Friday, August 5, 2011

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, a highly-visible but somewhat past your peak 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 Blackrock is looking for "strategic partnerships." Not everybody is a fan of you 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 happy in Pleasantville.

You have a decision to make -- do you co-operate 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.

Your strategy is 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 micro-managing witch who won't listen to anybody and spends enough money on throwaway items to feed a third world country in 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 shy 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 cliche 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. She clearly has 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 the late 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 hardly any reasons for silence to be a sound public relations strategy.

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

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