Crisis Control: “Scandal” inspiration gives this year’s Atwater Lecture

Judy Smith, Judy Smith Management

Wednesday, March 29, students, faculty and community members gathered in Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall to hear Judy Smith, co-executive producer of “Scandal,” give the College of William and Mary’s 2017 Atwater Lecture about her experiences in crisis management and law. The annual lecture, made possible by the Janet and Peter Atwater Endowment, was co-sponsored by AMP and Student Assembly.

As the founder and president of the crisis management firm Smith and Company, Smith’s influential career spurred the creation of the TV show “Scandal” and led to her current position as a member of the show’s production team.

Smith’s firm, which has worked with infamous clients such as Monica Lewinsky and Michael Vick, presides over high-profile events that require professional damage control. According to their website, Smith and Company has provided expertise on issues ranging from the Iran-Contra affair to the United Nations Foundation and World Health Organization’s response to the 2003 SARS epidemic.

Smith said she has the freedom to decide which cases to take because she owns her business. She noted that if she believes she cannot provide helpful assistance, it does not make sense for her to take a case. Kristin Hopkins J.D. ’18 said she appreciated Smith’s sense of judgment in determining which cases to undertake.

“I’m sure she knows that she can make as much money as she possibly wanted, taking any sort of case from anybody,” Hopkins said. “But by knowing who she is and who she stands for, and being a lawyer, you are holding yourself to a certain ethical standard and she knows that.”

Hopkins also reflected on the importance of Smith’s words in her own studies.

“You want to get what the facts are. You can’t deal with a crisis or solve a crisis unless you know what the facts are,” Smith said.

“I think that’s very important, especially for me, by knowing who I am and what I stand for, knowing what I will and won’t do for money is really important,” Hopkins said.

One audience member asked Smith if there was ever a situation she could not fix. Smith promptly recalled the trial of Casey Anthony and its aftermath, stating that some situations are difficult to recover from.  She said that even after the verdict a majority of the American public thought Anthony was guilty.

Smith also discussed how she dealt with crises that affected “the core” and “the brand” of the firm. Dealing efficiently with a crisis requires an understanding of the facts, according to Smith.

“You want to get what the facts are. You can’t deal with a crisis or solve a crisis unless you know what the facts are,” Smith said.

Smith also emphasized that every crisis is different and requires a different strategy, plan and message.

According to Smith, complicating the modern crisis situation is the reality that “bad news travels fast” — it takes news about a crisis situation less than 12 minutes to spread internationally. The advent of social media and the 24-hour news cycle over the years have changed the way Smith’s cases have been affected. Governments and companies need to quickly figure out the nature of the information flow and come up with statements to address the crisis.

During her lecture, Smith advised students and young community members against putting a “tremendous amount of pressure” upon themselves to know precisely what career they wish to pursue. What is important, according to Smith, is that people enjoy whichever career they chase after, and if not, they should change it.

Vania Ratliff J.D. ’18 agreed with Smith and noted that her advice regarding one not knowing one’s exact career path was “encouraging.”

“I know I’m in a place right now where I’m not 100 percent sure what I want do with my life,” Ratliff said. “But just knowing that working a few jobs and maybe finding your passion later is possibility I think is very encouraging.”


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