Is ‘Scandal’ Based on Real-Life Crisis Communications Firm?

Celebrity Q&A, Featured Article
on April 28, 2012

Is the professional fixer role that Kerry Washington plays on Scandal based on a real-life person?
—Amos Lincoln, Washington, D.C.

The character of Olivia Pope, portrayed by Washington, 35, is loosely based on the career of Judy Smith, the founder and president of Impact Strategies, a leading strategic and crisis communications firm with offices in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

Smith has been involved in some of the most notable events in recent history, including the Iran-Contra investigation, the prosecution of former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry, the 1991 Gulf War, the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas, Monica Lewinsky during the presidential scandal, the congressional inquiry into Enron and the United Nations Foundation and the World Health Organization response to the SARS epidemic.

The cases that Pope deals with in Scandal are not taken from Smith’s files, but are the creations of executive producer Shonda Rhimes and her team of writers.

“She’s very loyal to her clients and keeps their confidentiality, so we don’t know all those details,” says Rhimes, 42. “But I would call her up and say, ‘What if I have this conservative soldier who is secretly gay who just won a Congressional Medal of Honor? What would you do in this instance?’ Then she would tell me, ‘Here’s how I would solve this problem.’”

And Smith’s best advice? “When a client is in a crisis, you have to tell them what is going to happen if you don’t tell the truth. If you do X or you’ve done something that we don’t know anything about, you have to say that,” she says. “The truth of the matter is that in crisis, at least for me, you come up with a good strategy, but at the end of the day, I play to win. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be good at my job.”