Judy Smith: The Real-Life Olivia Pope Knows How to Handle a Crisis
An inspiring chat with crisis management expert Judy Smith.
For a big part of her career, Judy Smith has been on speed dial for some of the world's leading companies, high-profile celebrities, and individuals.
Smith is one of the most sought after crisis management experts in the world, with experience including such historic events as the Iran Contra investigation, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Sony Corporation hacking crisis, and the United Nations Foundation and World Health Organization response to the SARS epidemic. Her incredible career as a "fixer" in Washington was so legendary that it became the basis for the hit TV show, Scandal, with Kerry Washington stepping into her shoes as the fearless Olivia Pope.
After decades of advising CEOs, brands, politicians and celebrities facing true make-or-break moments, Judy Smith founded Smith & Company, a powerhouse collection of crisis managers, strategists, storytellers and digital specialists working to help clients meet their goals all over the globe. Among other dynamic initiatives, her company has been at the forefront of bringing together business leaders and medical experts to help combat the devastating health and financial impact of the Coronavirus pandemic. In addition, they have also been advising companies on issues related to social justice and corporate culture.
Recently, Smith sat down for an in-depth discussion of her career, the art of crisis management and what it takes to lead a global organization in good times and bad. You can listen to the entire conversation above, and read highlights of that conversation below, which have been edited for length and clarity.
On having (no) plan
"I started Smith & Company almost 20 years ago. And I didn't have a strategy or plan! I had left corporate America and just started getting calls about various issues from people who wanted to see if I wanted to work with them — if I could help. And I said sure. And so the business really developed over time. And probably like most people that are starting a business, I did everything. I said I could do everything, right? From an ad campaign to brochures. But what I found out is, I really couldn't do everything. So I started focusing on my sweet spot, which is providing strategic advice and counsel and showing companies how to assess risks and mitigate issues. That's when I feel like it really came together."
"I would encourage people who are thinking of starting a business to try and take risks. And step out of what you think of as your safety zone. Any job that has led me to really incredible experiences have been because I have taken a risk. I said, 'Well, let's give it a shot!' And I think it's been helpful. But you can't just be willing to take risks, you have to be prepared to learn that there are some things that you're going to be good at, and some things that you're not. But you will learn from those failures, and that's a good thing."
On the root of all successful crisis management
"A lot of times, solving problems and crisis management really comes down to basic common denominator: What would you expect from the other person? So if I said something that was inappropriate or something that didn't come out the way that I intended, I need to own up to it. When you make a mistake or when you need to correct yourself, come right out and explain your error to the person you hurt. There's nothing wrong with that. I think people appreciate it."
On hiring and expanding
"I've never wanted to be a large company. I just really wanted to be a really, really, really good company. Not to really say that you can't do both, but for me, the work that we do and the brand that we have is critical and I think we do our best business providing strategic advice and counsel with a really strong, tight group. I'm very deliberate about the people that I hire. I don't want to hire people that are like me. Diverse opinions and backgrounds are important. You want people who bring different perspectives to the table, right? Anybody who works for us will tell you that the interview process is grueling! It takes a lot to get in here."
On the Covid-19 crisis
"When the pandemic hit, one of the things that we kept hearing from so many people is that they needed that is scientifically-based information so that they could make good concrete decisions about their workforce. They needed facts. So we formed an incredible partnership with Johns Hopkins to get second-to-none scientific insights, and since forming that partnership, we have educated nearly 10 million people. We're getting this information out to large companies and their employees, as well as schools and other organizations. We wanted to get facts out there that people can rely upon when deciding what needs to be done to keep everyone safe and healthy."
On Olivia Pope, fact vs. fiction
"No, I don't move any dead bodies! That's the main question people ask me about my life and Scandal. But yes, I do wear a lot of white, that part is true. What was really important to me when the show was being developed was that that character, Olivia Pope, needed to be strong, confident in who she was and what she did and that she was really good at it. And she didn't shy away from that. She was unapologetic about that. She was passionate about her work and compassionate with clients. And I think the show was successful with that. And you know, what the viewing public doesn't always realize is the collective power they had in the show's success and its legacy. The 10 million people who watched the show made history because it was the first television show where there was an African-American lead in 35 years! And you can see today that that collective power changed the landscape in the entertainment industry."