Image: Martha Stewart
Gregory Bull  /  AP
Martha Stewart announces that she will seek to serve her 5-month sentence right away, at her offices in New York, on Wednesday.
By
updated 9/16/2004 1:27:42 PM ET 2004-09-16T17:27:42

NEW YORK, Sept. 15 -- After her sentencing on July 16, Martha Stewart angrily denounced the case against her as a "circus event" and vowed, Terminator-style: "I'll be back."

On Wednesday, Stewart choked back tears and said she wanted to begin serving her five-month sentence right away even though she would dearly miss her pet dogs, cats, canaries and chickens. Once again, she promised to be back. But only in time to plant a spring garden.

It was a stunning turnabout for the hard-driving businesswoman, who built a catering firm into a media empire. But it was also a shrewd and essential one, according to professional image polishers and crisis communications specialists.

In making her statement, experts said, Stewart bowed to the reality that every day she remains in limbo, more damage is inflicted on her reputation and the prospects for the company that bears her name and in which she is the largest shareholder.

With her eight-minute speech, professional handlers said, Stewart began what promises to be a difficult rehabilitation campaign by attempting to buck up long-suffering supporters, soften up critics and woo back advertisers who have fled her flagship magazine in droves. She understands the importance of closure, she said at her news conference, especially to groups including "our loyal and steadfast advertisers."

"Please know that I understand your special needs, your special requirements," she said to supporters, customers and advertisers.

"I thought she was brilliant," said Howard Rubenstein, the public relations guru who has handled scores of scandal-scarred celebrities such as hotel magnate Leona Helmsley and boxer Mike Tyson.

Rubenstein added: "It took a lot of courage. . . . But if she had lingered during her appeal the damage would have continued. Now, in a matter of five months, she will be past this and she can start to do new things."

While Rubenstein said Stewart's emotion appeared genuine, others suggested it also was highly calculated, intended to persuade those who view Stewart as cold and remorseless to give her a second chance when she gets out of jail.

"Despite what you all might think, I do have a sense of humor," she said at one point, acknowledging her dour image and leading into a mild joke.

"The American people are very forgiving," said Gene E. Murphy, a corporate defense lawyer and partner at law firm Bryan Cave LLP. "And the only thing that was going to happen if this kept languishing for six, eight or 10 months was that her stock was going to be devalued."

Stewart's remarks on Wednesday marked a new stage in her evolving public approach to the case against her.

The evolution began with the infamous "salad" incident in June 2002 when Stewart was asked about alleged wrongdoing during her regular cooking segment on CBS's "Early Show."

Stewart glowered, methodically continuing to chop her cabbage. "I think this will all be resolved in the very near future, and I will be exonerated of any ridiculousness," she said. "I want to focus on my salad." Soon afterward, Stewart stopped appearing on the show.

The matter, of course, was not resolved quickly and Stewart ultimately was convicted on March 5 of this year of conspiring with her broker to obstruct a federal investigation into her personal stock sales.

Stewart made no comment upon leaving the courthouse in March, instead issuing a statement in which she said she would "take comfort in knowing I have done nothing wrong."

The statement was quickly watered down, however. When it was posted on Stewart's personal Web site, Marthatalks.com, the denial of wrongdoing was gone. Defense lawyers said this was because defendants who show remorse or accept responsibility can get slightly reduced sentences.

But the restrained tone was gone after her sentencing in July. Stewart bitterly blasted the case against her.

Stewart's post-sentencing assault continued in a television interview with ABC's Barbara Walters in which Stewart said that other good people, including South African anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela, had spent time in prison. The indirect comparison with a revered icon who spent nearly three decades behind bars was widely derided.

On Wednesday, the defiance was all gone. Stewart spoke of her "prolonged suffering" and lamented that she would miss Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas as well as her multiple pets, evoking the types of experiences she has shared with her readers and viewers over the years. She also made an appeal to serve her sentence close to home in Connecticut so her 90-year-old mother could visit.

While professional image-makers generally praised Stewart's performance on Wednesday, several referred to discordant notes.

High among them was Stewart's apparent critique of the U.S. justice system, in which she pointed out that the country has 25 percent of the world's prison population but only 5 percent of total population, saying that it invoked an image of her as victim that wasn't in keeping with the rest of the statement.

Morris Reid, a branding specialist at the Westin Reinhart Group, suggested that Stewart, and her company, could emerge stronger after the sentence is finished.

"You don't wish this kind of thing on anyone," he said. "But I think there is a big potential upside. After this prison term people will like her more, she will seem more human, average people will be able to relate to her better."

© 2013 The Washington Post Company

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