Managing Scandal

Crisis Management Experts Weigh In on How to Handle Petraeus Scandal

Crisis-management experts tell Sandra McElwaine what the players in the Petraeus scandal should do.

Charles Ommanney / Getty Images

How do you manage bombshell in Washington? A crisis of epic proportions? How can you determine the facts, spin the story, and attempt to ameliorate the damage?

1. Call a white-collar defense lawyer.

2. Line up a crisis-management expert.

(Expect a hefty tab for both. Hourly rates can run between $500 and $1,000 on up.)

3. Pray there are no more shoes to drop.

4. Watch political thriller Scandal on ABC on Wednesday, and learn from trouble- shooting Kerry Washington as sexy Olivia Pope, a master of manipulation. Her role is based on the high-octane career of black-belt communications expert Judy Smith, who is familiar with Washington peccadilloes, having shepherded Clarence Thomas through his Supreme Court nomination, and advised a raft of well-known personalities, including Monica Lewinsky and NFL quarterback Michael Vick.

Smith is now in the thick of the sordid Gen. David Petraeus imbroglio, counseling Jill Kelley, a so-called other woman from Tampa Bay, Fla., who apparently did not realize she had thrown a boomerang when she helped launch the investigation into the former CIA director after allegedly receiving threatening emails from his lover, Paula Broadwell.

Now it appears Kelley also was the recipient of thousands of “flirtatious” emails from Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, turning the bizarre situation into one involving an unlikely quartet.

She is extremely hard to reach. Oddly, her crisis-management and communications firm, Smith & Company, is not listed in any directory. She did return a call to her cellphone from The Daily Beast—and declined to comment.

Smith portrays herself as a quick thinker and turnaround artist in her book, Good Self, Bad Self, in which she lays out the basic traits of destructive behavior: ego, denial, fear, ambition, accommodation, patience, and indulgence.

Working in a unique nexus of politics, media, and the law, Smith told The Washington Post her mantra is: “Look at the facts as they truly are, not as you want them to be. And here is something your parents would say: tell the truth because it doesn’t go away. The facts always come out.”

Others who deal or have dealt with the dirty laundry in the nation’s capital agree.

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“You have to get it out and put it out; you can’t just let it dribble, like Watergate,” says Sheila Tate, Nancy Reagan’s former press secretary.” You would think people would have learned by now—truth will always come out, and you can’t manage that.”

Tate points to rumors and suspicions circling the White House over the timing of Petraeus’s resignation, and exactly what happened in Benghazi—a “what-did-they- know-and-when-did-they-know-it” drama that has captured much of the nation.

“Something stinks and there are a lot of unhappy people on both sides of the aisle,” says Tate who suggests that President Obama gather a group of credible reporters into the Oval Office and answer every question, as a way to defuse the situation.

“It’s the smart thing to do,” she says. “Otherwise the whole situation will come to a boil and can get so ugly it becomes a standoff.”

PR maven Marina Ein, who counseled former Congressman Gary Condit, disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, says Obama missed an opportunity to take a different tack and should have stood by Petraeus, refusing to accept his resignation.

“If I were advising him, and there was no transmission of classified information, I’d tell the president to say, “He’s my guy. Don’t resign, ride this thing out, go back to work. We need you.”

The Petraeus-Broadwell affair was consensual, she notes, and adultery is not illegal in the CIA.

“We need to adjust our attitude toward infidelity and agree it is a personal, not a professional issue,” she says. “We are a very repressed society. Obama would have been holding an extremely valuable asset. Anyway, how do you investigate lust?”

Crisis counselor Richard Levick calls truth “a fickle mistress” and tells all his clients “to pull the Band-Aid off right away and run to the light.” He says Petraeus had to resign because he “got caught and would have been extremely fair game.”

Now, he says, the Republicans are “in retreat,” offering an olive branch, more concerned about the fiscal cliff and other pressing problems, and predicts the brouhaha will start to wane.

Levick said he does not believe the story will “move all the way up the food chain and blow up into a White House crisis.”

“We live in the digital age of transparency, and sex and privacy are an unsettled area,” he cautions. "Unless castration is a requirement of service, this will happen time and time again.”

One D.C. wag compares the whole tawdry mess to a steamy telenovela, and even casts the key roles.

He picks Angelina Jolie to play Paula Broadwell, Steve Buscemi as Petraeus, Kim Kardashian as Jill Kelley, and Kathy Bates as Holly Petraeus, the general’s wife.