If any lessons can be taken from the ongoing public skewering of two of the media business' most iconic women, then any aspiring Martha Stewarts and Bonnie Fullers are taking great care in crafting their images, even in the earliest stages of their careers.
It's become evident that ambitious women not only have to be dynamic leaders, both creative and business-savvy enough to survive in the cutthroat competitive environment, but they also have to be great girlfriends, wives, mothers, friends, and bosses. They have to wield their power gently and be amply generous when they receive gifts, not finicky about their diets, and fashionable - lest they suffer the fate of Martha and Bonnie, whose dramatic travails are at once very different and very similar and always revealing about the interaction of women, reputation, and the media.
Regardless of whether Stewart is guilty of insider trading, the jury was already in on allegations that won't be documented in any court proceedings: a felony charge of meanness. That was an open-and-shut case, largely because of the testimony of the Merrill Lynch assistant who, by his own account, was the target of tirades in which Stewart called him an "idiot" and worse. That was abetted by a willing press, always eager to zoom in on supposed excesses of women in power. James B. Stewart was less part of this problem than evidence of its existence when he wrote on SmartMoney.com, "Indeed, the most damaging testimony to Martha, the brand, as opposed to Martha, the person, may not be that she lied about a stock trade, but that she was abusive on the phone to a young assistant at Merrill Lynch."
It would be hard to imagine this kind of brand analysis surrounding a male CEO, and it looks even more like a symptom of a deeply ingrained prejudice when you consider the treatment of Fuller, the infamous editor now remaking Star magazine from a tabloid into a glossy. Her pillorying, wholly a function of her success, reached new lows in triviality in this month's Vanity Fair piece that dredges up embittered assistants and frames their testimonies in a fashion faux-pas layout that is apparently an attempt to turn the tables on Fuller and her celebrity focus. The piece barely mentions the real substance of her career - her success in turning around magazines and juicing up American journalism's obsession with celebrity.
Writing for a PR publication, it would be facile to say simply that this demonstrates just how important CEO reputation is in general. But Stewart and Fuller both exist in an artificial world, a transparent hothouse with millions of eyes bearing in on them. What's troubling about this world - and perhaps an intractable PR problem - is that it's built not on the expectations of those with a stake in the success of the businesses, but instead, to a great degree, on the media's fascination with itself and its problem with powerful women.