For those in hot water, 'Scandal' original Judy Smith a cool hand

From the book jacket
From the book jacket
Posted: September 28, 2012

Judy Smith does not comment on public-figure gaffes.

What would Smith, quite possibly America's No. 1 crisis expert, have done last week to help Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney recover from his "47 percent" raw video reveal?

She won't even speculate. She says it's bad for business.

Business, as in being a corporate and personal reputation-fixer whose clients have included former Washington Mayor Marion Barry, BP (of oil-spill fame), and our own Michael Vick.

But while she keeps her mauve lips tight about real clients, TV viewers get a glimpse into her world every week on ABC's political thriller Scandal, which begins its second season Thursday night.

Smith is executive producer and the inspiration for the show's main character, Olivia Pope, a former White House communication director (Smith was deputy press secretary for George H.W. Bush) who left to open her own crisis-management agency.

So who knows, Smith could be charging Romney billable hours as we speak.

"It's hard to Monday-morning quarterback," Smith said, responding to a question about famous scandals posed to her by Convention Center president Ahmeenah Young during an appearance Tuesday morning.

Smith was at the center to sign copies of her book, Good Self, Bad Self: Transforming Your Worst Qualities Into Your Biggest Assets (Simon & Schuster, 2012), and deliver the keynote address for the Philadelphia Black Public Relations Society, Philadelphia Public Relations Association and the Public Relations Society of America’s Philadelphia Chapter’s annual State of the Industry event.

Though she doesn't talk politics or entertainers, because of confidentiality agreements, she will say one thing: truth is the most important part of getting out of reputation-damaging hot water.

"Public-figure crises are no different than everyday crises," she said. "It's just that you see them and read them every day in the paper."

Smith, 53, was easygoing and calm as she sat with her pinstripe-panted legs crossed. She revealed that she had two sons in college - but that was it for her private life. Her personality was a sharp contrast to pouty-mouthed Kerry Washington's portrayal of the icy Olivia Pope on TV.

"She's fabulous ... an incredible actress doing an amazing job," Smith said.

But unlike Pope, Smith said, if you followed her around every day, "you'd be bored to tears."

She'd never disinfect a crime scene, as Pope and her team did in the first season. "That would have me lose my bar."

And no, Smith said, she did not have an affair with the president she worked for, as Washington's character did. Not Bush while she was his deputy press secretary, nor any other president, for that matter.

She doesn't walk in high heels every day. "The high heels, oh my God, I'd fall over," she said.

Those plush cream pantsuits fancied by Pope, not so much. Smith seems to prefer dark pinstripes.

While exceptionally private, Smith decided Scandal, written and produced by Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes, "was an opportunity for the world to see what a crisis manager does."

Smith grew up in Washington, to parents who each worked two jobs. She graduated with a degree in communications from Boston University and went on to law school at American University.

After graduation, she worked with Judge Lawrence Walsh, who prosecuted the Iran-Contra affair. Talk about crisis.

She later became a prosecutor at the U.S. District Attorney's Office in D.C. before moving on to work in the White House.

After Bush left office, she started Smith & Co., specializing in crisis management.

Her clients were as notable as they get, including Monica Lewinsky, whom she hid in a homeless shelter during the height of the brouhaha, and the family of Chandra Levy, the Washington intern murdered in 2001. (A dead intern did show up in the early episodes of Scandal.)

What's the hardest part of her job?

"Delivering bad news is difficult," she said. "And sometimes things just can't be fixed."

So, Smith added, it's important to head off the crisis before it happens. Hence the title of her book.

"Your goal is to figure out if there is an Act Two and what it can look like," she said.

Stellar advice. Need proof? Just check out Vick's second act.


Contact Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter at ewellingtonphl.

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