by Steve Adubato, PhD
Clearly, Martha Stewart has a big communication problem. Beyond all the legal and potential criminal issues facing the former domestic diva, Stewart has a huge challenge ahead of her in the effort to restore her reputation and gain the public's trust. She has embarked on an aggressive media and communication strategy in which she portrays herself as a victim who has done nothing wrong. Says Stewart, "After more than a year, the government has decided to bring charges against me for matters that are personal and entirely unrelated to the business of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. I want you to know that I am innocent-and that I will fight to clear my name."
I've got to believe this proactive communication strategy has the approval of her lawyers as well as her high-powered public relations experts. Yet, while going on the offensive does make some sense, there are several flaws in this strategy. The biggest problem is that Martha Stewart's message is not especially believable or credible.
Remember when Martha Stewart went on the CBS Morning Show right after the scandal broke? She insisted on chopping lettuce for some sort of Fourth of July salad stating, "I think this will all be resolved in the near future and I will be exonerated from this ridiculousness…We are going to make salad." The image of Stewart chopping lettuce while insisting that she was innocent created a really weird picture. The messages sent were confusing at best. Her non-verbal communication was saying, "I'm really uncomfortable with all this, but I'm trying to keep up a strong front." Months later, Stewart apparently still doesn't get it.
When Stewart was lead away from a federal courthouse last week she was surrounded by a team of lawyers and bodyguards immediately after her indictment. This communicates not only that you are embarrassed, but you might have something to hide. What Stewart should have done was hold a press briefing where she made a clear and confident statement looking right into the cameras directly to her audience watching at home.
However, when it comes to communicating any message, the first and most important criteria is this: Is the message credible or believable? If the answer is no, virtually nothing else matters. It doesn't matter how much money you spend to get the message out or how many times you repeat the message. If you and the message are not seen as truthful, you might as well forget it. That's Martha Stewart's biggest problem. Most people don't believe her story that she just happened to sell her ImClone stock the day before a very negative FDA report about one of ImClone's drugs became public.
Assume you are willing to acknowledge that you made some mistake or did something wrong (this is a big assumption), here are a few ways to communicate that message:
- Communicate quickly before others expose your wrongdoings. Every day you wait to admit you were wrong reduces the chance of any public understanding or empathy.
- Apologize to anyone who has been hurt by your mistake, particularly your customers and stakeholders who have invested in you and your organization based on their belief that you would do the right thing.
- Don't offer detailed explanations or excuses for what you did. No extenuating circumstances or crying the blues about your terrible childhood.
- Take full responsibility for your actions without blaming others. Even if others contributed to the mistake or problem.
- Don't quibble over the details. (Like Bill Clinton debating the dictionary definition of "sexual relations.") Lawyers too often play word games that may be helpful in the court of law but become problematic in the court of public opinion.
It may be too late for Martha Stewart, but it's not too late for the rest of us who make mistakes every day.