MEDIA WATCH: Though belated, Stewart's post-indictment PR push earns credit

Media Watch last covered Martha Stewart's PR woes in July, when it was observed that the insider-trading scandal was not only tarnishing her own squeaky-clean image, but also dragging down her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSO).

Media Watch last covered Martha Stewart's PR woes in July, when it was observed that the insider-trading scandal was not only tarnishing her own squeaky-clean image, but also dragging down her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSO).

Over the past 12 months, damning headlines, largely unanswered by the home-design mogul, have continued to chip away at Stewart's image, while the scandal has contributed to a 50% drop in MSO's stock value. The recent indictment of Martha Stewart for securities fraud and obstruction of justice sparked a whole new wave of coverage. Media Watch again focused on reporting that addressed the PR/branding and image angle of the story. The media continues to be fascinated with the PR damage that the Martha Stewart brand and MSO are facing. The New York Times (June 5) suggested that media scrutiny is only just beginning: "In maintaining her innocence and standing for trial, Stewart is subjecting herself and her company...to even more relentlessly negative news media than it has had in the past year and a half." There were also assessments that the damage is now irreparable. Few voices suggested that the brand would emerge from the scandal unscathed. CNN (June 7) quoted one pundit as saying, "The brand 'Martha Stewart' is dead...She'll never fully recover... People always believe you were guilty, and it's hard to win back the sort of brand equity that she's lost." Hours after Martha Stewart was indicted, she launched her PR offensive. Having retained Citigate Sard Verbinnen, she protested her innocence at Marthatalks.com, a newly launched website, and took out a full-page ad in USA Today. Both were well-received PR efforts, with the media praising her for finally being proactive in her crisis communications and acknowledging that millions had logged onto the site. A number of PR experts observed that Stewart's two methods for communicating with the public were ideal for her personality and her situation. Both the website and the advertisement are essentially one-way communication tools that allow her to control the message and separate the individual from the company. In addition, they don't subject her to a press conference or a grueling 60 Minutes-style interview. Given the legal situation in which what she says could be used against her later in court, coupled with her reputation for being short with people, it was widely thought that these were good choices for her. Bill Keegan, director of Edelman's crisis and issues management unit, told the Chicago Sun-Times (June 6) that he liked her plan because, "She controls the message, and she can appeal directly to the court of public opinion." As part of her PR efforts, she has accused the government of targeting her because she is a celebrity and because she's a woman. Although these arguments earned mixed reviews, they were carried by several prominent media outlets, which helped to get her message out. Though Stewart is now on the PR offensive, critics are saying that valuable time has been lost and that many have already made up their minds about her guilt or innocence. In any event, the indications are that the trial will not start for almost another year. As such, more headlines can be expected as the two sides duke it out in the media.
  • Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.

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