by Steve Adubato, PhD
Martha Stewart is quickly becoming the poster child for how not to communicate in a crisis. Stewart who has made a reputation for herself as always knowing the right thing to say or how to act at a dinner party (be it your own or someone else's) is clearly clueless about how to communicate in connection with her stock scandal controversy.
I don't know what Martha Stewart did or didn't do in connection with her selling ImClone stock the day before the company stock tanked. I don't know if she had insider information that she swears she didn't have. All I know is that she looks and sounds awfully uncomfortable when talking about this whole mess.
Stewart's most recent communication debacle came on last week's "The Early Show" on CBS in which she appears as a regular contributor talking about some domestic issue or other. Apparently, CBS news honchos decided they couldn't have Stewart talking about how to handle your Fourth of July party without asking her about the inside trading scandal. Word is, Stewart knew she would be asked about it, but apparently had no idea how to handle it when it came up.
She started out by saying, "I think this will all be resolved in the near future and I will be exonerated from this ridiculousness." She then insisted, "We are going to make salad." Stewart wanted to talk about her Japanese noodle salad, yet CBS anchor Jane Clayson felt obliged to ask her about the allegations. In responding, Stewart refused to make eye contact with her questioner and kept chopping away at cabbage needed for her special Independence Day salad. You had to see it to believe it.
Martha Stewart seemed oblivious to how poorly she came off and how disconcerting it was to see and hear her chopping away with a really big knife while she professed her innocence. "As you understand, I'm involved in an investigation which has very serious implications…I'm just not at liberty at this time to make any comments whatsoever…" You can't imagine how ludicrous she looked and how disingenuous she seemed. Chop-chop, talk about non-verbal communication.
First, when you can't make eye contact with the person asking you a question, you tend to look kind of guilty or at best not particularly confident about what you are saying. But what's the deal with all the chopping while you are talking? This is serious stuff, Martha. You can blow it off as merely "ridiculousness." Millions of people, including those with stock in your company, aren't convinced that this is all ridiculous. You owe it to people to conduct yourself in a serious fashion. Your salad can wait. I can't get inside Martha Stewart's head, but I've got to believe the cabbage chopping, lack of eye contact and the obsession with the Fourth of July salad has something to do with how nervous she is about all this.
Further, there some basic rules of crisis communication that Stewart doesn't understand. Yes, you have to have to communicate your message, which for her is that all this insider trading stuff will blow over and is not worth talking about. Yet, your message must appear credible and believable to the average person. If not, you can repeat it as many times as you like, but it just won't work. Think Gary Condit in the Connie Chung interview.
And if you did have some information you weren't supposed to, Martha, you better tell us now because the other cardinal rule of crisis communication is that it is better to deliver bad news yourself than have someone else expose you.
Bottom line? For all Martha Stewart's perfectionist ways, her public communication around this scandal has been downright embarrassing.