Judy Smith keeps a special bag in her wardrobe. Inside is a toiletries kit, a white suit, spare white trousers (she wears a lot of white), a single pair of shoes and her passport. She calls it her ‘go bag’, containing everything she needs should a panicked client call in the middle of the night. And call they do, often with a private plane on standby for the 62-year-old lawyer to get to them. Because the one thing they don’t have when they make a call to Smith is peace of mind.
Over the three decades that Smith has worked in crisis management, she has helped countless high-profile clients, from famous rappers to global CEOs. Her job: to ensure that, no matter what the scandal, their reputations come out intact. She was by Angelina Jolie’s side in her embittered divorce from Brad Pitt, making sure the Jolie brand wasn’t compromised. Smith worked behind the scenes to assess any potential impact on the actor’s movie studio deals and her philanthropic work, helping to coordinate all this into a smart PR strategy, while, most pressingly, ensuring Jolie’s reputation was untarnished.
She was the person who rescued A$AP Rocky’s career when he was accused of assault and detained in Sweden, and the woman by Monica Lewinsky’s side after news of her affair with Bill Clinton broke. When we speak, she’s been up since 4am ‘working on a crisis’ – which she defines as ‘anything that affects your core brand and reputation’ – but she is open and forthcoming, talking with a soft, southern drawl having grown up in Washington, DC, where she still lives.
Over the past year, Smith’s work has taken on a new kind of urgency. Challenges haven’t come one at a time or client by client but all at once, as people have scrambled to find a way to operate in a pandemic, as well as quickly addressing seismic movements such as Black Lives Matter. For many individuals and companies, the immediate reaction was panic. For Smith, it has meant helping ‘high-profile personalities’ publicly address resurfaced racially insensitive actions or past comments, as well as supporting companies – including ‘one of the biggest international organisations’ – to address and recognise allegations of systemic racism, toxic culture and bullying in their workplace. (The latter example resulted in the company bringing in a new CEO and ensuring ‘workplace culture was at the top of their agenda’.) Smith won’t be drawn in on who these companies or individuals are. Though she is warm and friendly, she is a seasoned professional when it comes to steering away questions to protect her clients.
As a Black woman working in predominantly white male spaces, bigotry is something ‘you experience everywhere’ and is ‘part of your daily existence’, says Smith. But she sees the benefit of being inside the machine when it comes to propelling change: ‘It is so important to use your background, point of view, passion and voice. A lot of times, it’s not even in grandiose ways, but by having a conversation.’ In a world that’s becoming increasingly vocal about – and indeed, divided by – its moral outrage, some may scoff at how she represents companies and individuals with poor track records. But Smith turns down clients ‘all the time’. This might be because their principles do not and will not align, or what they have done crosses her personal moral line. On the whole, she’s fair and non-judgemental, making you feel like you can share your darkest secret and she won’t so much as blink in response. Smith understands people make mistakes and, if she believes long-lasting and progressive change is a possibility, she is willing to give them a chance. ‘With issues of social justice and equity, the goal is to work with corporations to make them more equitable and fair – to put in policies and practices to ensure fairness for their employees,’ she says. ‘We’re trying to effect change. I think people understand that.’
As the inspiration for the lead character Olivia Pope in Shonda Rhimes’ award-winning drama Scandal, which ran for six years, Smith is more famous than most in her field. But in the current world of trial by social media, where a brand’s reputation is its lifeline, Smith’s job as part-lawyer, part-spin doctor, part-mediator has never been more important. And, as founder of her own organisation Smith & Company – which opened a London office in 2019 – her services have never been in such high demand: ‘There’s so much cross-section that we have experience in. It’s across the board, there’s nothing that somebody could come to the table with that we don’t have a perspective on, that we haven’t worked with before, that we can’t deal with.’
Smith solved her first crisis aged seven when she broke up a dodgeball fight in the alleyway of her DC neighbourhood. Looking back, she realises resolving problems and crises is an ‘innate part’ of who she is: ‘I’ve always done it; it’s always felt organic to me. It’s part of my DNA.’
Smith’s mother was a secretary by day and a cleaner by night, and her father a truck and taxi driver. ‘My parents taught us the basic values of treating everybody with the same level of decency and respect that’s required. It doesn’t matter if that person is the President of the United States or the person who picks up your trash. When I’m dealing with heads of state or CEOs I have a sense of, “I don’t really care what you do. I’m going to give you the best advice that I can and in the manner that I think is going to resonate.” I don’t carry that fear or intimidation, or worry about what the repercussions might be of speaking the truth.’
The example of the President is not a metaphor. After graduating, first with a public relations degree, then from the American University Washington College of Law (where she was the first African-American woman to serve as executive editor of its Law Review), she moved around PR departments of DC-based businesses before working as a federal prosecutor in the US Attorney’s office. This led to her appointment as deputy press secretary to President George HW Bush.
During the Bush Sr years, Smith became privy to the kind of global crises on which she now advises her clients. In 1992, she advised her boss to visit LA in the wake of the city’s racial uprisings after the videotaped beating of Rodney King by police officers – despite conservative fears of alienating law enforcement by doing so. ‘For me to be able to be in a position where I can have a one-on-one conversation with the leader of the free world, the President of the United States, to say, “This is why you should go, this is why it’s important, you need to be there.” And then he decides to go… You can’t do any better than that, right?’
Although she left the White House in 1993 to focus on crisis management, the presidency continued to follow Smith; this time involving a different commander-in-chief. She was on a rare holiday with her family, ignoring persistent calls, when she finally relented and was asked to represent Lewinsky as President Clinton faced impeachment hearings. Smith was hesitant to take the job, aware of the gravitas of the crisis, but changed her mind when she met the former White House intern. ‘She was in a tough situation and needed some support. Honestly, when I met her, I had to. I felt there was no other choice. I was thinking about the case six or seven months ago,’ she says, settling into her chair. ‘It’s different now than it was then. Monica’s perspective would be heard with…’ She tails off to find the right word. ‘Probably a deeper appreciation for what she was going through.’
Having holidays interrupted by urgent work calls is routine for Smith. She recalls heading to a remote island for a well-deserved holiday, only for a crisis to emerge back at the firm, ensuring she spent the seven-day break in the island’s only phone booth. ‘There’s no scheduled time for a crisis,’ she laughs. ‘People know how to find us.’
And for those who find Smith and her team, she has one blanket rule: tell her everything. The whole truth and nothing but; although given the usually private – often mortifying – details of the situations she deals with, she’s aware that often the ‘truth’ comes out in stages. She’s fastidious about establishing facts and, like Kerry Washington in Scandal, maps out the crisis using photos on a wall – dubbed a ‘murder board’ – which helps her visualise and plan the strategy and identify key players. There’s usually no more than 20 colleagues on one crisis at a time, with the organisation finding small groups work best when a large part of the job is unearthing the stuff – the shame and secrets – that clients would prefer to keep buried. ‘You have to consider human nature. It is hard to tell somebody you don’t know all your bad stuff, the first time you meet,’ Smith empathises. ‘So when I’m thinking about an initial statement or what I might say on behalf of a client, I try to keep in mind that I may not be operating with all the facts.’
While her approach differs case by case, Smith has go-to tools at her disposal. It’s ‘always wise’, she says, to have hideouts across the world where clients can evade the press and public. She also advises clients to have just one close ally who can act as a buddy, confidante and even security while hiding out. And, when it’s time to re-emerge from a crisis, another of Smith’s key principles is authenticity – her vast experience dealing with the press and public serves as a reminder that they see straight through insincerity. Staged PR stunts are not what Smith & Company do. She laughs and points to the example of a high-profile couple plagued by break-up rumours, then seen in a paparazzi-captured public display of affection. Weeks later, their divorce is announced. ‘If you have a misstep, I think you want to carefully map out how you move past it, and that has to be done in a very strategic and thoughtful way. Authenticity is key.’
Smith’s experience of fixing other people’s crises for over 30 years – as well as her ability to deal with every kind of person, often when they’re at their most vulnerable – means she’s used to constant high pressure. I wonder if there will be a point in the not-too-near future, especially after a year like 2020, when she will have had enough of all the adrenaline? ‘I am so enjoying my life. I love what I do, I have such a passion for it. I haven’t thought about [retiring], but I’ll let you know,’ she says with a warm laugh.
‘[Stress] doesn’t affect me in the way that it affects other folks,’ she continues, shrugging her shoulders. ‘I’ve been doing it for a long time. In a crisis, you want to be calm and stable, for people to understand that you have this handled for them – they don’t have to worry. That’s important.’
With that, she signs off, ready to take on the next crisis that comes her way.
This article appears in the March 2021 issue of ELLE UK.
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