Crisis Management: Consultants Can Sometimes Hurt: Crisis communications
The reputation of Martha Stewart is mended. She served penance and public opinion about her rebounded.
However, when she was convicted, her case demonstrated at least one thing. The best PR won’t help if you’re guilty. Her case reminded me of a prospective client who, after catching much grief for precipitously closing a plant and firing workers, asked me for PR assistance. I laid out six strategies. He said he couldn’t follow any of them. Not until months later did I understand why. Authorities indicted him. At least that man knew what he was facing. Did Martha Stewart know what she was facing? How could this preeminently successful entrepreneur, her lawyers, and consultants have failed?
From the outside looking in, it appeared her team was doing everything right. Stewart told investigators and the public she did nothing wrong. She lowered her public profile for months. Just before trial she emerged to talk demurely about her life (and not the case) to Barbara Walters and Larry King. Even her mother was present. A reasonable viewer might well conclude this thoughtful person couldn’t be guilty of the obstruction of justice charges against her. Apparently her lawyers felt the same. They presented a defense that one newspaper said “took less time than one of her syndicated cooking shows.” (As we now know, jurors wanted to hear more from Stewart’s side. Some observers agreed with the Stewart team’s approach. Others vehemently criticized it.) Even as the jury deliberated, her company’s share prices rose on speculation she would be “exonerated.” All appeared rosy: until the verdict. An icon toppled despite thousands of dollars worth of legal and public relations advice. So what went wrong? Countless observers have speculated, so let me fire one more round.
I believe she was ensnared by consecutive communication failures.
First, Stewart lied to investigators, even after she had consulted with her own attorneys. I attribute this to CEO/celebrity hubris. “I am special and the world IS as I see it.” She should have said nothing or told the truth. She did neither. Failing that, she should have quickly apologized for misleading investigators and taken her licks.
Second, Stewart did not testify. I know some legal experts support that tactic, but my question is why, from a juror’s point of view, would a TV star who regularly tells people how to organize their kitchens, parties, gardens, clothes, and lives, not be willing to tell her story? Did she have something to hide? At least two jurors said they wanted to hear from her and were puzzled why she didn’t address them.
Third, as professional a presenter as Stewart is, she has been historically and notoriously brusque with people. We heard the stories, and many relished knowing that the queen of domestic perfection was really a _itch. The jury said her prickly personality was inconsequential at trial, but I believe her insensitive treatment of others created a built-in bias against her when the case began. Example: After being charged, Stewart gave a CBS-TV interview. She talked of her predicament while distractingly chopping lettuce for her weekly homemaker appearance. The media and critics mostly ridiculed it as a PR train wreck on national TV. But was it really? I have shown that entire CBS interview to more than 100 clients and most said they did NOT believe it was a train wreck, and – lettuce chopping aside – was rather good. Our consensus was that many people were predisposed to view Stewart negatively. Her historic failure to communicate well with others was tainting the way people judged her. Ironically, after being taken down by the court, sentiments seem to shifting in her favor.
I have long admired how Martha Stewart created a billion-dollar empire basically out of her head. She is now resurrecting herself. Perhaps she now knows better than ever that communicating well is a zero sum game, not done some of the time or only when it is convenient or expedient or mandatory. It is a 24/7 responsibility.