From White House vets to K Street power players, we sat down with four D.C. crisis and reputation managers who have that elusive "Pope factor" in spades. We got them to dish on the best parts of their jobs, and share some timeless advice on how to navigate through the worst professional and personal shake-ups. That's right — it's handled.
Tiffany Carter, Account Director at RepEquity
Tiffany Carter knows what it’s like to build a business from the ground up. She worked alongside her boss to develop RepEquity, which was recently named the 106th fastest-growing company by Deloitte. With an A-list clientele and pitch-perfect fashion sense, Carter tackles every crisis with style.
From your insider perspective, how much of Scandal is just Hollywood, and how much is actually true?
"Well, obviously, people aren’t suffocating each other with pillows. I think the biggest difference [on the show] is that Olivia Pope’s goal is to get out in front of something before people know about it. In today’s world, especially in online-reputation management, that just doesn’t happen anymore. It’s going to come out, and it’s going to be everywhere. [Success] is about how you adapt your strategy to deal with all the things that are going to be online — the online aspect is what lives forever. I can’t just sit there and make sure it’s never going to come out."
What surprised you the most when you started working in crisis management? Was there a specific skill set you had to learn?
"Oh, yes. For me, I always feel like I’m talking someone off a ledge. The crisis is so personal. You have to be very consoling and persuasive at the same time. Sometimes, part of me just wants to yell over the phone, 'Maybe you shouldn’t have done this in the first place!' You really have to temper yourself and keep your professionalism. That would definitely be in line with the Olivia Pope-aspect of it. I know she’s had some controversial clients on the show. We can get some equally controversial clients."
It sounds like you get some sensitive cases. How do you navigate cases that conflict with your values?
"I’ve had this conversation extensively with my boss. If I have a big celebrity that comes to me saying that [he] cheated on [his] wife while [she] was pregnant, I’ve definitely [asked myself], 'Why would I want to make this person appear better?' What we’ve decided on is, I’m not allowed to judge. I don’t know the entire story. I’m never going to know what’s actually happened. I need to take something at face value. There’s two sides to every story, and I’m not privy to every detail. If it became a legal issue or clear-cut, that’s when I would cut ties."
What accessories are in your crisis tool belt?
"I’m definitely known in the office as 'the purse girl.' I have two purses I go between. One is the classic, Chanel, pebbled-leather purse — very D.C. If I’m traveling, I have this old-school, Marc Jacobs, two-tone quilted bag.
"I do have one go-to blazer. It’s my new take on the whole Hillary Clinton power suit. it’s a Helmut Lang, bordeaux-leather, detailed blazer from Intermix. It’s an attention grabber. When I walk in the room, I feel really confident."
Help us solve this real-life crisis scenario: You hit "Reply All" to an email where you bad-mouthed your boss. What’s your next step?
"Get out ahead of it, as soon as possible. If your boss is in the office, get up and walk over to his/her desk. If you wait, it will reflect on your character even more. Tell it all and tell it early. Face it head on and as soon as you can."
What recent celebrity crisis do you think was handled well?
"One of the best I’ve seen was the Reese Witherspoon DUI. They handled that perfectly. She immediately came out onto talk shows. She explained the situation. It helped her rebound so much quicker. You forget about it. You look at the person and it doesn’t continue to identify them."
Fill in the blank: Keep Calm & _______.
"Keep that picture off Facebook!"
Shana Glickfield, Partner at Beekeeper Group
Shana Glickfield is a founding partner at Beekeeper Group, a D.C. public-affairs firm specializing in digital media and reputation management. With a law degree under her belt and a background in advocacy and crisis strategy, Glickfield — in true Pope fashion — is equal parts fierce fixer and wonkette.
On the show, Olivia Pope says, “White hats on!” as she gears up for battle. What’s your battle cry?
"'Keep a calm face.' You don’t panic, but you really do need to think about following a system. Olivia Pope is a great example. It really is, 'Here are the things we need to do, here are the things we are going to accomplish,' and you delegate it out. You reign in the client about what they can and can’t do. You move forward. With my clients, we like to think about what they would do in a crisis ahead of time. We call it a ‘lifeguard' — no one wants a lifeguard until someone is drowning."
When your clients come to you with a crisis, what’s your very first step?
"The first step is always listening and asking the right questions. The client can come to you with a problem, and what you’re offering is an external perspective. Listening is something I’ve had to learn along the way. The energy of a crisis can be very consuming. In setting the tone, you really do have to gather facts.
"Also, I don’t know if Olivia Pope has this issue, but clients have budgets. Oftentimes, you have to say, 'Within budget, within timeframe, this is what’s realistic.' You want to promise the world. So, part of the job is being the realist."
A lot of your crisis work is in social media. What is a common mistake you see people make in that world?
"I always say the cover-up is always worse than the crime. When people make a mistake on social — like they tweet something they later regret — you can delete the Tweet, but it does live forever, even though you deleted it. We’ve seen a lot of examples, like the Chrysler Detroit crisis, [where] someone had already screen-grabbed [the Tweet], and it had already been re-tweeted.
"You really have to own it. These mistaken Tweets can happen to anyone. The best thing an organization can do is educate and empower its staff. Teach them how to use the tool and best practices."
Scandal takes a lot of inspiration from real D.C. crises. What’s different about handling a crisis here than anywhere else?
"D.C. is so different than most cities, just with the level of media that’s paying attention. Also, how interwoven the NGOs, policy people are — we are really a very small town. It’s a revolving door of politics. It’s hard to keep a secret here. In terms of crisis, everything is on an escalated level in D.C. If a scandal happens here, it affects the whole country — if not the world. It’s on [a much more] global scale than if a scandal happened in Hollywood or New York."
Help us with this crisis scenario: You got slapped with a public-intoxication charge after a drunken night in Adams Morgan. Now what?
"I do know people that has happened to, and it’s a scary situation. You know, it’s D.C. — people are thinking about their future political careers. You want to deal with it as calmly and quietly as possible. You don’t lie, and you don’t deny anything. You want to hire a lawyer. Approach people with solutions, rather than problems. Even if you decide to go to your employer about it, you want to say, 'It’s already been taken care of and here are the five steps I’m taking.' Be as proactive as possible."
Fill in the blank: Keep Calm & _______.
"'Keep Calm & Network.' It’s a D.C. thing, but D.C. is a relationship economy. There’s nothing networking can’t help you with. It’s not just adding someone to LinkedIn, it’s also giving meaningful follow-up. My bible is the Keith Ferrazzi book, Never Eat Alone."
Lisa Ross, Executive Vice President, Group Head Public & Corporate Affairs at Ogilvy Public Relations
With an accessories lineup to make even Scandal costume designer Lyn Paolo swoon, Lisa Ross gives Kerry Washington's heroine a run for her money. She also has two terms with the Clinton administration under her belt, and was named Washington Women in PR’s Woman of the Year in 2003.
What do you love about your job?
"Reputation is the most valuable thing that you have as an individual, whether in the community or the workplace. How people perceive you has everything to do with your ability to be successful. That’s why I’m drawn to the brand element. Everyone has a brand. It has to be created, evolved — and it almost always has to be managed.
"[I love] the crisis part of it because I love puzzles. It’s like, 'gather all this information and figure out what the answer is.' The high of crisis [management] is when you’re in the middle of it and the stakes are so high — that either impales and dismantles you, or it propels you."
What's one characteristic a person needs to get into this industry?
"You’ve got to be bold, and you’ve got to be brave. You have to be bold because you have to make decisions. And, you have to be brave because you make these decisions, and you can’t be afraid to fail."
Olivia Pope has her iconic white Burberry trench coat. When you’re going into battle, what’s your armor of choice?
"I do look at it as suiting up for battle. I put a lot of time and effort into it. I don’t dress for other people. We were going after Comcast, and while we were developing the strategy, I was thinking about what I was going to wear. I was thinking about what look I needed to give me confidence. It used to be a kick-ass pantsuit, and now it’s a kick-ass dress. I like Max Mara, below-the-knee sheath dresses. I love pockets; I love Diane von Furstenberg. Stuart Weitzman is my favorite shoe designer — fashionable and appropriate. I am so particular about what I put on; if I am not properly attired, I’m off."
Here's a real-life crisis scenario for you: "I got too drunk at the holiday party and my work BFF had to take me home. I don’t remember anything. How do I face tomorrow morning at the office?" What's your advice?
"Promise yourself to never, ever do that again. Be prepared for repercussions. I’d love to say, 'Send an email, apologize, and act like it didn’t happen,' but be prepared that people will look at you differently. Act accordingly. Know that you’re going to have to work 50 times harder to make up for it."
Caroline Langdale, Director, Public Affairs at Glover Park Group
With seven years under her belt at GPG, one of the Beltway's top crisis groups, Caroline Langdale is a true Gladiator.
What drew you to crisis work? What’s your favorite type of case?
"Project-based crisis work is really interesting. It requires you to think quickly, and you get to see the project to fruition, which you don’t always get to do in PR. When something’s really hot and intense, it focuses you. You might have to work really long hours and on the weekends, but it’s exciting. Being in D.C., where a lot of people come from campaigns, [we] get wrapped up in that campaign mentality."
What are some of the most common crisis mistakes you’ve seen?
"There’s a fine line between giving too much information and not giving any information. Sticking to the message is the most important thing to do in a crisis. It’s the easiest thing in the world to want to give more information, to want to be helpful. That can be to your detriment sometimes. A reporter has a job to do — to get what they can from you and write the story. They’re doing their jobs just as much as you’re trying to do yours."
How does personal style play into your daily grind?
"One of the things I can’t live without in this job is my navy Theory suit. I can’t live without good blazers and kitten heels. With some semblance of those two pieces in your wardrobe, you can really class it up. D.C. is a different beast; it’s a bit more casual and a bit more Southern."
Now for some tips: How do you know whether you’re in a crisis or just overreacting?
"I’m not sure you ever know until you take a deep breath. That’s perspective. That’s why you would hire me. I think it’s very easy to lose perspective on what’s happening in your own world. That’s one of the benefits of having someone to focus you and ground you."
How would you handle this scenario: You over-promised on a project to your boss and now you’re going to under-deliver. What can you do next?
"First and foremost: What’s your ultimate goal? If your goal is to maintain credibility with your team, I would just tell the truth. I would own up to it. And, I would go into it with a plan. In any crisis, whether with a client or in real life, [you should] very clearly have a goal and always keep that in mind as you move forward. It’s really easy to do what feels right, or do what you think the other person wants. As long as you can always go back to what your end game is, I think you’ll end up on the right track."
Fill in the blank: Keep Calm & _____
"Keep a positive outlook."