putting out fires that required a deft hand in service to the president.
“My experience at the White House was invaluable,” says Smith, who helped maneuver through the Clarence Thomas proceedings, deliberations in Kuwait and the Los Angeles riots, among dozens of other issues. “When you’re at the center of the universe, you have to think quickly and size up a situation instantly because whether you like it or not you’re going to be on the news the next day.”
Afterward, Smith worked for a few years as NBC’s vice president of communications responsible for news, sports and entertainment shows. Then she opened her own firm, which handles corporate clients as well as individuals. Smith’s resume attracted high-profile cases. Working with Lewinsky, whose affair with President Clinton had made her a target of national wrath, Smith orchestrated the selection of Lewinsky’s legal team and created a communications strategy that was compatible with the legal strategy.
“We tried to portray her as a young woman at a certain point in her life, vulnerable and exposed to certain things. Our goal was to get an agreement and make sure she didn’t have to go to jail,” she says.
Underlying all of Smith’s crisis management is the fundamental belief that most people deserve a second chance. “I think that we all make mistakes,” she says.
While Olivia Pope’s personal life has been fictionalized in Shondaland (the name of Rhimes’ production company), Washington says she draws on Smith’s deep compassion for people in trouble and incorporates that quality into “Scandal’s” lead character. But for the record, as Smith has been repeatedly asked during her sojourn in the media spotlight, she did not — unlike her small-screen alter ego — sleep with the president.
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