What Would Judy Do?: Happy Birthday, Mr. President

By Judy A. Smith Dec 07, 2012
Olivia PopeIn tonight’s extremely dramatic and exciting episode we get to see the importance of communications in a crisis situation. The magnitude of the event allows us to see more directly the need for and the effect of the media. As witnessed by the television news anchor’s uncertainty and emotion, the need for facts and accurate information regarding a crisis of this scale is imperative. Not only does the public need to know that the situation is under control, the international community also requires accurate information. An assassination attempt on the President affects our entire structure from government to business and the economy. How it is handled leads to an assessment of the situation and resulting consequences. Is the United States under attack? Is the President alive? Who is in charge? All of this is determined by the information given and for the public and most of the world the media is the provider.

We see how the Vice-President responds, immediately stepping in to take over and wanting to hold a press conference to purportedly to assure the public and the world that the shooting will not lead to chaos. Her own ambition perhaps causes her to be overly aggressive and jumping the gun when in fact there are protocols in place for such a situation but what is in place at any given time depends on the status of the President. The Vice-President assuming command would all but say the President is dead and that policy would now be in line with the Vice-President’s outlook.

There are rumors about the first lady and her unborn child. In the rush to report often misinformation is given and that’s why it takes a reasonable journalist to maintain the perspective. And often in any crisis there is a balance between what has occurred and how much of that should be told. The truth is sometimes better revealed in segments than all at once, especially if there is uncertainty about the events or the results. How much should the public know? How much do they need to know? Ultimately, it is related to the goals or strategy of the communications. In order, to prevent panic, it can be important to shape the message in such a way as to instill confidence or comfort. For instance, the President has been shot but it may not be in the best interest of the government to immediately state the extent of the damage. Words and messages invoke emotion and that in turn creates action. The media is the link to what is happening and the precursor of what might happen. This is why Olivia takes over for the slain Press Secretary, she knows the importance of controlling the information revealed and that the White House must have an assured voice speaking for it. The crisis, as with most, is an ongoing one that demands continual evaluation. The public needs to know but how much they should know at any given time is dependent on many factors. The rule that stands is that you shouldn’t lie about anything. In my experience that usually makes things worse. The strategy needed has to be based on a familiarity with the media and experience with the players involved as well as the ability to get a read on public opinion. Who better for this than Ms. Pope?

Judy A. Smith is the founder and President of Smith and Company, a leading strategic and crisis communications firm with offices in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles as well as a Co-Executive Producer of ABC's Scandal. You can follow her on Twitter (@JudySmith_) or "Like" her on Facebook, and you can get more information about managing personal and professional crisis situations by visiting her site, judysmith.com.