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Merrie Spaeth: The Fixer

The communications specialist has made a successful career out of fixing other people’s problems. Now she has to fix one of her own.
By |
photography by Billy Surface

Merrie Spaeth is a fixer. When prominent Republicans and powerful CEOs get into trouble or need help crafting just the right message for the media, they call Spaeth. When a group of Swift Boat veterans told the world why they didn’t think John Kerry should be president, and when Ken Starr prepared to give testimony that recommended impeaching Bill Clinton, Spaeth was there, in the room, helping to shape history. When Craig James, then a sportscaster and burgeoning conservative senatorial candidate, got into a public clash with the head football coach at Texas Tech—James went to Spaeth. When the glare from a new 42-story luxury condo building appeared to be damaging the treasured sculpture center next door, executives at the pension fund that sells the condos called Spaeth. When a meat-packing plant in South Dallas was caught dumping pig’s blood into the Trinity River, the owners found Spaeth.

Recently though, Spaeth has had a crisis of her own. Earlier this year, an employee of 27 years—a close friend, Spaeth thought—pleaded guilty to embezzling nearly $1 million from Spaeth’s firm over the course of seven years. Spaeth knows that a negative depiction in the media can be particularly problematic in the media-relations business. People might think she has no control in her own office. They might think she makes so much money that she wouldn’t notice large sums missing. A long article pointing out how she was fooled could drive away potential clients.

But here she is, sitting at a conference table with a journalist, doing what she does best: framing the conversation. She’s open, honest, and warm—even when it’s clear she’s uncomfortable discussing certain topics. In her early 60s and carrying a hint of an out-of-state accent, she offers me water, tea, a salad from the café down the street. She tells me that she and her team debated how she should respond to my interview request. She doesn’t advertise and she tries to stay out of the news. (The name of the firm did not appear in court documents and, aside from a few brief mentions in local outlets, the case received almost no coverage.) She’s still not sure whether she should be talking to me. She tells me several times that what she does is “all very boring” while interspersing casual, polite compliments.

“If it were any other publication, or any other writer, I’m not sure we would have agreed to this,” she says in a way that both conveys trust and relays expectation. (Spaeth wrote a column about executive communications for D CEO from 2006 to 2010.) Her easy charm and good humor are invaluable in this profession.

We’re on the second floor of her pink, two-story, stand-alone office building in Uptown, the headquarters of Spaeth Communications Inc. She reminds me that crisis management isn’t the only thing she does. When people call her a fixer, she says, it reminds her of the old parable about the blind men and the elephant. Each man feels a different part of the animal and comes to a different conclusion—the man who feels the tail thinks the elephant is like a rope, the man who feels the leg believes the elephant is like a pillar, and so on—until someone points out that they are all correct: the elephant is many things. Spaeth’s comparison reminds us that she does many things, from writing speeches to interview prepping to pitching stories and fielding reporters’ calls, but it also reminds us that the public is blind to most of them.

Through her firm, Spaeth teaches her approach to crisis planning. She suggests CEOs try to anticipate potential problems. She says she never imagined a problem like this, though.

“I trusted Marci,” she says, referring to the embezzler. “We try to encourage trust and openness. I want a great work environment. That’s why this is so devastating.”

Marci Johnson started at Spaeth’s company as an intern, just six months after Spaeth founded the firm in 1987. Over the years Johnson moved up the ranks, earning more trust, less oversight. In August of 2003, she became the chief administrative officer, managing the office, setting up important meetings all over the country—and occasionally overseas. She had total access to the company’s credit cards and checkbooks.

Spaeth is calm, firm, deliberate as she talks about it, though she’d really rather not. She tells her clients to rehearse before speeches and interviews. “My former boss, Ronald Reagan, the president of the United States, rehearsed,” she says, sounding like she’s said this once or twice before. “If he found time, everyone can.”

She gives out wallet-sized cards filled with “acknowledgment phrases” that she says should answer most questions clients face. Suggested responses include: “There are pros and cons,” “Let me put that in perspective,” and “I don’t have a crystal ball.” She writes a monthly newsletter, The BIMBO Memo, chronicling major missteps in public relations. She guides (mostly Republican) politicians through the miasma of modern media. And she specializes in re-framing stories to help shift public opinion. Spaeth has worked with the Baylor Health Care System, FedEx, and, of course, a whole litany of conservative causes. She was the media contact for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign. The entire campaign, and the group’s slogan-critique of Kerry, “Unfit for Service,” were born right here in this conference room.

I ask her what she thinks when she hears “swiftboat” used as a verb.

“Steam comes out of my head,” she says.

She paints a portrait of a group of well-intentioned military men coming together because they were still angry about testimony Kerry had given to Congress upon his return from Vietnam. Her husband had died just a few weeks earlier, and his law partner, John O’Neill, asked for her advice. At first, Spaeth says, she told O’Neill that he was “raving like a lunatic” about Kerry. Looking back, she says there were so many strong-willed vets—she affectionately calls them “Swifties”—and they felt so passionately about this, she wanted to keep the message focused on Kerry’s 1971 testimony. She wishes now that she’d asked for final veto power, because the campaign lost focus.  She’s called it her “biggest regret.”

It’s complicated, though. The campaign in many ways defined the election, and it’s remembered mostly as dishonest, as taking one of Kerry’s perceived strengths—he was a decorated war veteran in an election occurring amid two wars, running against a man who didn’t serve in Vietnam—and turning it around. She points out that to a lot of people, the campaign was about a small group speaking truth to power. And the campaign did achieve its ultimate goal: Kerry lost.

As a result, some reporters—especially the liberal ones—have come to think of Spaeth as some sort of puppet master, pulling strings, spinning the truth to benefit evil profiteers and corrupt business interests. Some think the act of hiring Spaeth alone is tantamount to guilt.
Of course, that’s not how she sees it at all. “If a company doesn’t want to do things in the right way, the above-board, ethical way,” she says, “they won’t last long with us.” She says her firm’s relationships with Craig James and the meat-packing plant were brief.

The longer we talk about all the things she does, the longer we aren’t talking about the embezzlement. This is how framing works.

‘SHE’S THE BEST’: The first time I met Spaeth, she was working for an airport restaurant vendor who felt like he’d been unfairly cut out of business opportunities at both Love Field and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. We all sat in the conference room and went over why her client was so sympathetic (his personal story), and how he’d been wronged in an egregious way. In the end, I didn’t write the story—for complicated, boring reasons—but I still got to see Spaeth and her team pushing tirelessly to tell the client’s story in a way that, while still adhering to the truth, would also likely benefit his business greatly.

Lou Grabowsky, chief operating officer at Grant Thornton LLP, one of the country’s largest accounting and consulting firms, has worked on projects for various clients with Spaeth since the 1980s. He doesn’t want to get too specific about which companies he’s brought Spaeth in to work with, or what exactly they’ve done. Not naming your clients is sometimes part of the media-relations game. But he will say that a few years ago she consulted when a large corporation was going through a bankruptcy restructuring.

“Merrie helps you keep things in perspective. She’s very constructive, very positive. She never gets frazzled,” Grabowsky says. “She’s very effective in the boardroom with senior executives. When you have a lot on the line at the top of an organization, and tensions are high and politics are in the air—if you want someone to calm that down and ready people for communications, she’s the best.”

Grabowsky says she helped the management team retain control of the company. “She helped us develop a clear, articulate, transparent message to clarify the confusion over what was happening inside,” he says. 

“She helped restore a brand that had been damaged.”

Merrie Spaeth has been working with words for a while. The walls of the Spaeth Communications office are lined with history from a career that dates back nearly 50 years. There are movie posters and production stills from a 1964 Peter Sellers film, The World of Henry Orient. At 14, she played one of the two girls who spend the movie spying on Sellers’s title character. A 2012 New Yorker story cited Spaeth’s performance as part of what makes the film “one of the most enduringly funny and moving American movies ever made.” She says a theater teacher where she grew up in Philadelphia insisted that all of his students audition in one of the open casting calls. “I never expected to get a part,” Spaeth says. “The entire experience, working with Peter Sellers and Angela Lansbury, it was just wonderful.” She had a few more screen roles in the years that followed, but nothing as grand as her film debut.

Across from her desk are photos and mementos from her time in the Reagan Administration. Not long after graduating from Columbia University with an M.S. degree, she became a White House Fellow. She eventually worked for the F.B.I. as a special assistant to the director, then became director of media relations for Ronald Reagan’s White House. Spaeth pioneered remote interviews using satellite technology, allowing the president and various other officials to speak directly to different media markets across the country. She says a headline at the time in one of the Washington papers—she doesn’t remember which one, because, “there were even more back then than there are today”—proclaimed she’d taken the White House “Into the Space Age.”

In 1984 Spaeth married Tex Lezar, chief of staff in the Reagan Justice Department who later ran for Texas lieutenant governor with George W. Bush. (Bush won, but Lezar lost.) They moved to Dallas in the mid-1980s.

From early on, she’s abided by what she calls a “Golden Rule style of management.” She’s flexible with what hours her employees work and which cases they work on. Former employees tell stories about her kindness, her generosity, her habit of stopping the car to pick up stray dogs and cats. Though she works on Republican campaigns, she’s had staff members from across the political spectrum. They describe her as something of a mother figure.

Emily Turner has done two stints at Spaeth’s company, first as an associate for five years, then later five more years as a vice president. For part of that time, she was based in Washington, D.C. When she came to Dallas, she would stay at Spaeth’s house.

“She would come to my room every night,” says Turner, who now works for a company based in Georgia. “She would ask if I wanted tea or wine. She would leave a flower next to the bed every night. It’s surprising how caring she is.”

When the economy crashed in 2008, several employees took voluntary pay cuts because, as Turner puts it, “the working environment is so amazing, we felt like family.”

Photography by Billy Surface

FOCUSING ON WORDS: The formative moment of Merrie Spaeth’s post-government career came one day when she was talking to Jim Adams, then the CEO of Southwestern Bell. The telephone company had just begun a quality initiative that involved employees deployed to talk to customers about their services. Adams had found, much to his dismay, that, despite all the time, money, and energy, customers could barely remember what they were told. That’s when Spaeth saw it: “Of course the customers didn’t remember much,” she says, but that’s not the point. “The most important part is: What did they walk away thinking? What will they be telling their friends and relatives and coworkers?”

The point of words isn’t the individual words themselves; it’s the message they communicate. This is the focus of her life’s work. This is what her system is all about, focusing on the effect. And that’s why she was so hesitant to sit down with me. The effect of these words is harder to predict.

But it’s time to talk about Marci Johnson. Spaeth calls her “our embezzler.” She lets out a deep sigh.

The fraud went on for so long, they may never know exactly how much money Johnson stole. It’s much more than the $772,000 listed in court documents; it’s at least $1.2 million, according to Spaeth. Johnson used the money to add an elaborate outdoor deck to her home in Kaufman County. It included a hot tub, an outdoor grill, and extended outdoor granite countertops. She also wrote company checks to pay off charges on her own personal credit cards. Those charges mostly were for restaurants, department stores, movies, concert tickets, limos, and groceries.

Because Johnson was the only person in the office who saw the company credit-card bills, Spaeth says, “nobody had any clue what was going on.” Even as employees took pay cuts, Johnson kept spending. “This was a person we thought we knew,” Spaeth says. “I never saw it coming.”

Turner worked with Johnson during both stints at Spaeth Communications. “She portrayed an image,” Turner says of the embezzler. “When I had my children, she sent me baby blankets from Pottery Barn. It turns out she was lying to all of us. She probably bought those blankets with company money. It really was the worst kind of betrayal possible.”

Spaeth explains that the truth came out when the company was scheduled for an IRS audit. Johnson knew she’d be found out and confessed. Spaeth was stunned.

“It was so personal,” she says. And this is truth, laid bare. Spaeth truly doesn’t know exactly what to say. She describes the whole thing as “sobering.” She’s not crying as she talks about it, but she seems close. “It’s just—” Spaeth says, looking for the right words. “It’s a very painful violation.”

Several employees joined Spaeth at the courthouse during Johnson’s proceedings, as Spaeth says, “to show our appreciation to the U.S. Attorney’s office [for] taking the time to protect small, women-owned businesses.”

Spaeth would much rather talk about her methodology, her system for delineating the good words from the dangerous ones. She talks about all the places Paula Deen went wrong in her recent public relations meltdown. She talks about how, in an increasingly bifurcated media landscape, communicators often need at least two separate messages, and how they have to work twice as hard as they did in the past.

I ask Spaeth what she thinks her legacy will be, how history will reflect on someone so dedicated to controlling the message. After all, her critics see her as a cynic, a sophist willing to bend a message to suit a goal.

“I really hope people will say that we came along and gave communication an organized focus,” she says. The way that she brought White House media relations into the Space Age, she’d like to be remembered for bringing structure to communication in the information age, for a system that can turn words from dangerous traps into useful tools.

In the end, she concedes, it will depend on who’s doing the framing. 

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