Posted At: October 7, 2013 1:30 p.m.
by Christi Rich
The hit ABC drama “Scandal,” while a compelling show, may pose a threat to the reputation of true crisis professionals.
Main character Olivia Pope, a crisis manager in Washington, D.C., worked with her colleagues to clean up a murder scene surrounding one of her employees in the season one finale. It’s a more complicated story line than just that, but the bottom line is they all broke the law without ever contemplating the consequences of their actions.
This scenario paints a picture to the country, and to the world, of what crisis communications looks like in Washington, D.C. Some students and those outside the PR industry who haven’t seen an inside perspective of crisis communications may believe that the work portrayed in “Scandal” is the norm and actually happens. The cover up of a murder scene is definitely an extreme example, but the television show as a whole portrays a glamorous, on-the-scene crisis communications career.
The Hollywood Version
Daniel Hill, president of Ervin | Hill Strategy, an integrated communications, government relations and public affairs firm, wrote for the Huffington Post on his views of what problems “Scandal” poses to the profession. He stated that his biggest issue with the show is that “Olivia Pope’s work is all about keeping ‘secrets under wraps’ and helping her clients get away with being dishonest.”
In a recent interview with Platform, Hill noted that “Scandal” is a Hollywood portrayal of a profession, and he does not know of any other crisis firms where their staff would find themselves at a murder scene or doing many of the other things seen in the show.
“Scandal” is inspired by the life of Judy Smith, president and founder of Smith & Co., “a ‘leading’ strategic and crisis communications firm with offices in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles.” This connection is primarily where Hill takes issue with the show: Smith ties herself so closely to the story as a co-executive producer.
“There are firms that will work with just about anyone,” Hill explained. “But our firm, and I, don’t subscribe to that.”
The real deal
Hill said that in his career, he has turned away more clients than he has accepted. In fact, he developed a rule when it comes to which potential crisis clients he’ll accept: those who are wrongly accused, those who have really messed up and want to correct it, and those who anticipate a crisis and want to handle it properly.
“Tell the best story you can” without deception, Hill said. Painting a misleading picture to the public is not something he will allow in his work.
Hill added that, legally, everyone is entitled to representation. But not everyone is entitled to a good reputation. He has seen many cases that should never be accepted by crisis communication specialists because the organization or the individual doesn’t deserve a good reputation.
In many cases, especially in the corporate world, the crisis communication professionals focus on preserving the reputation of the client, while the lawyers working on the same case focus on winning the legal case. Hill explained that these two goals will not always align. Hill does not speak publicly about his crisis clients, but he gave accounts of large iconic institutions over the past two decades that struggled to balance these two often-competing demands. “In one case, a well-known multinational organization effectively went out of business, even though they eventually won their legal case,” Hill cautioned.
Everyone interested in crisis communications, take heart. While you will not be expected to clean up murder scenes at work, crisis work is never boring.
“There is no typical day in crisis work,” Hill said. “Crises happen when you least expect them. That’s the way it is.”
Behind the scenes
Crisis communications work entails everything from helping clients respond to inquiries to working with their lawyers on messaging. In fact, Hill explained that lawyers are often the biggest challenge for a crisis manager. His first job is to win over the chief legal counsel before any true work can be done.
Kelsey Saylors, a member of Ervin | Hill’s crisis team, described the behind-the-scenes work of trying to keep clients out of the news. She emphasized that when allowing the media to come in contact with the client, it is imperative that the outlet is reputable and will do a good job explaining the client’s side of the story.
“A day in the life of a crisis communications professional is hard to explain to someone who has never been thrown into it,” Saylors said.
Television shows are often the only glimpse the public will see of public relations work. Saylors often has people ask if her work is like “Scandal,” “Mad Men” or the short-lived E! show “Spin Crowd.”
Crisis work is extremely strategic and often places an emphasis on ethical practices, but the typically embellished portrayals often seen on television discount this approach.
“I think the story of what we do is fascinating on its own, without needing people to do incredibly unethical things,” Hill said. “You can have a really great story about a crisis firm – stories of redemption, stories of survival, stories of recovery. You could easily make a great show without having to ‘scandalize’ the profession.”