Does The Network Show “Scandal” Accurately Reflect PR Crisis Management? Yes. No. Maybe.

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This blog post was written by Iasha W, a senior at Howard University and a communications intern at GillespieHall.

Crisis communication and management is one of the staple service offerings of GillespieHall. Says founding partner Bridget Paverd, “We see a crisis as a show-stopping, people-stopping, product-stopping, reputation-defining situation that creates victims or explosive visibility.”

Ideal fodder for a network TV hit. Enter ABC’s Scandal.

Beginning its third season soon, Scandal is ranked as one of the highest dramas on television with more than 6.6 million viewers an episode. The series focuses on Washington fixer Olivia Pope’s crisis management firm. Pope & Associates is dedicated to protecting the public images of the nation’s elite and making sure their secrets are never leaked. With the heightened popularity of the series, the interest in crisis management has increased.

The series is an American political thriller, partially based on the life of Judy Smith who served as Special Assistant and Deputy Press Secretary to President George H. W. Bush. She began Smith & Company, a consulting firm specializing in crisis management and media relations. Her clients include the family of Chandra Levy, Monica Lewinsky and Michael Vick. She has also assisted leading companies such as Nextel, Wal-Mart and United Healthcare.

Crisis management, a core deliverable of public relations, is defined as the process by which an organization or individual deals with a major event that threatens to harm their image, its stakeholders or the general public. A crisis is anything that has the potential to significantly impact those in question.

Every episode of Scandal includes a client who is currently undergoing a crisis; it is then Pope & Associates’ job to execute a plan to eliminate the threat. Pope & Associates is known for cleverly succeeding every time.

But do the episodes accurately follow the four phases of crisis management?

Prevention. Preparedness. Response. Recovery. These phases are evident in every episode, with the occasional exception of prevention.

Prevention is very important; it allows the damage to be minimized. When the damage is minimized or even eliminated, it stops the creation of a crisis.

Preparedness is the next phase. After gaining a new client and analyzing the situation, Pope and her staff create a plan. The client is then informed of their options and what is needed from them. One example would be during season one when Pope & Associates took on a client that was being accused of rape. The firm then informed their client of how to approach the situation with the media, what to say and how to effectively say it and even what to wear.

The next phase, response, is the execution of the plan created in the previous phase. In most episodes, Pope takes an effective approach in the response phase. During this specific episode the man accused of rape denied the allegations. It later came out that he was being framed, but had instead raped the accuser’s friend in the past, who had committed suicide years ago. In an ethical approach, Pope insisted that the young man be turned in and charged for his wrongdoing.

Last is the recovery phase. During this phase, image and reputation is repaired. There are several possible approaches. In the example of this particular episode, Pope would have to look beyond her client and try to repair the image of his mother, a notable woman. It would become Pope’s duty to show the public that despite her son’s actions, the mother was still a respectable woman with no connections to the crime.

Scandal displays crisis management as an intense job, but still glamorous. The situations are vaguely accurate and based on several real events. The series does show the approach of real-life “fixers” with twists and occasional exaggeration.

Scandal is Hollywood meets Washington D.C. on speed.  “Real” PR crisis management is an indispensable component of reputation management and salvation…and a prompt, conclusive credible first response is the most essential task.

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