How a PR Maven Turned Scandal into a Television Success

Crisis consultant Judy Smith helps shape the twists and turns of ABC's hit drama.


Scandal's Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), who is inspired by real-life crisis manager Judy Smith.

By + More

For those who work inside the Beltway, Scandal, an ABC political drama that starts its second season Thursday, might just be a tad too colorful a pill to swallow. A tough-talking, stiletto-strutting D.C. lawyer—wait, PR flack—no, wait, I mean crime scene investigator...wait, what exactly does Olivia Pope do? Is this woman real?

It turns out the idea of an unflappable female who manages crises, meltdowns, and the wheelings and dealings of everyone from politicians to pilots to dictators to madams is inspired by a woman with some serious D.C. PR pull.

"I probably don't look as good as [Olivia]...she manages to look flawless," says media guru Judy Smith, comparing herself to her alter-ego, played by Kerry Washington.

[Five Takeaways From the 2012 Emmy Awards]

Fans of Scandal will recognize much of Olivia Pope in Smith, from White House credentials—Smith worked as deputy press secretary for President George H.W. Bush, Pope was communications director to the fictional President Fitzgerald Grant—to how they go about containing some highly-charged situations:

"We start from 'What's the end game? Where do people want to end up? What's your objective?' We start at the end and work our way back and we develop a strategy," explains Smith.

After years in the damage-control business, Smith's book agent suggested she approach various writers and producers with the idea for a television show based on her experience as the head of a D.C. and L.A. based "crisis management" firm, whose clients include sports stars, corporate brands, and disgraced politicos.

[Slideshow: 8 Politicos Who Survived Scandals]

"I met with Shonda [Rhimes, executive producer] and what I'm sure was supposed to be a 15 minute meeting," says Smith, "I ended up staying there for almost two hours—like an hour and a half. Really just started talking about my work and what I did and why I did it."

Smith was brought on to be a co-executive producer throughout the show's first season.

With her White House experience and background dealing with Washington's heavy hitters, Smith says her primary function is "making sure it is as real in my arena is it can be"—from the feel of the Oval Office to the color of the D.C. taxi cabs to, most importantly, Olivia's approach when dealing with the PR and legal disasters her clients find themselves in.

"She is strong, she is smart and savvy, she is nonjudgemental, she cares about her clients and she is compassionate about her work," explains Smith.

With Smith's guidance, the show was a hit, and Olivia Pope has returned for round two.

[See a slide show of famous political sex scandals.]

When we last left off, Olivia was dealing with a scandal consuming one of her firm's own. The first season finale revealed that Pope and Associates' newest recruit, Quinn Perkins (played by Katie Lowes), has her own dark secrets, as she is brought into custody by Olivia's frenemy, U.S. attorney David Rosen (played by Joshua Malina).

The cliffhanger left Scandal fans desperate to know Quinn's true identity. Smith recalls going to a restaurant where her waitress demanded answers. "She said she wasn't going to give me my food until I told her who Quinn was," Smith says laughingly.

If cleaning up Quinn's mess was not enough for Olivia, her former employer, President Grant (played by Tony Goldwyn) still pines for her—the two engaged in an steamy affair when she worked in the White House—even as his wife, who knows about the affair and isn't afraid to use it to her advantage, is showing off her new pregnancy.

"I stay out of the 'Who's sleeping with who,'" says Smith, letting Rhimes, whose other shows include Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice, and the other members of the writing team worry about the relationship plot lines.

[From C-SPAN to Sitcom: Senators Cameo on Parks and Recreation]

"What I really try to is focus on the crisis, bring some advice and authenticity to the crisis and how the crisis would be solved."

Despite Scandal's political parallels—the second season's premiere deals with a Libya-like foreign policy fiasco—neither the show, nor Smith's approach, should be viewed as partisan. "I really do stay away from politics. I think crises are political neutral," says Smith. She thinks everyone, not just politicians and celebrities, could benefit from her approach, which she elaborates in her book Good Self, Bad Self: Transforming Your Worst Qualities into Your Biggest Assets.