The Scene: Week of June 16

June 15
Space race: Elon Musk talks about competing

SpaceX’s new Dragon capsule may have dominated the room at a Washington event last week, but it was founder Elon Musk who loomed large.

Standing under a giant tent outside the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Musk fielded questions about everything that SpaceX has made headlines for recently, including the company’s decision to sue the Air Force, one of its biggest potential customers.

“I think we need competition because it’s the law of the land,” Musk said. “We’re not saying give SpaceX the contract, we’re saying ‘let us compete.’”

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell recently said the company’s push for launch certification was paving the way for other new entrants from the commercial space sector. Musk agreed, saying he expects the soon-to-be-formed Orbital ATK to be a future competitor. (Dulles-based Orbital Sciences is planning to merge with Alliant Techsystems).

“I expect Orbital Sciences to upgrade their rocket,” he said.

The press event was aimed at getting Washington’s attention. More than a few lawmakers were in attendance, including Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) who flashed a thumbs-up to cameras as he clambered out of the capsule. Rohrabacher also commented on the U.S.’s ongoing reliance on Russian rocket engines for national security launches.

“I can’t wait for [Dragon] to dock with the international space station and not have the Russians to contend with,” he said.

The capsule remained on display for one day outside the Newseum before being shipped back to California.

— Amrita Jayakumar

Scandal: Judy Smith talks about crisis PR

Judy Smith, the crisis communications guru who has managed scandal for clients from Michael Vick to Monica Lewinsky, said she would never have taken on the task of managing the Donald Sterling fallout because the actions of the former Clippers owner were indefensible and a “lose proposition.”

“I would not have taken that case,” said Smith, speaking June 6 at the “Demand Success” marketing and PR conference in National Harbor hosted by Beltsville-based Vocus, a company that provides online PR services. “It would never happen. He did so many things so wrong on so many levels. Let’s just put aside what he said for a second. There is no way you could put that kind of person on the air to talk in an interview because the message is not controlled.”

Smith, president and founder of crisis management firm Smith & Co., is the inspiration behind actress Kerry Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, on ABC’s “Scandal.”

During her keynote address at the Vocus conference, Smith also discussed how social media has transformed the way her industry works.

“Social media for me is just a thorn in my side,” she said. “It’s painful. For us in crisis, it has totally changed the way we do business. It’s a big, big game changer. Before, people would be waiting around for the evening news and that was the big thing. Now, one tweet, one Facebook [post] and it goes viral, and you could be dead, left to right, done. That has really changed.”

Social media enables inaccuracies and rumors to be circulated quickly, she said.

“It’s so much easier to send off a tweet of something untrue, with no basis in fact, and it picks up steam,” she said. “It’s a huge problem and such a game changer.”

Smith recalled the accidental way she got into the crisis communications business — she was fresh out of law school and about to start a job as an associate at New York law firm Rogers & Wells when she had lunch with a friend who was working with the legal team investigating the Reagan administration’s illegal sale of arms to Iran, known as the Iran-Contra scandal.

“She asked me, ‘What do you think about how we’re handling this crisis?’” Smith said. “I said, ‘You kind of suck a little bit. The messages are not transparent. I don’t think people believe you. You’re not consistent with your message. You’ve got a whole lot of work to do.’ “

The next day, Smith got a call from Lawrence Walsh, the special prosecutor of the Iran-Contra investigation, offering her a job helping to improve the public’s perception of the scandal.

“Sometimes you think you’re on one path ... all of a sudden two days later I’m not in New York, I’m sitting in Washington, D.C., in an office working on a crisis I had never imagined or ever thought about, and that was my first gig out of law school.”

— Catherine Ho

Opening: Officials cut pasta at eatery

Who needs ribbon when you’ve got 10 feet of pasta?

Howard County officials and Maggiano Little Italy’s executives snipped a long, braided piece of pasta last week to commemorate the opening of the company’s newest restaurant in Columbia.

The restaurant, the chain’s 46th, is part of a 70,000-square-foot open-air redevelopment at the Mall in Columbia. Notable guests included Steve Provost, president of Maggiano’s Little Italy; Ken Ulman, Howard County Executive; and Howard County Council members Courtney Watson and Mary Kay Sigaty.

— Abha Bhattarai

Jobs: Biden speaks about employment

The Obama administration announced earlier this year that Vice President Biden would lead an effort to improve the nation’s job training efforts and find ways to connect workers with job openings. The vice president was on hand to deliver remarks on the issue June 4 when think tank Third Way held an event at the Ronald Reagan Building about the future of workforce development efforts.

“The basic bargain in America shared by Democrats and Republicans ... was that you work like hell and you were part of increasing productivity,” Biden said. “You were part of increased profitability. You shared in that increased productivity and profitability. That’s not happening today. Hasn’t been happening for a long while.”

Biden outlined a variety of reasons for the change, including globalization, technological innovation, fiscal policy and tax policy.

Following the vice president’s comments, Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez led a roundtable discussion with leaders from community colleges, businesses, local government officials and other stakeholders about what they’re doing to close the skills gap and where they see opportunities for innovation. Local participants included Ashwin Pushpanayagam, chief operating officer of Fairfax-based IT consulting firm Multivision; Maureen Conway of District-based Aspen Institute; and Michael I. Callanan, executive director of the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee in Upper Marlboro.

— Sarah Halzack

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