my turn


Martha Stewart, Public Relations Failure

Martha Stewart may have been a genius in marketing herself to millions of women, but her public relations acumen is in the Stone Age.

I'm sure it all started like this: you are Martha Stewart, highly visible but somewhat past your peak as the doyenne of home arts, and your publicly traded company is having a number of issues. People are defecting, the board is complaining, and you've even announced that Blackrock is looking for "strategic partnerships." Not everybody is your fan, and people are wondering if you're putting yourself on the block now.

Into the picture comes a New York magazine writer who clearly is sniffing around for a story about what went wrong with your company after you were released from jail. His initial queries are probably quite general, but you get a sense that all is not well in Pleasantville.

You have a decision to make -- do you cooperate or not, and how do you steer this article to make it as favorable as possible because you sense there could be trouble? Michael Sitrick, author of my favorite PR book Spin!, probably would have recommended getting a positive article out there before the New York one, potentially muting the impact or maybe even delaying its appearance.



You decide to opt for a complete, utter, across-the-board shutdown.

Fast forward: the article appears and it's a real shredder -- you come across as a micromanaging witch who won't listen to anybody and spends enough money on throwaway items to feed a Third World country in a year.

Read this article very carefully, if you have any interest in public relations crisis management or strategy. Once you get over the many "ouch!" parts, think about this:

Not one person in this article defended Martha Stewart. Not one.

Nobody in her company, MSLO, rose to the occasion to tell the reporter "You're wrong. This is how we work" or "this is how we turn a profit" or "this is our strategy and here's why it's sound."

No friend or associate came forth, on the record or not for attribution, to say a nice thing about Martha and why she was a great person, or even a nice person, or even a generous person, or that she even helped little old ladies cross the street.

The Martha Stewart strategy was, I imagine, "They're not going to say anything good about us, so why should we say anything?"

Ah, the classic blunder of waving the white flag, getting your butt deep in the foxhole, and hoping no bullets graze you when the smoke clears.

Could you imagine Casey Anthony's attorney informing the judge at her trial, "Look, those prosecutors are going to say lots of mean things about us, so why should we even show up? We'll wait until they say everything and show all their evidence, and we'll cross our fingers for good luck when the jury comes back."

New York magazine basically had a free pass to tear Martha Stewart to shreds, with nobody to set the record straight or persuade the journalist otherwise.

Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia has millions of shareholders who are definitely reading this bombshell and may decide she's not worth investing in. Retailers and potential licensors may think twice about shaking hands on a deal with her. Her brand, to use the clichéd phrase, has been damaged.

Now why would Martha Stewart leave herself hung out to dry, defenseless, willing to take as many bullets as New York magazine could shoot?

It's possible that after enduring jail time, she feels she can survive just about anything and rise above it. Hers is clearly a well-flexed ego. Perhaps she does not believe the pen is mightier than the sword or she's resolved that people will forget about this story as they putter off to their August retreats.

Time will tell if Martha's unwavering belief in being "Teflon" will work.

But I don't think anybody is going to forget this article, as it will remain intact on the Internet for a long time to come, for anybody Googling her press coverage. If she's selling, the price they're giving may not be what she expected.

There are few reasons for silence to be a sound public relations strategy.

But not when you are setting yourself up as a sitting duck.

2 comments about "Martha Stewart, Public Relations Failure ".
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  1. G Chu from N.A., August 9, 2011 at 10:56 a.m.

    "Martha Stewart, public relations failure" is baseless.

    "Time will tell if Martha's unwavering belief in being "Teflon" will work. " What does that portend? Obviously, the destruction of thousands of jobs. So, media power and the freedom of the press were abused, misused, and exploited by the New York magazine to target the destruction of thousands of jobs in the worse recession since the Great Depression.

    The logic of this article is propagandist spin for the New York magazine. The New York magazine article is cesspool journalism based on pervasive anonymous, nameless, and disgruntled sources having no credibility. This article means buying or subscribing to the New York magazine is a wasting money on cesspool journalism, just like porn. Spinning cesspool journalism into reputable journalism is no different from trying to spin porn into reputable journalism.

    "You decide to opt for a complete, utter, across-the-board shutdown" was the only smart, wise, and excellent response to the cesspool journalism of the "New York magazine writer," a media mercenary with no journalistic integrity. The name and brand of Martha Stewart and the reputation of MSLO were protected by not kowtowing to this media mercenary with no journalistic integrity. The stature of Martha Stewart and MSLO respond only to reputable journalism and give no credibility to cesspool journalism.

    The cesspool journalism of the New York magazine was based on no reliable, credible, reputable sources, so it can never be a "real shredder" and a "bombshell" for Martha Stewart. Instead, for readers who expect reputable, quality journalism from the New York magazine, it is "real shredder" of their journalistic reputation and a "bombshell" for the complete absence of any journalistic integrity.

    "It will remain intact on the Internet for a long time to come" only if the New York magazine remains devoid of any journalistic integrity and cares nothing about a reputation for cesspool journalism.

  2. Leonard Sipes from Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, August 12, 2011 at 12:11 p.m.

    From my personal site addressing social media and PR for government, associations and nonprofits:

    They’re not going to say anything good about us—How to handle bad news

    Another interesting article from Media Post documents (laments?) the trials and tribulations of Martha Stewart.

    In an article titled, “Martha Stewart, Public Relations Failure by Drew Kerr,” the article addresses New York Magazine’s investigation of Stewart’s company:

    “You have a decision to make — do you cooperate or not, and how do you steer this article to make it as favorable as possible because you sense there could be trouble?”

    “You decide to opt for a complete, utter, across-the-board shutdown.”

    “Fast forward: the article appears and it’s a real shredder — you come across as a micromanaging witch who won’t listen to anybody…”

    “The Martha Stewart strategy was, I imagine, “They’re not going to say anything good about us, so why should we say anything?”


    So how would we handle the situation?

    We in government, associations and nonprofits make a variety of mistakes when confronted with bad news:

    We emulate political spin.

    We emulate corporate spin.

    The problem is that politicians and corporations play by different rules. Quite simply, we have to be accountable to the public we serve. There is no such thing as spinning bad news. We are not beholden to stockholders or to a political party. We are accountable to the general public.

    Whether we like it or not, we are also beholden to the media. They get to pick the story and the reporter. Fair or unfair does not enter the picture.

    We have one option, truth and accessibility

    Bad news is going to part of our lives; it’s impossible for us to do what we do and not encounter problems.

    But how we react to bad news set’s the tone for future coverage.

    The formula is simple; admit mistakes and show the public what you will do to solve the problem in the future. Fess up and get it all out in one interview; leave nothing behind.

    Make the bad news as short as possible, learn from your mistakes and move on.

    What you do with this “strategy” is make the news cycle as short as possible and you gain credibility for the future. The biggest problem for our agencies is that we tend to over-respond to bad news. It happens. Move on.

    “Experts” will keep you in seminars for days regarding strategy and bad news events. It’s unnecessary and counterproductive.

    Keep it short and sweet; here’s what we know and here’s how we are going to fix it in the future and we regret the event.

    There is one reward for being upfront and honest, respect. As long as you are honorable people doing an honorable job, the media and public will understand difficulties.

    Best, Leonard Sipes.

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