PROFILE: For Spaeth, all the world is a stage (for PR) - Child actress, White House PR operative, crisis guru - Merrie Spaeth has played many roles. But as she will certainly tell you, it’s not so much what you say when you’re on stage but

Merrie Spaeth may not have done it all, but Lifetime would have trouble squeezing her biography into a two-hour TV movie. Then again, her life might lack the requisite tragedy for a sappy movie of the week.

Merrie Spaeth may not have done it all, but Lifetime would have trouble squeezing her biography into a two-hour TV movie. Then again, her life might lack the requisite tragedy for a sappy movie of the week.

Merrie Spaeth may not have done it all, but Lifetime would have

trouble squeezing her biography into a two-hour TV movie. Then again,

her life might lack the requisite tragedy for a sappy movie of the


’I have been exceptionally fortunate my whole life,’ reflects the former

child actress, White House operative and present-day PR training


The president of Spaeth Communications has done a lot and she’s done it

well: acting, flying, writing pulp comic books, raising kids, whipping

the White House media relations office into shape.

’If there were a PR Hall of Fame, Merrie would be in it,’ says Russell

Mack, a former White House colleague and EVP of global communications

and public affairs at Mary Kay.

Spaeth lucked into her first career while barely a teen. Through a

nationwide talent search, she landed a leading part in the film Henry

Orient with Peter Sellers and Angela Lansbury. She continued acting for

several years but eventually became disenchanted with showbiz and

enrolled in Smith College.

A blind date her freshman year sent her soaring, but not on the wings of

infatuation. Spaeth’s roommate set her up with a young man who would one

day become Arizona’s felonious governor. Much more taken with Fife

Symington’s airplanes than his personality, she soon got her pilot’s

license and bought her own small aircraft. ’I flew it back to Philly for

Christmas,’ she recalls. ’My father almost had a heart attack.’

After graduation, Spaeth worked for more than a decade as a print and

broadcast journalist. Freelancing for 20/20, she almost earned a

reputation as a ’thoughtful’ producer. ’Thoughtful implied boring,’ she


’To be intellectual or academic was bad.’ Spaeth redeemed herself by

using her movie industry connections to score a hard-to-get interview

with Liberace.

Her academic leanings would serve her well in later years as she

developed a unique model for communications training.

Early in her adult career, she tried to live down her acting days. But

by the time she went to work for the FBI as a White House Fellow in

1980, she had come to grips with her dramatic past: ’I had successfully

managed to become a grown up.’ Lessons learned in the limelight about

performance, timing and audiences carried over into PR.

PR for Starr

On her first day at the FBI in 1980, Spaeth’s coworkers drafted her to

check out another newbie moving into the Justice department - Ken


Years later, another of Starr’s close friends would call Spaeth to

conduct an intervention of sorts. The independent counsel had exploded

in response to jokes about his uptight, moralist image, according to

Truth at Any Cost: Ken Starr and the Unmaking of Bill Clinton, a

recently published book by Susan Schmidt and Michael Weisskopf. Spaeth

videotaped Starr as one of her colleagues hammered him with questions.

Not liking what he saw, Starr cleared his calendar for a marathon

media-training session.

The cramming helped, but Spaeth says Starr could have done much more to

sway public opinion. Every bit the lawyer, he refused to play the PR

game. But his old FBI friend thinks that publicly discussing

constitutional issues would have improved his chances of success in the

impeachment hearings.

Spaeth moved from the FBI to the White House in 1983 to become director

of media relations. President Carter created the office during his

administration to serve reporters outside the Beltway. The function

languished in Ronald Reagan’s early years, and when Spaeth arrived, the

media relations office only conducted occasional briefings and mailed

press releases. She quickly ramped things up, organizing a system for

same-day wire delivery of news and setting up daily satellite interviews

with key administration officials for TV stations around the country.

’We wanted to reach into America,’ she says.

Spaeth finds modern politics distasteful, but still counsels people like

Republican National Convention chairman Jim Nicholson on a pro bono

basis. Spaeth worked in the White House for a year and a half before

moving to Dallas with her husband, attorney Tex Lezar. She landed an

unfortunate PR job in the banking industry: ’It was clear the bank was

headed over a cliff, so I struck out on my own with no clear plan. We

call this phenomenon being a ’Texas entrepreneur.’’

Spaeth Communications, now a dollars 1.5 million operation, employs 15

people - 11 in Dallas and one each in Houston; Columbia, MO; Washington,

DC; and Indianapolis. Spaeth does traditional PR consulting, but the

foundation of her practice is training. The communications program

Spaeth developed goes beyond traditional PR. Her influence model

incorporates theories about psychology, mass communication and

interpersonal relationships.

Spaeth stresses not what you say but rather what people remember.

’Merrie changed the way we think about message,’ says Tina Barry,

Kimberly-Clark’s SVP of corporate communications. ’No longer are we

focusing on what we say but on what people might hear.’

Video vixen

Spaeth believes in teaching by example and has amassed an enormous

library of video clips. To teach the importance of not repeating

negatives, she hands out ’Bimbo Awards’ each month in honor of Jessica

Hahn’s ’I am not a bimbo’ statement. ’We give a lot to President

Clinton, starting with ’I did not have sex with that woman,’’ quips

Spaeth, who lauds the president’s overall communication performance.

Last year’s Bimbo champ?

Mike Tyson, for saying, ’You called me a reclusive rapist. I’m not a


An admitted fan of Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Spaeth says family and church

come before work. She takes pride in cooking breakfast and dinner for

her two children and reading to them each night she’s not traveling.

At work, Spaeth strives to change the way people think about


She considers an introduction from Antonio Alvarado, executive director

of the Texas State Bar, as one of her biggest compliments. ’Merrie

resets your mind,’ he once said. Given the information overload of

today’s business world, we could all benefit from a few minutes with


Merrie Spaeth

Founder, president

Spaeth Communications

1963: Makes teenage acting debut in Henry Orient

1970-1981: Print and broadcast journalist

1980: Earns MBA, selected as White House Fellow serving at the FBI

1983: Becomes White House director of media relations

1987: Founds Spaeth Communications in Dallas.

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