Judy Smith, CEO of Smith & Company and the inspiration for Scandal character Olivia Pope, is a crisis management guru who’s built a reputation by representing clients such as Monica Lewinsky and Sony Pictures, which was the victim of a now-infamous cyber hack. There are also reports that actress Angelina Jolie retained Smith’s services just recently as she works through her divorce from Brad Pitt.
Smith was hesitant to talk about any of her actual clients on stage at Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women Summit on Wednesday—she notably demurred when asked about former NBC host Billy Bush—but she did offer up some advice to Wells Fargo, which has yet to knock on her door.
How would she critique the embattled bank’s response to its ongoing crisis involving the phony customer accounts its employees opened to hit sales goals?
“First of all, it took a very long time for [Wells Fargo] to say anything,” she said. “No 2.—there was a lack of transparency in dealing with the issue.”
Another key slip-up was leadership’s failure to take responsibility and ownership of the problem. Those things, she says, “go a long way.” She cited CEO Mary Barra’s handling of General Motors’ ignition switch debacle as an example of the right way to respond. Barra “owned up” to the problem, acknowledged that it was horrible, and communicated how she would ensure it didn’t happen again, Smith said.
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In her opinion, Wells Fargo also didn’t understand the landscape it was operating in; that there was already public outrage about the behavior of financial firms even before the disclosure of its own scandal. The bank should not have been surprised when CEO John Stumpf, who announced his retirement last week, was called to testify at congressional hearings on Capitol Hill. Smith characterized his performance there as “a very bad situation.”
Audience members asked Smith about her advice to other high-profile scandal victims. Amid the WikiLeaks turmoil, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s message should focus on how she will change the lives of everyday voters, Smith said. An attendee also asked Smith if she was representing Billy Bush and how she would help resurrect his reputation. (The former NBC anchor appeared to egg on Donald Trump as he spoke crudely about women in the now-famous 2005 Access Hollywood video.) Smith replied: “I can’t comment on that.”