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 Friday 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.”
“On the communications side, that was a lose proposition,” she said of Sterling’s May appearance with Anderson Cooper in which Sterling criticized Magic Johnson and erroneously stated that the Lakers Hall of Famer had AIDS. “There are some things you can’t fix. There is no argument you could mount to defend that. It doesn’t exist. What, you didn’t know she was taping? What does it matter? Those words were said.”
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.”