Scandal: The Secret Ingredient to Becoming a Great PR Pro

Scandal: The Secret Ingredient to Becoming a Great PR Pro

Judy Smith (l) and Kerry Washington at an award show. (Photo: Michael Buckner | Getty Images)
Judy Smith (l) and Kerry Washington at an award show. (Photo: Michael Buckner | Getty Images)

Earlier this month, I had the greatest day of my PR life when I got the chance to meet the real life Olivia Pope and fixer extraordinaire, Judy Smith during a session on crisis communications at Vocus’ Demand Success 2014 marketing and public relations conference. No, she didn’t dish about Scandal’s season four but trust me, nothing could be more juicy to a PR pro than Judy’s candid and unadulterated PR advice. 

By: Adrienne Sheares (@SocialMediaDC)

When Judy Smith walked across the stage, in addition to getting goose bumps, screaming (quietly) like a little girl at a Justin Bieber concert and nearly having several AMEN moments, I came away with some great tips on how to be a better PR professional.

Here are the top takeaways from her talk:

Know What You Do Well and Focus On That

When Judy first opened up her shop, she was the quintessential ‘yes’ woman. If a potential client asked her to create brochures or run their advertising campaign, she was willing and ready to go. She quickly learned that she wasn’t any good at doing brochures, but she’s great at crisis communications.

In my early freelance days, when the goal was to gain experience, earn credibility and get enough money to keep the lights on, I certainly understood the value in saying ‘yes.’ But over time it’s important to hone in and focus your efforts so you can be not just good, but great.

There Are Some Things You Just Can’t Spin

When asked how she would have helped Donald Sterling, Judy’s response was amazing.

Although public relations professionals have a bad reputation for being spin doctors, the truth is, there are some things that words can’t fix.

In cases where there’s no magic wand that can fix the unfixable or if the situation seems bleak, Judy advises that we focus on the truth. “I’m a believer in telling the truth,” she said. “[Because] it will come out sooner or later.”

Data is Your Friend

The public relations department is sometimes seen as the red headed stepchild to the marketing and legal departments. So when it comes to big organizational decisions, the opinion of the public relations professional may be discounted or overlooked altogether.

Judy’s advice? Collect data. It’s the language that can unite a company.

If you disagree with higher ups or legal on decisions, back up your stance with data. Collect social media mentions, blog posts, news headlines, customer reviews, whatever you can get a hold of to show that the company’s decisions are hurting them.

Don’t Rely on “No Comment” 

Judy is not a ‘no comment’ kinda girl.

Saying ‘no comment’ to the press sparks distrust. It’s cold and it just makes the situation worse. If you can’t provide any details about the situation or if you don’t have an answer to a specific question, just say you don’t know. Buy yourself some time and say that you’ll look into the situation (and make good on your word!).

As Judy says, “There are 20 different ways to say no comment without actually saying it.”

Additionally, don’t be too hasty to get in front of the media. Your messages must be transparent and consistent, if you want them to be believable. Get your facts right. If you lose the public’s trust, you’ll have a much harder time trying to convince them to believe anything the company or individual says in the future.

Always Be Prepared

Judy gave all 850 Demand Success attendees a homework assignment, which I’ll pass on to you:

Visualize five things that could go wrong and cause a crisis in your organization. Next, identify the solutions to those five things or what should be done to address them. If you don’t know how you would fix them or what could be done, find out.

When shh hits the fan, you can calmly dust off your homework and put on your white hat to save the day.

Whether or not you’re a Scandal fan (I’m giving you major side eye right now if you’re not), Judy’s insights are invaluable.

And although I don’t aspire to be a crisis communications guru, the thought of a potential scandal keeps me on my toes.

Adrienne Sheares is a Social PR Manager at Vocus. You can follow her on twitter @SocialMediaDC