[Podcast] Reputation Matters: Episode 8 | Merrie Spaeth

May 6, 2024
Merrie Spaeth: Movie Star, President Reagan’s Advisor and Communications Legend

When Merrie Spaeth shares her wisdom, the world stops to listen — her stories resonate with the authority of a seasoned expert in crisis communications, public relations and strategic media and communications training. Dive into an episode of “Reputation Matters” that shines a spotlight on the founder of Spaeth Training, a figure whose journey from Hollywood to the halls of power in Washington D.C. working with President Ronald Reagan embodies the pinnacle of reputation management. Learn the secrets behind impactful communication, from the necessity of rehearsal, even for presidents, to the virtues of listening and authenticity. This episode is not just a conversation; it’s a masterclass with a legend whose life’s work has defined the art of turning communication into influence.

Merrie has a unique background in media, government, politics, business and entertainment. She is a thought-leader in communication theory, a master of executive coaching and acknowledged as one of the most influential communication counselors in the world. Before founding Spaeth in 1987, Merrie was a producer for ABC’s 20/20, a speechwriter for the legendary founder and chairman of CBS, William S. Paley, and was assigned to FBI Director Judge William Websterwhile serving as a White House Fellow. All of this culminated into her roles as director of public affairs for the Federal Trade Commission, and ultimately her appointment as director of media relations at the White House in the Reagan Administration. Merrie is a sought-after public speaker who provides strategic communication counseling for companies and executives across the globe. She is also a dedicated mother, dog-lover and needlepoint enthusiast.



Crayton Webb: Welcome to Reputation Matters. Today, we’re thrilled to be joined by a legend in crisis communications, public relations, and strategic communications training. None other than Merrie Spaeth. She’s had a career that spans decades, not only directing media relations at the White House, but also at the Federal Trade Commission, and the FBI. Late last year, Sunwest joined forces with Merrie to form Spaeth Training. Merrie, rarely do we get an opportunity to interview a childhood star, someone who’s worked in the White House, or a Sunwester. This is a first, so thank you for joining us.

Merrie Spaeth: Well, first of all, Crayton, it’s an absolute pleasure and an honor to be part of Sunwest. I really value it. You could go a little lighter on the decades though.

Crayton: How about legendary? Maybe?

Merrie: That means anybody who’s a legend has been around for probably too long.

Crayton: Okay. No, you haven’t been around for too long, but you have been around a while enough to tell a few stories and to advise a lot of others on what to do or what not to do to build a reputation. But let’s start with something I know you’re proud of, because I used to see the posters in your former office. You were a Hollywood star as a child. What was that about?

Merrie: Well, I was really lucky. The movie is called The World of Henry Orient. It stars Peter Sellers and Angela Lansbury, both of whom of course were true legends. It’s a story, it’s written by Nunnally Johnson, the screenwriter’s daughter, Nora. It’s about two little girls growing up in New York City. The director, George Roy Hill, who used to say it was his favorite movie, wanted to make it, and he sent casting directors out across the country, because he wanted nontraditional child actresses, and they came to Germantown Friends. By chance, we had just put on in the eighth grade Alice in Wonderland. Just before you ask, I was not Alice, but I did have two parts. I was Tweedledee in Tweedledee and Tweedle Dum, I was the white knight where I had a costume of shirt cardboard that my mother had made me. The teacher, this was a Quaker school, she didn’t want to play favorites, so she sent in all the names. The casting director came and talked to all of us and everybody’s shocked the only one they wanted to see again was me. We went through the casting process, which is, Crayton, it is onerous, but I ended up with the part with a girl named Tippy Walker. We made this wonderful movie, which was the US entry to the Cannes Film Festival the next year, so I went to Cannes to represent the US. Also cool, I had dinner with Charles Boyer. Not everybody does that, but that’s how it happened. It’s a charming movie. It’s a Turner Classic now. A couple of years ago, it was part of the Turner Classic celebration for its half century, so I went out to Hollywood again and walked the red carpet, and it was a lot of fun.
Crayton: You just did one movie?

Merrie: I did a number of TV shows, and we did a TV movie called The Lesson of Jesse James with Chris Jones, a movie, Crayton, that is so bad, it didn’t even go to video.

Crayton: Well, I bet it was better than you think.

Merrie: No.

Crayton: But so many people stay in that business. What made you decide not to stay in show business?

Merrie: A temporary flash of sanity. I looked around and there was nobody who was my height, chubby like me, and without talent who was not very far. Actually, after college, they were casting the Gidget movie, and I got called for that, so I spent the summer at the Chateau Marmont. That was an experience. I had dinner with Michael Douglas one night, never again. But I came back and I said to my father, these people are all nuts, totally nuts. A friend of mine, Mimi Kennedy, who went to college with me and is a very talented actress, once said that if she worked three weeks a year she was considered employed. I thought, “That’s a terrible life.” There’s really no connection between talent and work and success. I had stumbled into other things, so that’s what got me back on the road to sanity.

Crayton: Was there anything though that you learned or took away from that experience that you even carry with you today, especially as you advise people on how to present themselves?

Merrie: Well, I’m not sure I should tell you this, Crayton.

Crayton: Oh, please, then absolutely.

Merrie: Just between the two of us.

Crayton: Yeah.

Merrie: Well, the first day of Henry Orient, as I think you know the first day of shooting, everybody shows up on set to start things off. We’re in the middle of Manhattan. There were all the sound trucks and the cameras. Paula is there, Paula Prentiss, Angel Lansbury, Tom Bosley, Peters, everybody’s there. There’s all this hoopla being made. Jerome Hellman, who was the producer, came over and he put his arm around my shoulder and he said, “Never believe your own press releases.” That rang in my ear, and that has actually been, I think, a governing lesson. It’s wonderful to have people like you and praise you, but you always have to take it with a very big grain of salt.

Crayton: Why do you think he said that to you?

Merrie: Because he had seen too many people blow themselves up, particularly young actresses. This was a long time ago, Crayton, but Hollywood then and now is a terrible place for young people.

Crayton: The track record of folks who come out of there with their reputations intact-

Merrie: Is not good.

Crayton: Yeah. I like to say to people, never believe your own press if it’s bad, because then you’ll just end up curled up in the fetal position in a corner rocking back and forth, unless you just don’t care. Then, definitely don’t believe it if it’s only good because your head will never get through the door.

Merrie: I think that’s true. Of course, Jerry said it a lot more concisely than you just did.

Crayton: Well, and you know me well, brevity is not my strength. Where did you go to college?

Merrie: I went to Smith College in Western Massachusetts and then Columbia Business School.

Crayton: Then, immediately went to ABC?

Merrie: Well, there was actually quite a long… I’ve tightened up my resume so that-

Crayton: The highlights.

Merrie: Yeah. Well, a number of years ago, I turned it into a bio and my father said, that’s because people could tell I had never held a job for more than a year.

Crayton: Okay, but your first introduction into the world of media and writing and press was with 20/20, is that right?

Merrie: No, originally, it was at Philadelphia Inquirer.

Crayton: Okay.

Merrie: I was a summer intern there. The movie critic was a friend of mine. He loved Henry Orient, and he suggested that I go down and apply for an internship, so I did. I met with John Gillen, who was the Editor-in-Chief, and he looked at me and he said, “This would be sort of fun. We’ve never had a girl.” It was a while ago. I think it was a leap of faith on both of our parts, because although I fancied myself as a poet and I did win the Young Poet of New York Award when I graduated, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I had a great time. Crayton, so much of it, of life, is governed by luck and being blessed. That summer, the summer of 1969 in Philadelphia, along the Jersey Shore, there were these very high-profile attacks and murders. I went to Bob Greenberg, who was the city editor, and I said, “I have a lot of friends down there. You should send me, and I’ll go investigate.” What was I thinking? One of my other friends, Tony Bayless, who was also an intern, the two of us went down and we wrote a page about what it’s like on the shore with the parents back in Philadelphia during the weekdays, and we ended up on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Crayton: Wow, I want to see that. Do you still have a copy?

Merrie: I’m sure it’s find… Today, Crayton, everything is findable.

Crayton: Yeah, exactly.

Merrie: That’s why I don’t want to tell you too much.

Crayton: Well, but this will come full circle because, of course, this is the premise of what you do in your business. Because when people, if you’re a public figure or you have a reputation or a brand, everything you do is public and follows you, right?

Merrie: That’s true. In fact, one of the things that, and when I say we I know I speak not just for myself but for you in Sunwest, that we tell people is the first thing people do is they Google you and they look at your website. You better think about all the scenarios that you may have to deal with and say, “If I go to your website this afternoon, what am I going to find? Are you a good corporate citizen? Show me. Are employees your best asset? Show me.” Because if you’re doing it for catch-up right after the fact or if it’s not authentic, you’re going to be in trouble.

Crayton: Right. It’s too late.

Merrie: It’s too late.

Crayton: You did get into broadcast though.

Merrie: Well, I tried, but nobody ever saw me as an anchor. Actually, I worked in a number of different local TV stations in New York, but I always kept getting pushed back to be a producer. Finally, I went over to ABC and Av Westin and Roone Arledge gave me a lot of opportunities there, but it’s sticktoitiveness. When I was in New York, I wrote for the New York Daily News, and I did their first series on gifted and talented children. That took me to WOR, where I recreated the series pretty much exactly as it… That took me to ABC in 20/20, where I recreated the series with the same people and the same experts again. I had been there. Then, Roone Arledge and Av Westin sat me down and they said, “Merrie, you’re getting a reputation as a thoughtful producer.” Thoughtful at ABC, not a good word, a bad word, so I had to redeem myself. Sure enough, I found myself on an airplane with Seymour Heller, who was Liberace’s manager. I knew he was somebody that all the investigative shows wanted to interview. I said, “How come Liberace has never cooperated?” He said, “Well, it’s just because of who he is.” I said, “Seymour, nobody cares anymore. Besides, we’ll work it out.” I go back to ABC and I say, “I’ve landed Liberace.” All the senior producers said, “You can’t have Liberace.” I said, “I got him. He’s mine.” ABC, bless their hearts, I went out to Las Vegas for a whole week with a full crew, I mean, sound, light, we had five or six people on that crew. We filmed four shows, and Liberace was great to work with.

Crayton: Really?

Merrie: It’s still around. It’s on ABC’s website. Of course, he was such a showman. He keeps coming out ever more. But he was great because we’d ask him to do a shot again, and he’d do it again. He knew what to look for. He was terrific to work with, so I redeemed myself. I was no longer thoughtful.

Crayton: Then, went to CBS, yes?

Merrie: Well, I didn’t actually go to CBS. I went to Washington, but I got a call and I was there. I’ve been there for a couple of years. Lilyan Wilder said, “I need somebody to be a speechwriter.” I said, “Lilyan, I’m in government. I’m too busy.” She said, “It’s for Bill Paley.” I said, “I have time.” I went to New York, and that’s how I wrote for Mr. Paley, who was, as you know, Crayton, enormously sensitive about reputation and appearance.

Crayton: Actually, I don’t know. Tell us more about him and what it was like to work for him.

Merrie: Well, first of all, everybody called him Mr. Paley or Paley. I thought, we’ve got to get over this. I went up to meet him and it’s very formal, “Please sit here, Mr. Paley will see you shortly.” They opened the door and I see him over there and I walk over and I said, “Bill, I’m Merrie Spaeth.” He howled with laughter, and it became pretty clear, that the problem was he hated his speechwriters and they were terrified of him. It was a good lesson for me though, because he was, to talk about legends, he really created radio. I only wrote one major speech for him on freedom of information issues. The rest of it were things like, particularly, he was very sensitive, as you’ve pointed out in many situations, Crayton, very sensitive to image. Whenever he was out, people would always ask him if he would like to give a toast or recognize somebody. We scripted all those things. He wanted to be funny. We rehearsed them, usually by phone. But he was very careful because he was Bill Paley and he wanted to be recognized as such.

Crayton: Was he actually funny?

Merrie: No.

Crayton:But that was his-

Merrie: Well, he had a huge appreciation for humor.

Crayton: Right, and wanted to be seen that way.

Merrie: And wanted to be seen that way.

Crayton: You said, one of the things you learned is that he hated his speechwriters. What was it that you think it was about you that made him trust you?

Merrie: I pretended to be unafraid, with the stress on the word pretended.

Crayton: Pretend, right, because you were afraid. But he didn’t have anybody who would speak up to him.

Merrie: He didn’t have anybody who would speak up to him, and he was really fascinating. One day we were there and he was late for something and we were not finished. We go out to the executive elevator and I said, “The problem with you, Bill, is that you’re dealing with the people who are running the world now, and you should be dealing with the people who are running the world in 10 years.” We get down to the ground floor and he said, “Who are they?” The door is open. Everybody goes, “It’s Bill, it’s Mr. Bailey.” The door shut, we go back up, and the elevator just stops at some random floor. The door is open, and it’s like, “There’s Mr. Bailey.” He says to me, “Who’s going to be running the world in 10 years?” I said, “I’ll figure it out and I’ll get them together for you.” And I did.

Crayton: Can you tell us who you got?

Merrie: I have to go back and look at the list. One of them was Don Graham from the Washington Post.

Crayton: Okay, fair enough. I’ve had bosses, we’ve all had bosses, hopefully, especially in communications, where you’ve said to them, do you want me to tell you what you want to hear or do you want me to tell you what you need to hear?

Merrie: But that’s my line, Crayton.

Crayton: Is it?

Merrie: Well, I mentioned I’m going up to see Judge Webster for his 100th birthday. When I was a White House fellow, where you spend a year in Washington, I got assigned to the FBI. Normally, you get assigned to a cabinet secretary. I was the only non-lawyer on his executive staff and one of only two women. Anne Dellinger, the Solicitor General’s wife was the other one. She was an employment lawyer, so they gave her an office, locked her in it, and kept her there for a year. But I had a very different relationship. I got there in his third year, and all the different divisions had liaisons in the director’s office except fingerprints, the identity division. One of the lawyers wanted fingerprints. They wanted this sexy stuff, foreign counterintelligence and criminal constitutional issues, so I get fingerprints. After a day, I go back and I said, “Judge Webster, sir, your Honor, Columbia Business School skipped fingerprints, and we didn’t really much deal with automation either. We were automating 95 million files.” I said, “What’s my job?” He said, “Merrie, your job is to make sure that I hear things that people think I don’t want to hear or that they don’t want me to hear. That’s been my lesson on leadership. My children told me I quoted at least every day to somebody. Now, I’ve quoted it to you again.

Crayton: It’s sunk in. But I think the other part of that is you have to be able to tell them what they need to hear in a way that they can hear it mean, so that you’re taking into account their ego that’s not offensive to them in some way.

Merrie: Well, I think you have to smile and let people know that you’re saying that with affection, not criticism.

Crayton: Yeah, that you care about them and their well-being.

Merrie: Absolutely.

Crayton: You went to the White House or the FTC next.

Merrie: I went to the Federal Trade Commission next where I was there for two years. What a great experience. Then, to the White House after that.

Crayton: Based in our world around brand and reputation and image, what did you take out of the experience at the Federal Trade Commission?

Merrie: Well, I got there because of a crisis. Jim Miller, who was the Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget, was called over to be the chairman, and the FTC, as you know, regulates advertising. At his first press conference, it must’ve been like his second day, Crayton, the reporters who were somewhat skeptical of this Republican said, “Dr. Miller, what’s your plan here?” He says, he’s thinking, he’s thinking like an academic, he says, “I’m not sure we really need ad substantiation.”

Crayton: Oh, wow.

Merrie: We blew the advertising history. He was amazing. We had mutual friends and they said, “He really needs a director of public affairs. Can you come over?” That was my first job, was to clean that up. I called Arie Kopelman, who was the director of Doyle Dane Bernbach, whom I knew from Columbia Business School. I said, “The chairman and I would like to come to New York hat in hand, could you help us?” He said, “Sure.” We went up and we rehearsed. It’s hard to get academics to rehearse. We spent a couple of days meeting with various people talking, and Jim’s point was ad substantiation, in many respects, takes a bite out of every budget. Does it really help? Do disclosures, particularly things like financial disclosures, do they actually matter? This is somewhat jumping ahead, Crayton, but when I started teaching at the Cox Business School many years later, I decided to test that and they let me run a small scale study. We got 50 students, got them together for lunch, played a bunch of radio commercials without telling them why they were listening to them, tested them at the end of it, so no time-lapse, to see if they… The retention rate for what was supposed to be consumer information was close to zero. The great thing at the Federal Trade Commission, it’s a really important agency. It’s mission driven. They’re career people, most of them. They really care. Communication was not a high priority for them, but they welcomed me with, if not open arms, at least a willingness to participate. That’s where I actually started thinking about all the things that I now teach as part of your team, and we pioneered all those at the Federal Trade Commission.

Crayton: What was the impetus for that?

Merrie: Well, Dr. Miller had brought over from OMB a number of the deregulatory initiatives, talk about a hot topic. One of the things that he brought over was the Speakers Bureau. I just see you and say, “Crayton, how’d you like to put together the Speakers Bureau, for wait for it, deregulation?”

Crayton: Wow. Somebody stop me.

Merrie: We had about 1,100 lawyers and economists, and I had about 50 who signed up. Wendy Graham, Phil Graham’s wife was one of them. It was clear that they needed training because their first instincts, marvelous people, were all wrong. I get to talk about Hart Scott Rodino for an hour. Maybe three minutes, and then we’re going to talk about things that are of interest to the audience. It became clear, they had all the knowledge, but we needed to figure out a training regimen to help them become good communicators. I started this at the FBI before that, our mission is to build public confidence and trust, build public confidence and trust, build public confidence and trust. You do that by getting out there and building public confidence and trust.

Crayton: Too many times there are experts who want to share all of their expertise.

Merrie: That’s right, hence my lawyer, who wanted to talk for an hour about Hart Scott Rodino. Not going to happen.

Crayton: How did you convince them at that stage of your career versus that stage of their career to do what you advised?

Merrie: Luck.

Crayton: Yeah?

Merrie: Willingness to learn. From the very beginning, I had people, I’ve been blessed, so I had people standing up and going to bat for me like Wendy Graham or Jim Miller, the chairman. I think I’d like to think, Crayton, since I now work for you and with you, you’ll have an executive opinion of this, I like to think that what we developed was so transparently helpful that it became immediately apparent to people, this will help you. We’re not just promoting the commission and its policies. This is actually helping your professional development. I think that’s a big part of it.
Crayton: Yeah. Well, your demeanor, the way you carry yourself and talk with people, which is something I think you train, is it’s just filled with respect and deference, but just tremendous credibility. You always treat everybody you talk to like they’re the most important person that are there.

Merrie: Because they are.

Crayton: Well, exactly. You never, even though you may very well be or are the smartest person in the room, never play that role.

Merrie: Never. Never. No. When I was at Columbia Business School, the head of the statistics department changed the grading system so that those of us in my little cohort of five small business owners would pass. But I think you have to also have a sense of humor. Crayton, one of the stories which you’ve heard part of, but not all of, this is maybe the moment to discourage it-

Crayton: Please.

Merrie:… is how we got started the Spaeth Communications, now Sunwest Spaeth Training, because it was pure luck. The part of the story that I tell all the time is true. First day, first appointment, Southwestern Bell Telephone. They do say, the CEO does say, “We’ve just discovered the consumer doesn’t remember what we thought we told them.” All of that is true. Did call on Baylor Healthcare system, did call on Arthur Andersen. They both hired us. I normally stop there. That’s a good story so far, but there’s more, the Arthur Andersen people. You have to remember, I’m pregnant and I had worn to this meeting a mid-calf green sweater dress, so I look like a Granny Smith apple.The meeting goes great, and they do say, “We want you to develop a model.” Oh, that’s absolutely true, but then they said, “We have a shootout tomorrow, and we’re practicing this afternoon with First Republic is merging with InterFirst, and all the accounting firms are going tomorrow for a shootout. You want to come hear our presentation this afternoon and rehearse us?” I said, “Of course.” There are two parts to this, they said, “What’s it going to cost?” I hadn’t thought of that. I have barely thought of how to put it in option, and I am pregnant, and I start to cry. I said, “What would you like to pay us?” They collapsed in laughter. It turned out to be the right question because they knew everything about pricing consultancies. Well, here’s the last piece of this. We get into the rehearsal. They’re terrible. Oh, it’s badly organized. It’s just awful. The head of audit for the whole country is there… They’re looking at me expectantly. I said to Bob, “Do you have to practice being boring or is it coming naturally?”

Crayton: That was not differential.

Merrie: Well, it was the same thing with Paley, because if I could make him laugh, I knew he’d be okay. He looked at me for a minute and then he burst into laughter. Then, of course, everybody around him burst into laughter as well. But it turned out to be a good question because they were boring.

Crayton: How did you fix it?

Merrie: Well, we did what I would now consider little minor tweaks because this thing was the next day, but I taught them. You’re asking me to expose my innermost secrets on. They were number two in the lineup of accounting firms. I said, “Okay, when you come out of that, don’t just go, come out of it as if they had just given you the job. Imagine what you’d look like. You’d be going like this.” We practiced, so they came out of it and they did a great job. They went…

Crayton: We nailed it.

Merrie: The third firm, whose name we’ll go nameless, came in behind them and said, “Is there something we should know? Did something just happen in this?” It was great. They blew it entirely.

Crayton: Wow, so the psychology.

Merrie: Of it, got it.

Crayton: Yeah. Brilliant.

Merrie: Now, you can’t tell anybody that. That’s a secret.

Crayton: No, not a word. Not a word. This reminds me of a Connie Chung interview 30 years ago. Okay, so we’ve skipped one of your favorite chapters to talk about, which is your time at the White House working for President Reagan. How did you get the job? You were director of communications.

Merrie: I was director of media relations.

Crayton: Media relations.

Merrie: Yeah.

Crayton: How did you get the job?

Merrie: Well, Jim Miller, the Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, and Jim Baker, the Chief of Staff, were best friends. I had started out building credibility with the FTC by leveraging my Federal Bureau of Investigation contacts all around the country to get to the right editorial writers. That’s a long story of itself, but Jim Miller and Jim Baker would compare notes. Jim Miller was one of those wonderful… Crayton, very much like you, a great motivator and somebody who really gave credit to the people around him. Dr. Miller would say, “Merrie Spaeth did that.” I kept saying, “Don’t, you’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to say thank you.” But anyway, so the day after Gergen, Dave Gergen left the White House, I got a call from Baker’s office and they said, “Mr. Baker, we’d like to see you now.” Yes, sir. I hippity hop over there and he said, “What do you want to do?” As I had worked for the Federal Trade Commission, Crayton, I had looked around to see what other people were doing because we had no money. Of all places, agriculture was the first department. They had cut a deal with ITT Dialcom, and they had created Agriculture News, the electronic agriculture news. If you had a modem, the things with the rubber cups, and it went…

Crayton: Yeah, oh, I remember.

Merrie: And a keyboard and an account with ITT Dialcom, and all you needed was, these are so embarrassing, these are just black and white modems. You could type in, dial in and up would come agriculture news. I thought…

Crayton: You died and gone to heaven.

Merrie:…I want that. Well, it was beyond my reach at the FTC, but the minute I got to the White House, I said, “I want that.” They show up in my office the next day and said, “How can we help you, Ms. Spaeth?” I said, “I want that.” Prest-O Change-O White House News came up. Again, due to the graciousness of Jim Miller and the ability of Jim Baker to be really interested in these things, which normally a Chief of Staff wouldn’t pay much attention to somebody who focused on the local media, but he did.

Crayton: Media has changed a lot in the last…

Merrie: I’m leaving.

Crayton: …40 years since you were head of media relations for the White House. How would you describe how things were then versus how they are now? Did that make it easier or harder to do your job, to protect the image of presumably the President of the United States?

Merrie: Well, I guess the obvious things, Crayton, then you would leave the office at 8:30 or so. I’d walk over to Justice and hitch a ride home with my husband and just leave the phones ringing. You get in at 6, 7 o’clock the next morning, phones would be ringing again. You’d say, “Hello.” Now, they find you wherever you are, 24/7. As you know so well, the new cycle, you used to say, what’s your name, your number, and what’s your deadline? My deadline is right now. In fact, you’re talking to me on the record. That’s one of the huge things. I think what was apparent even then, and certainly even though I’m not sure I could have articulated it, is that the pace of change was accelerating and you either got with it or you got trampled by it. My goal was we want to get with it. We want to get ahead of it. We want to do as much as we can. Again, I had the freedom and the blessing. In fact, can I use this opportunity to say a thank you to somebody?

Crayton: Certainly. Sure.

Merrie: The president’s office has a pool of career secretaries, and one of them was a woman named Kathy. I was over delivering something to Mr. Baker, and she stopped me. She said, “Merrie, I’ve been watching you. I really like what you’re doing. Do you need more people?” That’s the name of the game. She said, “Every commissioned officer on the president’s staff has an unpaid intern, and not all of them are using them, and I have a list. Here it is.” I ran around and I doubled the size of the office from eight to 16 people. That’s, Crayton, why we were able to do all these things that we got all these accolades for, is that we had twice as many people. I had people doing the basic administrative stuff, but I would call up and recruit people and say, “Would you like to spend six months? It’s unpaid at the White House, but you get badged in and you become an official member of my staff.” People almost never said no.

Crayton: Absolutely. Talk more about what did you do that you’ve received accolades for?

Merrie: Well, everybody’s familiar with the press office, which deals with the fully credentialed, full-time reporters at the White House. That’s one office. Media is everything else, local press, beauty news, American banker, social media, all that stuff is media. It doesn’t report to the press office, which would squish it in a minute. It reports to the Chief of Staff. Mr. Baker’s response was, “Anything that you can think of to do, go do it.” When I got there, they were mailing out 6,000 press releases almost every day.” I said, “Have you looked at what happens to these things?”

Crayton: Yeah, nothing.

Merrie: Nothing. We stopped doing that. We didn’t have things like email, but we had a new technique called a fax.

Crayton: The fax machine.

Merrie: Well, that meant for emergency declarations you could get a fax to everybody in the states of North and South Carolina and get on the air there as long as you had somebody who could interact with it. We did a lot more outreach. One of the things that the media office does then, and still does to this day, to my knowledge, are briefings, where you’d invite people in, like editorial writers, education writers, mid-Atlantic reporters. We did a whole bunch of those. Instead of doing one a week, we tried to do at least one a day. That’s a lot of organization. Two hours, half-hour slots, 20 minutes of remarks, 10 minutes of questions. Every once in a while you’d get something with the president as well. My crowning achievement once was we did a briefing for weekly newspapers in the Tri-State area, around Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. There are a lot of weekly newspapers and a lot of them are foreign language papers. We have the things set up and we were going to have about 200 reporters. We were going to have the room for 50 completely full. Scheduling says to me, “Do you think they’d like to have lunch with the president?” I think they’ve died and gone to heaven.

Crayton: Yes.

Merrie: They put President Reagan next to the guy. His first name was Hans, who owned a bunch of these papers around, including in languages like Ukrainian. He just sat there. He didn’t need a thing, he just looked at the president. The AP staff photo was a picture of Hans and the president having lunch. He reprinted the entire transcripts the next week word for word in his newspaper. Then, of course, the best thing where we started to do this technology, again, luck, Crayton, technology had just changed so that you could package a bunch of stations together as long as you could get a satellite time. The Chamber of Commerce had just set up a satellite student, so they needed content. I went to them and I said, “Let me come over with my guest and we’ll do five remote interviews, five minutes each and the Chamber of Commerce anchor can have the sixth interview.” This is a little embarrassing, I could call people and say, “I’d like to talk to the news director.” They said, “He’s busy.” I said, “I’m calling from the White House.” “I’ll get him.” I could call the stations that I wanted and say, “I’ve got this cabinet secretary. You get five minutes on the air with him.” They were live on tape. That was normal, and we tried to do that as frequently as possible. These are all my secrets, Crayton.

Crayton: No, it’s wonderful.

Merrie: I say, “You got to take two cabinet secretaries and one of them has to be Secretary Bill, education. Then, you get in line for the vice president, and then you get in line for the president.” We had a lot of takers. Mrs. Dole was very popular. She gave me a lot of interviews. But it was interesting because Vice President Bush then was one of our mainstays. His chief of staff and his press secretary immediately glommed onto the benefit for this. He would do a fantastic job. At one point we got about two months behind. I had all these people that I had promised interviews with the vice president with, and I had no vice president. We grouped them all together, and as I recall, we did it in about an hour or 90 minutes. We’d have the camera and next would be a card with our anchor’s first name, the call letters and where they were, and we knocked them all off. At the end of it, he said, “Merrie, do you think we could not let so many of these pile up the next time?” I said, “Yes, sir. Yes sir, Mr. Vice President. Absolutely. Yes sir. Yes sir.” But he was great at it. I got to experiment with all those things because technology had changed, we had an open chief of staff, and I had recruited all these extra people to take care of all the administrative jobs. I was just lucky.

Crayton: You’re talking about the Vice President George H.W Bush.

Merrie: Yes.

Crayton: While we’re chatting about him, did you have occasion to coach him or to advise him or to critique him?

Merrie: I’d love to say yes, but that would be aggrandizing my position tremendously. I think it’s fair to say I had a chance in all these interviews to give him a quick briefing, reinforce his own instincts. Remember, most of the local anchors, Crayton, were probing and interested, but they weren’t got you questions.

Crayton: Right. Now, on the other hand, President Reagan known to this day, of course, as the great communicator, and many attribute his acting experience and acumen to his ability to relate to an audience both on camera and live. Do you recall a time where you advised or critiqued President Reagan?

Merrie: Critique being limited to say, thank you very much, you did great, sir. Because remember, my relationship with President Reagan would be limited in formal settings to what we call drop-bys or intros, where he would stop by to welcome a group, or sometimes at the end he would stop by to thank them for coming. We did the first briefing for editors of women’s publications that had been done at the press, and he spoke. At the end of it, he did say to me, “How did I do?” I said, “You did great, sir.”

Crayton: Right, and I’m sure he did.

Merrie: He was wonderful. But remember, you and I have talked about this before. He rehearsed, he took this seriously. I think only within the last maybe 10 or 20 years, people have begun to realize he was a terrific writer on his own. He wrote all those radio scripts himself.

Crayton: You recently did a video for us for social media about rehearsal. Tell that story. I think a lot of people are surprised to know that President Reagan would actually take the time to practice.

Merrie: As far as I could tell… Oh, remember, he wasn’t really practicing with me. It would be Larry Speakes, our press secretary, or Mr. Baker, or Mike Deaver, the Deputy Chiefs of Staff, and he practiced. I told the story, Crayton, because I used it a lot because when I’m trying to get my C-suite people to practice, they always say, “I’m too busy.” Then, the second reason is, “I don’t need to practice, Merrie. I know this stuff backwards and forwards.” The comeback that I have is, “I of all people know how busy you are. Now, my old boss, Reagan, that’s Ronald, he was president, the United States President, he always practice. But hey, if you’re too busy, I understand.”

Crayton: Does that work?

Merrie: It does.

Crayton: Yeah.

Merrie: Because part of it is the methodology that we were talking about earlier, which lends itself to making it very time efficient. If you’ll just show me your guideposts or your setup, rattle off your headlines, which should also be if you’re using visuals, the headlines for your slides or your introduction to whatever the other visual is, and then you wrap up at the end. I should be able to do that with you in maybe 10 minutes, 15 max. Tell me that you don’t have 10 minutes or 15 max, and if you’re really pressed for time, as long as you give me the beginning and the headlines, five minutes. Because it’s a question of verbalizing them as opposed to visualizing them. Huge difference in terms of your performance skills.

Crayton: Besides practice, was there anything else that President Reagan did that you think other CEOs or spokespeople should emulate in order to protect or bolster their brand?

Merrie: This isn’t really from my personal observation, it’s been from all the things that I’ve observed and read since then, but he was a great reader. He practiced. He was a great listener. All the things about him, I had a number of occasions to bring small groups and to meet him and he had a great way of looking at people and just conveying, I am really interested in you. In his case, it was authentic, so people pick that up immediately.

Crayton: That’s interesting you say that. People ask all the time, if you moderate something or even in a podcast, what are you going to ask? My response is, I don’t know. It depends what they say. I have my first couple of questions ready to go, but I want to be able to follow up on what they actually say and listen. I think a lot of reporters today, a lot of moderators don’t do that. They’ve just got it all scripted out.

Merrie: I think that that’s true and it’s unfortunately a loss.

Crayton: What was the impetus for starting Spaeth Communications? What problem were you trying to fix that was different than all the other communications or PR firms that were out there at the time?

Merrie: Well, there are several questions. The motivation was regular income.

Crayton: Fair enough.

Merrie: When we moved here, I had tried a couple of things, which I have now obliterated out of my resume.

Crayton: That’s not on the bio?

Merrie: Not on the bio, no. We were going to be here in Dallas. My husband was interested in politics. He was a lawyer, so I had to find something here to do. The story really is true, and I struck out really having no idea, and being pregnant, having no idea what I was going to do, but thinking I will find someone to hire me for something. It was very serendipitous that it turned out that first week. It turned out almost immediately that the things I had been pioneering, particularly at the Federal Trade Commission, came in enormously useful. For example, we’re really a creation of Arthur Andersen and the Baylor Healthcare system. In Arthur Andersen, dealing with all the accountants, all the work at the Federal Trade Commission was directly relevant. It also put me, if not on a par with them, at least somebody that they thought understood their issues.

Crayton: With Spaeth Communications you’ve trained the C-suite. You’ve trained spokespeople on how to go on camera, how to talk to the media, how to do effective presentations, how to get your message across, how to be likable. What’s the common denominator between all of those who do it really, really well, and the common denominator with those who don’t get it?

Merrie: Well, to add something to what you said, Crayton, my favorite people to train are generally employees who interact with customers or with each other. It’s not just the people at the top. Although, this is very much a leadership issue, as you and I have discussed so many times, but our view is that everybody who works for an organization is a spokesperson. They talk to their family, they talk to their friends, they talk to their neighbors, and they need to be on board. The people who do it well, I think have a genuine recognition that it helps them. The people who probably don’t do it well, of course, they never hire us because they don’t think they need us. They think they already know it. How many times have you had somebody that say, “I didn’t get here without being a good communicator.” Then, I try and bite my tongue and said, “You got here in spite of not being a good communicator, but that’s not the way to win friends and influence people.”
Crayton: Yeah. My guess is you don’t say that. You’re thinking it. At the crux of your methodology, well, you explain your methodology, how does it work? What is it you’re trying to get people to remember and think about when they’re communicating?

Merrie: Well, first of all, we want to convey a standard theory of communication and definition, it’s, who’s the audience? What do I want them to hear, believe, and remember? Who are they going to go talk to? How do I enlist them to carry the message forward? What else is going on holistically in the organization? What do we create for people? What’s the media doing? I’m just one piece of this, but it’s an important piece to look at in terms of alignment, because at this moment I represent the company or the organization. Then, once you buy into that as your definition of communication, it throws off the teaching methodology that you’re so familiar with to teach people how to analyze what drives memory. How to put together your own material, not just on the spot, but strategically over time. Then, how you do that basically to make a contribution, and it’s forever growing. You never master it. It’s a journey, not a destination.

Crayton: Yeah, who’s your favorite student?

Merrie: I think if I pick somebody, I’ll get in trouble. But I think one who would not mind me mentioning him is Tim Muris, who was the Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection when I was at the FTC. Then, he went on to be chairman. He would tell you, I think that I changed his life in terms of his ability to communicate and use it to be a leader.

Crayton: Really? Was it the same thing that you just explained, or was there something specific that-

Merrie: Well, we had a lot of big issues to work on at the Federal Trade Commission.

Crayton: Yeah, yeah. What’s the number one mistake besides I don’t need to practice or I already know this, that you see spokespeople or people who are representing a brand make?

Merrie: I think you and I have talked about this before, Crayton, but my number one thing that I like to talk about, of course, is mentioning the negative and denying it. Only because it’s so obvious and you see it so frequently. For me though, it illustrates how people pick up and use each other’s words. Once you recognize that and have spent a little time studying and practicing, you can use it so beneficially to build a brand, enhance your company, promote your employees. That’s probably the single easiest thing to point to. Plus, there are so many funny examples that it’s easy to teach because it injects that element of humor, which is such an important component of learning.

Crayton: Yeah, and you always talk about how never repeat the negative and you give a couple examples. The most famous, of course, is I am not a crook. Of course, what do people think?

Merrie: Remember, Crayton, we want to replace that. When Tex wrote that speech, my husband-

Crayton: He wrote the speech?

Merrie: He wrote the speech, so I’d like to update that. Nobody remembers the speech. The speech is gone forever.

Crayton: Yes.

Merrie: But there are some updated versions like I did not have sex with that woman.

Crayton: Yes, I did not have sexual relations with that woman.

Merrie: My colleague, Emily Turner’s favorite is Mike Tyson’s, “You called me a recluse rapist. I’m not a recluse.”

Crayton: Right, right. Okay, so let me play devil’s advocate. They’re all obvious examples of a notable figure who repeated the negative. The audience forever remembers the negative, but our customer wants to deny the allegation. How do you answer that when they say, “I got to deny it.”

Merrie: Well, first of all, you acknowledge it by saying, I don’t agree, or that’s not actually true. Alan Graf’s favorite one, the CFO at FedEx for so many years was, I’m the contrary. Then, you’ve got to think about, what’s my substitute word? The secret of good communications is asking, who’s the audience, and at least in this case, what are my root words? In other words, what’s my side of the equation? Because the problem is otherwise you just repeat back the other persons with the negative instead of saying, here’s my side.

Crayton: We talk about giving away the secret sauce, but the truth is that it takes a lot of practice to do this, right?

Merrie: It can take a lot of practice. The interesting thing, one of the most rewarding things to me, Crayton, is how quickly people pick it up and they get it like this, and we transform and change their communication, and therefore their lives and their leadership skills almost immediately.

Crayton: What do you find, this is a leading question and I should be making a statement, what do you find-

Merrie: Should I leave now?

Crayton: Yeah, I’ll just interview myself. One of the things I find is that you see corporate statements that lack so much heart. You and I just recently talked about this. They lack emotion. They lack heart. They lack the wonderful word everybody uses these days, authenticity.

Merrie: Authenticity.

Crayton: How do you coach that?

Merrie: Well, I have a couple of strategies, one of which is I carry my cameras almost everywhere. Of course, today, you can carry your cell phones everywhere. I show people, just talking to my phone, let me show you what it looks like. Frequently, people will say, “Oh, that looks terrible.” You’ve gotten their attention then. If you can get them to practice, and of course, as you know, I carry around hundreds of examples at my fingertips so I can say, “Let me show you what that looks like, and then you can become the critic of somebody else.” We show them what happens by examples. I’ve been fortunate to work with people, particularly lawyers, who get it and use us as a resource to help them make their case. I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of current politics, but we have too many examples of people, I think, where lawyers have taken over and they have scripted things and it really makes the client look terrible.

Crayton:Yeah. We got to end with a speed round of questions.

Merrie: Oh dear.

Crayton: Your eyes got really big. You’re like, what’s next? Some of these are customized just for you, and then some of these are questions we ask every guest.

Merrie: Okay.

Crayton: Okay. All right, so first of all, number one piece of advice that you would give a client who gets in trouble reputationally.

Merrie: Come see us.

Crayton: All right. I love that. Maybe something that they can take away right now.

Merrie: Okay. Think of what the positive is, what you’d be saying if this weren’t happening.

Crayton: We’ll downshift. Favorite news anchor of all time.

Merrie: I’m not sure. Maybe Tom Brokaw.

Crayton: Okay. Favorite reporter?

Merrie: Well, I like people, I love people who have good first lines. Gretchen Morgenson of the, used to write for the New York Times, had great leads. She came up with this great story. She started when she said, “Pay no attention to the liabilities behind the curtain.” I admire people who are really great creative writers.

Crayton: What media outlets do you read every day?

Merrie: Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Dallas Morning News, USA Today, and then there are probably 50 news sites that I get excerpts from. I can’t really claim to read all of them, but I try and look at what’s being covered and what’s trending. I’m always interested to see what’s taking off.

Crayton: Most admired spokesperson or person you’ve seen answer media questions.

Merrie: Well, I have a lot of respect for Larry Speakes, who was our spokesperson and our press secretary at the White House. Not only because I watched him in action, but because by giving me permission to do what I want and to tell the rest of the press secretaries, the press office, Merrie’s contributing something, he really was a key person in letting me bloom.

Crayton: Yeah. I won’t ask you who your favorite president was. Am I guessing correctly?

Merrie: Yes. You’re right.

Crayton: Okay, describe your media-

Merrie: And Mrs. Reagan too.

Crayton: Yeah. Describe your media training methodology. Could you do it in one word if you had to?

Merrie: Learnable.

Crayton: All right. Okay. Then, here’s what we ask every guest, favorite subject in school.

Merrie: Oh, English.

Crayton: What did you major in College?

Merrie: American Studies.

Crayton: What’s your favorite holiday?

Merrie: Easter.

Crayton: Oh, nice. Your favorite hobby.

Merrie: Oh, needlepoint.

Crayton: Your favorite guilty pleasure.

Merrie: Teuscher chocolates. Particularly the little bonbons with the fillings.

Crayton: Your favorite consumer brand?

Merrie: Favorite or most admired?

Crayton: Either.

Merrie: I think L.L. Bean’s probably the most admired.

Crayton: Favorite day of the week.

Merrie: Sunday.

Crayton: Your hidden talent or superpower?

Merrie: Procrastination.

Crayton:If you could pick one person living or dead that you could have dinner with, who would it be?

Merrie: Well, I don’t want to say the obvious one, which is Jesus, because it would be too scary, so I guess it would be Abraham Lincoln.

Crayton: Very good.

Merrie: I’m really fascinated in his thinking about how he evolved in terms of his views on slavery and how to abolish it. It would be fascinating to hear him.

Crayton: I thought you would’ve said President Reagan, but maybe you already had dinner with him.

Merrie: Actually, I did.

Crayton: Part two of the podcast. I would say that you should write a book, Merrie Spaeth, but you already have.

Merrie: Well, those are business advice books, but I can’t write other book.

Crayton: I’m talking about your children’s book.

Merrie: Oh, oh, Baby Bear Comes Back.

Crayton: Yeah.

Merrie: Yeah, that’s a charming book. Please go and get it. Yes, Baby Bear Comes Back, and it has a coloring book and a comic book along with it.

Crayton: Nice, nice. Merrie Spaeth, you just have so many stories. We could fill up hours and hours and hours, but your expertise is amazing. I have enjoyed being your student in previous years. I love working with you, and I just think what you do and what you have created is so unique and truly is helping people not only understand that reputation matters, but helps them protect, build, bolster their reputation. Thank you very much.

Merrie: Am I allowed to say one more thing?


Merrie: Well, I think, Crayton, the first thing I want to say is thank you to you because you have created an environment where a little boutique specialized company like mine can find a home and blossom. That’s a real talent. Thank you.

Crayton: Blessing for us both. Thank you, and thank you for joining us for Reputation Matters, and we’ll see you next time.