Just a few weeks ago UNC Chapel Hill had the great honor to host professional political crisis communicator, Judy Smith. For those of you unfamiliar with Judy’s work, I can easily equate her background and profession to ABC’s new hit show “Scandal”. Yes folks, Judy Smith is the real-life inspiration for the beloved tv character, Olivia Pope.
A brief synopsis of the show and Pope’s character will probably help: The show Scandal is an American political thriller that follows the employees of Pope & Associates as they literally “fix” anything and anyone that is publicly and professionally broken. Basically, Olivia and her team are political fixers and will handle any political crisis to ensure their client’s reputation remains intact.
Honestly, the show is (more than) a little exaggerated and fantastical, filled with affairs, lies, and murders, but every week millions of fans tune in to see what Olivia Pope has up her sleeve to help her next client.
Now, when I was reading the background of the show I was thrilled to learn that the directors and producers were inspired by a real-life woman. A quick Google search of Judy Smith will bring up news articles about the many cases she has handled (and when I say handled, I don’t mean she altered any FBI/CIA evidence, but she handled the crisis communication and public relations of her client).
Smith was a part of some of the most memorable events of our time, including the scandals of Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, the 1991 Gulf War, the Iran Contra investigation, the LA riots, Clarence Thomas, Enron, the SARS epidemic, Monica Lewinsky, Senator Craig, and the family of Chandra Levy.
This brings me to a few questions: What makes these cases scandals? Why do we, as Americans, want to know about them? And why does the media want to report about them?
Robert Williams was able to answer some of these questions in his book, “Political Scandals in the USA.” Williams begins by defining political scandals as “events which provoke public concern, indignation or even outrage…a scandal creates a perplexity of conscience occasioned by the conduct of one who is looked up to as an example.” By this Williams means that scandals are not solely about the conduct of the behavior, but more so about the public figure who is committing the wrong doing. In other words, Williams is saying that it is one thing if Lindsay Lohan is doing drugs (again), but it is a whole another story if the president is doing drugs.
Williams also argues that political scandals are engrained in American life and have been part of American culture for years. He says, “Political scandals are a conspicuous feature of American public life. They attract and excite media interest and public attention in ways that few other political events can match.” Williams believes that political scandals are such a dominant interest, that politicians cannot ignore them because of their disruption in the political agenda. He says, “In modern America, scandals rarely slip quietly away but rather they develop a life and momentum of their own which are hard to extinguish or deflect.”
But how and why do scandals develop a life? In my opinion, the media plays a key role. Even Williams said in his book, “[Political scandals] dominate newspaper headlines and television news bulletins…It seems that the public are hungry for scandal and the news media are anxious to feed their appetites.”
In another article titled, “Media Coverage of Political Scandals,” Riccardo Puglisi and James Synder conduct research and analyze the coverage of US political scandals in US newspapers from the past decade. Puglisi and Synder argue that the media acts as a political watchdog by “informing citizens about any improper conduct by those in power.” The research they conduct is quite interesting, and their study concludes that there is a bias in the coverage of political scandals. Puglisi and Synder argue that “Democratic-learning newspaper (those with higher propensity to Democratic candidates) given significantly more coverage to scandals involving Republican politicians and vice versa.” Though each partisan newspaper focuses on scandals of the other party, the research also proves that the media is an integral part of ensuring political transparency.
Even in her book, “Good Self, Bad Self,” Judy Smith touches on the power of the media. Smith says, “I would also point out that as a culture, we love to run on powerful figures and are ever quick to demonize. The media maw gets bigger every year; we seem to have an insatiable appetite for paparazzi pics, insinuating blog posts, incriminating whispers, and the twenty-four hours onslaught of disapproving gossip.” Smith continues by saying people jump at any opportunity to tear someone down…it’s just part of who we are.
From affairs to drugs to matters of national intelligence, these articles prove that Americans revel in the spectacle of political scandals. Perhaps Williams is right by saying they are engrained in our culture. Either way, it takes one savvy communications expert to handle crises of unparalleled proportions, and for this generation that person is Judy Smith.
What did I learn from Smith? Quite simple actually: nobody is perfect, we all make mistakes and we deserve to give people second chances.
Riccardo Puglisis and James Synder, Media Coverage of Political Scandals. NBER Working Paper Series, 2008.
Judy Smith, Good Self, Bad Self. New York: Free Press, 2012.
Robert Williams, Political Scandals in the USA.Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1998