Crisis managers find showbiz just as rough as politics

Debuting ABC drama “Scandal” focuses on the world of crisis communications, and the PR wizards who specialize in spinning the news when public figures and corporations have gotten themselves into a tight spot.

On the show, the crisis managers seem more like defense attorneys, or maybe even members of “The A-Team.” But as ABC tries to sell viewers on a show about so-far largely unseen “fixers,” the reality is that there is a kind of crisis in the whole business of crises these days, whether in politics or in showbiz.

Social media has made any message much more unpredictable and difficult to shape, exemplified by the kind of simmering, Internet-driven protest that takes on a life of its own: It sidelined SOPA, nixed Netflix’s pricing plans and halted Bank of America’s proposed new ATM fees.

The D.C. crisis communications manager who inspired “Scandal,” Judy Smith, who has represented Monica Lewinsky, the Chandra Levy family and Michael Vick, among others, says that it doesn’t matter whether a fixer is thrown into a political crisis or an enterainment crisis. “A crisis is a crisis,” she says. “The elements are the same.”

Smith is one of the many D.C. figures to have gravitated to entertainment, often with the promise of a heftier paycheck and a saner schedule. After a stint in the George H.W. Bush White House as deputy press secretary, she went to NBC in corporate communications before starting her own boutique firm.

One has to wonder whether that promise of a slower pace outside the Beltway is really all that true anymore, given the speed at which stories spread in social media, where public figures seem more prone to stumble.

A recent example was Spike Lee, who re-tweeted the address of an elderly Florida couple, thinking it was the home of George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin. In the furor that followed, Lee issued an apology and worked out a settlement with the couple.

Chris Lehane, a Clinton White House veteran and press secretary for Al Gore’s presidential campaign, who has a communications firm with former White House special counsel Mark Fabiani, says that people in the public eye live in the age of crisis. “Crisis is a state of perpetual nature where either you are in a crisis or need to be prepared to deal with a crisis,” he says.

Lehane’s firm is representing Current TV in the fallout over the firing of Keith Olbermann who, after his dismissal, took to Twitter to make his case, hinting that everything would come out in a lawsuit. In his place, the cable channel put a figure swept out of office in scandal, Eliot Spitzer.

Lehane says it’s key for clients to understand that they can’t put the genie back in the bottle; rather the overriding need is to re-establish credibility. “You will be evaluated on how you handle the situation in the aftermath,” Lehane says. “You will survive if you can demonstrate that you are trustworthy to your key audiences.”

Those “key audiences,” however, are harder to find as consumer turn from mass media to outlets where they are more likely to hear points of view that mirror their own, he notes. And the crisis message needs to have resonance – something that will connect with all groups. During the SOPA debate, the public responded to activists and bloggers’ alarm that the fate of the Internet was at stake, maybe even their own access – a much more emotionally powerful message than the insular jobs pitch from the showbiz lobby, which was ultimately left to argue that in the whole debate, perception trumped reality.

Yet, it’s also possible to get too obsessed with staying ahead of the story. Smith sites the case of Shirely Sherrod, fired from her job with the Dept. of Agriculture before the Obama White House realized that a video that surfaced on BigGovernment.com contained only portions of a speech she had given, making it appear she was giving racially inflammatory remarks when she was not. “It was one of those examples of people trying to get in front of something when they didn’t know all the facts,” Smith says.

Yet, Smith also cautions that “there are some things that are just not fixable,” like the public reputation of Casey Anthony, even as “Scandal” lionizes the crisis communications profession.

She praises the show’s creator, Shonda Rimes, for dramatizing a high-pressure, high-wire-act of a job, but also adds, “The television version of my life is so much more exciting.”

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