Lisa LeMaster: The Queen of Crisis
Lisa LeMaster, Dallas crisis management, media coaching expert, and founder of The LeMaster Group, started her journey as an SMU English major.
LeMaster went on to first pursue a successful career in Dallas radio reporting before starting her crisis management and media coaching business. LeMaster, who recently sat down with the Daily Campus on a Zoom call, has worked behind the scenes with some of the most interesting people across the country.
LeMaster, who graduated in 1976, is best known for her skills in media communications. She even helped SMU through the university’s pay-to-play football scandal, which resulted in the “death penalty” cancellation of the football program in 1987. Over the years, she has been providing advice to individuals from business giants and pro-sports team owners, such as Drayton McLane, Jr. and Jerry Jones, to politicians, such as George W. Bush, to famous football coaches, such as Nick Saban.
McLane, chairman of the McLane Group and former chairman and CEO of the Houston Astros, is one of LeMaster’s most prized clients. She had previously worked with George W. Bush, before he was governor of Texas, when he bought the Texas Rangers. Bush referred LeMaster to McLane when the billionaire businessman was trying to buy the Astros in 1992.
“George W. Bush told me that I couldn’t buy the Houston Astros until I graduated from the Lisa LeMaster school of public relations,” McLane said. “He took me over to her office and she gave me a seminar on how to deal with the press. Lisa has helped me throughout my time with the Astros until 2011 and with other involvements that have required public relations since.”
Before she got into crisis management and media coaching, LeMaster had her start in radio at SMU. She worked for KSMU, a now-defunct student-led radio station. She recalls reporting Lyndon B. Johnson’s death to a handful of listeners. She went on to work for WRR AM, where she worked as an overnight anchor, before moving on to WBAP, a country music station serving the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, in 1976.
“I first met Lisa in 1976 when I was a reporter for KRLD and she was a reporter for WBAP,” Rick Ericson, a longtime friend and colleague of LeMaster’s, said. “I believe we met one night reporting at a crime scene. We worked against each other at competing stations for several years, until she came to work at KRLD in 1978.”
LeMaster looks back fondly on her days at SMU and as a Dallas reporter and believes her early career in journalism gave her the tools to have such a successful career in media communications.
“I was the busiest reporter in the city because I was the only Dallas reporter for the radio station,” LeMaster said. “I covered everything. I learned about the city really fast. There are still people who remember me from my reporter days.”
KRLD, an all-news station, was looking for a new reporter in 1978. The news director of the station asked Alex Burton, longtime DFW radio and news personality, who the best radio reporter was in town, and he named LeMaster.
“Burton was a star, and I couldn’t believe that he recommended me,” she said.
After about two years, LeMaster and the KRLD news director, Ken Fairchild, created the media coaching company Fairchild-LeMaster Group. Now just The LeMaster Group, it has gone on to work with some of the biggest names in scandals, sports, and politics.
LeMaster says the best match for her is something that is slightly political, high profile, and is a public issue of some sort. Clients, including McLane, appreciate her expertise and strong opinions.
“Lisa takes her business very seriously, and she’s always available,” McLane said. “I’ve had to call her at 11 or 12 o’clock at night, and she’s still so sharp. Sometimes, I disagree with her, and she always defends her position fiercely. And you know what? She’s always right.”
Though LeMaster has since avoided politics, it provided a turning point in her career when working for the Bill Clements reelection for Governor of Texas campaign in 1982. The campaign was running short on cash and the chairman, Jim Francis, asked LeMaster if she could reduce some of her fees.
“I said that I would do it if/when this was all over, he would recommend our business to a list of 10 people I would give him,” LeMaster said. “That worked like a charm. Francis is a very politically connected guy, and I wanted to work with the biggest names. Out of the list of 10 important people that I gave him, eight pulled through that next year.” said LeMaster.
LeMaster returned to her alma mater to assist SMU through its famous death penalty in 1986. This was not only one of her first crisis management projects but one of her toughest. She was only 31 and had just had her daughter when she was brought on to work with the Board of Governors (which went on to abolish itself), the NCAA investigation, and to help the new president of SMU, A. Kenneth Pye, manage the aftermath of it all.
Francis introduced LeMaster to Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, after he bought the team in 1989, fired coach Tom Landry, and had an infamously poor press conference where he said he would be in control of everything “from jocks to socks.”
LeMaster’s team snuck Jones into their building and spent the afternoon providing media coaching to the new Cowboys’ owner. She worked with Jones for him to understand that the reporters aren’t the real audience; they are just conduits to the fans, sponsors, players, and millions of views. Jones then introduced her to the National Football League. She worked with the NFL on their most complex issues, including the 2014 scandal involving Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice when he assaulted then-fiancée Janay Palmer in an elevator, as well as preparing Troy Vincent, executive vice president of the NFL, to be on 60 Minutes.
LeMaster’s process for media coaching starts with preparing a list of questions she thinks will be asked in an interview and deciding how to best answer them.
“I don’t believe in blocking a question or the popular practice of pivoting from it,” she said. “Everyone can tell when you’re avoiding a question. I say give it the answer it deserves and then you can bridge to what you want to say. The hardest part is coming up with the best possible answer to the toughest question.”
LeMaster and Ericson kept in touch through the years, and she eventually asked him to come work with her in 1997. They have worked together to this day.
“Neither of us had a college journalism background,” Ericson said. “We just ended up in it. Because of our careers in journalism, we have a pretty good idea of the types of questions that our clients will be asked. Lisa in particular has always had this uncanny ability to predict the toughest questions that someone will be asked by a reporter or by the public. It’s like playing a chess game against her. She is recognized nationally for her ability to do this, and she just doesn’t miss.”
Saban hired LeMaster to give media coaching to his football team when he was still coaching at Louisiana State University and before he moved on to coach the Miami Dolphins in 2004.
“When he became Alabama’s head coach, he hired me to speak to the team,” LeMaster said. “I’ve done it every year since he’s been there.”
Despite her impressive resume, LeMaster says her toughest challenge has been being a woman in her industry.
“When you’re the only woman in the room, and usually I am, you have to wait for the best opportunity to offer some wise advice,” she said. “They usually figure out that I know my subject matter.”