With the announcement of a new syndicated daytime TV show to air after her prison term is over, Martha Stewart has formally begun her comeback effort and added a brand-new figure to her roster of image doctors: reality TV impresario Mark Burnett.
Crisis management experts praised the move as a deftly executed though completely predictable twist in the Martha Stewart plot line, which changes the story arc from hubris to redemption with one press conference. It sets in motion a comeback story that's been given extra momentum by the presence of one of TV's hottest personalities, a name synonymous with the shifting world of TV programming and some of its biggest successes.
"She is a very smart businessperson and that has been demonstrated over many years," said Tom Barritt, global director of the issues and crisis network at Omnicom Group's Ketchum. "[Mr. Burnett] has a certain level of buzz that she's going to need as she comes back into the marketplace. It can't be business as usual for her return. It has to have a different focus, a different edge."
With "The Apprentice," Mr. Burnett has put a new layer of gilding on the Donald Trump brand, transforming a brash real-estate mogul with a tumultuous history of professional and personal failures into a business authority for the masses. He will have an entirely different challenge with Ms. Stewart. Though a widely acknowledged business genius with devoted legions that believe she was railroaded, Ms. Stewart has a lot of ground to make up with advertisers. Some of that will be covered by Mr. Burnett, the new venture's executive producer, who has been expert at securing product integration deals for his "Survivor" and "Apprentice" franchises.
"You have to factor in Mark Burnett's brand, which is strong for a producer, especially with consumers," Ferris Thompson, president of independent Edelman's entertainment marketing practice. "There is a consumer-awareness of Mark Burnett television."
The new program won't have Ms. Stewart presiding over bake-sale contests or voting contestants out of a knitting circle. The format of the show, expected to debut in fall 2005, will have audience members and guests interact with Ms. Stewart, a departure from the more serious how-to tone of "Martha Stewart Living," which was pulled from the air last June. And it's certain that given the high-profile nature of Ms. Stewart's fall, some on-air mention of the crime will be necessary.
"The first time she's on she should say something about it," said Howard Rubenstein, president of Rubenstein Associates. "She can't make believe that it didn't happen. Then, she should not say anything at all."
Ms. Stewart has already won plaudits for her recent handling of the crisis that has consumed a career once defined as an odds-defying success that saw a former stockbroker erect a media empire dedicated to domesticity. In particular, her decision to begin serving her five-month sentence almost immediately after it was handed down was hailed as smart decision right out of the crisis communications handbook. Without admitting guilt, she acknowledged the adversity and worked to get past it as quickly as possible, in the process paving the way for the announcement of her newest venture just nine months after the verdict came down.
It wasn't always like this. Despite counsel from crisis experts such as Citigate Sard Verbinnen and, behind-the-scenes advice from some well-known PR names, Ms. Stewart only begrudgingly acknowledged the crumbling of her world at its outset. A 2002 TV appearance on CBS' "Early Show" in which she maintained her innocence while violently and vigorously chopping a cabbage was the PR equivalent of mixing paisley with plaid.
Though she has since made up for that by embracing her very loyal following, not everyone thinks her Total Image Makeover will be without its hitches.
"The tide is starting to turn in culture against rewarding people for misbehaving," said Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs, citing the disgust over former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair's book deal to lay out his side of a notorious plagiarism scandal. "When it smacks of penance rather than opportunism, America has a stronger stomach for these kind of publicity ventures."