Watching the culmination of the Martha Stewart trial is something I won’t soon forget.
As word leaked out that a verdict was at hand, I tuned to CNBC to watch the coverage. With a camera trained on the courthouse door, CNBC went through the motions – describing the charges, the potential impact of a verdict and retelling the whole, sorted story. Suddenly, the courthouse doors exploded open and people – who we later found out were producers for various media outlets – swarmed out of the building holding up placards, waving shirts and making phone calls. It was like a bad scene from a bad television movie. But it was so much better – it was real life.
I’ll admit that I paid little attention to the Martha Stewart trial. Her crimes didn’t exactly impact my life and I figured she’d be found guilty of, at minimum, obstruction of justice. I was surprised to see her rung up on all charges and it was with some satisfaction that I watched the “fallout” coverage with my parents, whom I’m currently visiting.
My parents are good barometers of the news for me. They’re semi-retired and moved to a rural area a little more than six years ago. What’s most important to them is news that impacts them personally. Martha Stewart is just some personality to them. This isn’t to say my parents didn’t have an opinion on the matter and our discussion of Martha kept coming back to one key element: her strategy.
We couldn’t figure out if her lawyers had given her bad advice or perhaps her public relations people had steered her down the wrong path. Maybe, Martha was in charge of her destiny and wouldn’t listen to anyone else. After reviewing the specifics of the case, we decided that it was pretty much a done deal. Martha, in our opinion, was guilty of insider trading (though this was not a charge that went to the jury), fraud and obstruction of justice. She had sold stock in ImClone based on inside information and then lied to the Feds about what she did. Hello jail!
So jail may not be the most likely place for Martha. The four charges each carry five-year maximum sentences and it’s doubtful that Martha will serve any time longer than six months, if any time at all. The more important question has now become what kind of damage has been done to her brand? I’m going to go out on a limb and say, in the long run, very little. And here’s why: Martha stuck to her guns.
When my mother asked why Martha did not simply admit what she did, pay a fine, ask for forgiveness, etc., and move on, it was an interesting question. I agree that this may have been a good strategy and would have limited the shelf life of the story. But if Martha admitted to being an insider trader, she would have been branded a corporate criminal for all her life. Lest we forget, Martha was a Wall Street broker and trader and she sat on the Board of Directors of The New York Stock Exchange. She knows securities law very well and knows that admitting breaking these laws is worse than being convicted of the same.
This is why I believe Martha’s strategy was correct. She still adamantly denies the charges against her. She simply will not admit she has done anything wrong. At the same time, she’s not floating a conspiracy against her. To her adoring fans, Martha was hung out to dry and punished politically. But she’s not a criminal, because she sticks by her story and proclaims her innocence.
Had Martha admitted guilt, as I mentioned before, she would certainly be considered a criminal for the rest of her life. So by denying guilt, even after being convicted, she will be known as both criminal and victim (of the legal system) for the rest of her life. Think about O.J. Simpson. He was exonerated, yet, a large portion of the population believes he is guilty of murder. In Martha’s case, she has been convicted, yet, a large portion of the population believes she is innocent. That to me indicates that she played her cards right.
The damage for Martha has already been done for the most part. Her brand is soiled, but her name may not be. I suspect that once her appeal is eventually rebuffed and she is finally sentenced, she’ll do her ninety days in Club Fed or under house arrest, pay her fines and write a best-selling book about the experience. And then, Martha will return to the limelight and all will be forgiven. She’s the next Michael Milken.
And this is why her PR strategy worked out perfectly. Admitting guilt would have absolutely killed her brand. Denying guilt, even in the face of conviction, has salvaged her brand. By speaking directly to fans and consumers through her MarthaTalks.com website, Martha established a private connection with her constituents in a very public forum.
Martha’s brand is certainly damaged, but she’ll be back. And it’s because she employed a PR strategy of sticking by her guns that will help her accomplish that. Whether she has indeed lied or not is merely a matter of perception, not what a jury says.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.