Judy Smith: How the woman who inspired ‘Scandal’ redefined black female power players in DC

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Who is Judy Smith?

Long before ABC’s new hit series Scandal made it to network television this season, those of us who have lived and worked in Washington, D.C. for the past two decades have admired and respected Judy Smith.

A native Washingtonian, Judy is a true pioneer for women, and an outright trailblazer for black women. She is a consummate professional, and a perfectionist when it comes to her craft. Like her or not, there is noone better to have in your corner when you are in political hot water, an unfavorable media spotlight, or in legal trouble.

Known as a professional “fixer,” or in more formal terms as a “Crisis Management Expert,” Judy Smith is a unique black woman who didn’t just redefine the rules for women in power — she also defined them as the first of her kind. Her resume is impressive, ranging from her academic credentials as an attorney to her client list. Smith was the first black female Special Assistant to the President and Deputy White House Press Secretary for President George H. W. Bush. She has also managed crisis situations for Fortune 500 corporations (such as BP after the Gulf disaster), Supreme Court nominees (as in Justice Clarence Thomas), plus world figures, celebrities, and even a former White House intern (remember Monica Lewinsky?).

What did all these disparate figures have in common? They were all in need of a savvy media spokesperson who could help them handle the heat of a national or international media firestorm. Judy Smith was their go-to woman.

When asked how she would describe herself, Smith offered this: “I think I am down to earth, hard working, someone who cares a lot about my work and about what I do for those I serve.” You’ll notice in her answer that she focuses keenly on “the work.” She takes her work ethic seriously — very — and she will tell you that work is a big part of her life.

A fact that is not widely known about Smith, however, is that she is married with two adult children. She is fiercely private and does not discuss her family, but she is the original “work/life balance” queen. Smith was doing it long before those of us in Generation X and beyond made it a term of art. If that isn’t enough, she holds a black belt in karate, too. Smith also loves to travel, and acquires a lot of frequent flier miles to do so through her various activities.

We asked her how she balances it all: raising her family, and a marriage, with a very high profile, high risk career. “I think with anybody who has a lot of things going on in their life, you become great at multi-tasking,” Smith said. “You try to balance both work and life like everyone. Multi-tasking is key. You do the best that you can every day. It is important to have people around you that support you, like your family and friends. That makes all the difference.”

On being a master of crisis management

Next we asked Judy a series of questions to help us get to better know the woman who inspired the Scandal series that has just been renewed by ABC for a full second season. The lead character played by Kerry Washington is based on her.

Sophia A. Nelson: How did you get into the arena of crisis management and what exactly is it?

Judy Smith: I have been doing this work for 20 years at Smith & Company, which is my firm. We represent corporations, associations and individuals. A part of what we do in crisis management is working on crises and problems that are both big and small. Along the way in that process, we get to help [clients] with brand and reputation management.

Simply put, crisis management is dealing strategically with a problem, issue or crisis. We help provide strategy, and figure out how to solve that problem. You see some of it in the show. Each person — when they are faced with a crisis — has to decide where they want to end up, what is the end game. We help them to do that.

I think this is an important point: a lot of times when we are in a crisis — and there’s a problem or there’s an error and you’ve made a mistake — one of the things we think is key, is to admit that mistake early. It is also important to understand that so many people we might see on TV or hear about on the radio — they are high profile, but we fail to see their humanity. The truth is, they are people just like you and me. We all make mistakes, we all falter, but we as people should be mindful that there are second chances on the other side of crisis and those chances can present great opportunity.How do you feel about this show that is based on your life? Why do women love it, and black women even more so, as is evidenced on Thursday nights when you get on Twitter? Sisters love this show and tweet about it non-stop the entire hour.

I think that the connection is really a reflection of who we are as black women. Kerry plays a strong, intelligent, savvy woman who is incredibly good at what she does, yet she is also vulnerable and compassionate, which is something we don’t often see about us as black women.

On Smith’s relationship to presidents

To add context, we asked Judy about Olivia, the character Kerry Washington plays on Scandal — and Kerry’s onscreen relationship with Tony Goldywyn’s fictional character of the president in that world. Judy confirmed that she herself did not have an affair with a president (she chuckled when asked that question), but she reaffirmed that the way Shonda Rhimes writes is to make her characters just as unpredictable as Olivia — like real people. It is a way to keep us viewers on the edge of our seats, gasping as we often do (sometimes on Twitter) as we watch Kerry’s portrayal of Olivia step outside of the zones usually reserved for black women on television. Here’s what Smith had to say.

Sophia Nelson: How have you defined and redefined your life over the past twenty years or so?

Judy Smith: In terms of defining my life or career path, it for me has just been about the work — hard work — because work speaks for itself. But in terms of answering your question, I have been able to do different things, redefine [myself] if you will, as a result of the crisis work that I do. I got to take my 20 years of experience and put it in a book, Good self, Bad Self, which helps people to navigate crisis in their everyday lives.

I have gained so much knowledge and experience dealing with my clients, that it has allowed me to use that knowledge to create… first a book, [and] now this TV show. That is a journey I don’t think I ever really imagined 20 years ago. So understand my point: my 20 years of crisis work that has now inspired a new TV show is simply an expansion of the kinds of things that I was already doing.

My advice to young women coming up is to do what you do; do it well and master it! Be your own best crisis manager. I also want to stress that while relationships matter in how we succeed in life, it is never a replacement for doing good, hard work.

What is it like working with Shonda Rhimes, the great television writer and producer?

I met Shonda through her producing partner Betsy, and what was slated as a fifteen minute introductory meeting turned into a two hour discussion. It turned out to be a really nice, wonderful conversation. It was great. And here we are. What I like about Shonda is that she works with complex characters. They are not black and white, they are not in the proverbial “box.” Her characters have nuances, they are layered. The characters in shows like Scandal connect with us, because we as people can relate to them. We are layered, we are complex.

Shonda has a gift for taking the dramatic in our lives, the fast pace of our lives, and making it connect with the viewing audience. And Kerry [Washington] is just amazing. She is a good actress, she is very smart. We’ve spent a lot of time together and she totally gets and understands what I do as a crisis manager. She then brings that to life on the screen in a vibrant way that connects. What is also great is that I have become friends with Shonda, Betsy, and Kerry. A powerful, down to earth group of women. I am really pleased with the show, and excited about season number two in 2013.

Sophia A. Nelson is a journalist, award winning author and entrepreneur. Her book, Black Woman Redefined, has been discussed in various media outlets. Follow Sophia A. Nelson on Twitter at @SophiaRedefined