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
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
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
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
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.’
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
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.