Is running a real-life crisis and reputation management firm in the nation's capital anything like the ABC television series Scandal?
I've been asked variations of that question dozens of times.
Truth is until this week, I had no idea because I had never seen the show.
Now that I have, here's the answer: a resounding NO!
Kerry Washington's character Olivia Pope and I have nothing in common. You could even say I am the anti-Olivia Pope.
The dichotomy between her work and mine is highlighted in the show's profile on the ABC website:
Everyone has a secret... and Olivia Pope has dedicated her life to protecting and defending the public images of the nation's elite and keeping those secrets under wraps.
"Keeping secrets under wraps"... hold that thought...
Before tearing into the show's premise, let me tackle two issues: Yes, I recognize this is a fictitious TV drama; that said, it is inspired by Judy Smith, the real life Olivia -- a crisis manager in D.C. with an impressive list of accomplishments.
Judy Smith is a co-executive producer of the show and periodically offers commentary, "What Would Judy Do:"
Our public figures are idealized and in many ways, because of their success or beliefs, we want to believe that they are above the usual temptations and misjudgments that we 'regular' people may fall prey to...
There is a separation between the public image and the private image which is what Olivia tries to maintain. It is often what she is hired for, to protect the public image and reduce the amount of damage that personal misjudgment can bring.
A quick aside, admittedly off topic: I have seen little evidence that "our public [elected] officials are idealized."
Judy Smith writes: "protect the public image and reduce the amount of damage that personal misjudgment can bring."
The biggest problem I have with Scandal, and I have many, is that Olivia Pope's work is all about keeping "secrets under wraps" and helping her clients get away with being dishonest.
So here's a pitch Shonda Rhimes, Scandal's creator: add me to the show. My character would be fiercely handsome (it's Hollywood -- anything's possible) competitor to Olivia Pope -- the guy who picks up the pieces when her strategies fail and her clients are left facing bigger problems than they started with.
That's the funny thing about the show's main character: Pope isn't really a crisis manager at all -- she is a crisis maker.
There's an adage in our business: don't become part of the story. In other words, in helping an individual or organization, never allow your actions/behavior/techniques to add to the challenge facing a crisis client. It's part of the reason why my firm's website is so nondescript -- our clients, especially the crisis variety, don't want us parading their cases around for our own purposes.
Olivia Pope, and her firm, are very much a part of the story, perpetually covering their tracks -- living in fear that their unethical actions become public (e.g. helping rig the election for president).
To compound matters, Pope helps clients keep their personal and public lives from colliding -- an approach doomed from the start.
Organizations and individuals alike get into trouble when their actions are too far removed from their rhetoric (e.g. Lance Armstrong; BP). The lack of idealizing of our elected officials and corporations is in part for this very reason: no credibility due to a lack of authenticity.
In my world, I work with three kinds of crisis clients: the wrongly accused; the rightly accused but ready to change -- get their act together; and those on the verge of a major problem and ready to face it head-on.
Note: I do not work for clients who want help covering up their misdeeds -- no serious person or company in my field would.
With all crisis clients, corporate, nonprofit and celebrity, the focus is on building and reestablishing trust. People and organizations make mistakes; the key is to learn from them, put your best foot forward, and try to prevent trouble from happening again.
In terms of the show, Scandal, I get it: it's a TV drama.
Would the real, day-to-day work of a crisis and reputation manager be as entertaining? Probably not, though I personally prefer stories of redemption as opposed to elaborate schemes to deceive.
Real crisis management work is about helping institutions and individuals overcome great obstacles; sometimes those challenges are self-inflicted, but often they're brought on by external factors -- either way, it takes quick thinking, calmness under pressure and a lot of experience.
I have worked every kind of crisis imaginable, from high-profile criminal litigation to organizations unraveling in the wake of accounting scandals.
To me, there's no more rewarding work than helping people and organizations, especially those seeking to repair a damaged image or improve a reputation in tatters.
For this reason, I love what I do, which is why I hate that the first TV series to portray the wonderfully satisfying, high-stress, fast-paced world of crisis management misses the mark in such a profound way.
As for Judy Smith, the show's inspiration, I doubt that her own practice resembles that of Olivia Pope's, though her commentaries fail to draw much distinction. Her website describes Scandal as the show "based on the life of Judy Smith."
If that's true, she needs the help of a crisis and reputation management expert such as myself because Olivia Pope is a lying, unethical, cheating, manipulative, misleading, egomaniac who is having an affair with the president of the United States -- not the kind of character one would be proud to be based on your own life.
Smith describes herself as "America's #1 Crisis Management Expert" -- I don't need that title but I'm more than happy to settle for "America's #1 Crisis Management Expert's Crisis Management Expert."
Kidding aside, I am certain she is a fine person, nothing like Olivia Pope, and I am genuinely impressed with her long list of clients. Though, from one reputation management expert to another, I am not kidding in suggesting that she distance herself from her TV persona.
My real-life experiences running a Washington, D.C. crisis firm are less entertaining than those of Olivia Pope, but my work requires more intellect and integrity, and is far more rewarding.