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Stewart Goes Back to Work

Her Return From Prison Has Been Carefully Orchestrated

By Ben White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2005; Page E02

NEW YORK, March 7 -- Martha Stewart's meticulously choreographed comeback campaign rolled on Monday, as the domestic entrepreneur returned to work to address employees -- and the national media -- in an event that felt more like a political rally than a homecoming.

"I missed you," Stewart said, blowing kisses to the crowd after a standing ovation. "I've thought about you every day, as you can imagine."

Martha Stewart receives a standing ovation at a meeting with employees in which she discussed where the company would go. (Mary Altaffer -- AP)

_____Live Discussion_____
Transcript: Washington Post staff writer Ben White was online to discuss Martha Stewart's comeback campaign.
Transcript: Newsweek senior writer Charles Gasparino
Video: Martha Stewart addressed her employees Monday afternoon at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. for the first time since her release from prison.
_____Martha Stewart Coverage_____
Do Good in Martha's Name (The Washington Post, Mar 8, 2005)
As Stewart Leaves Town, So Does All the Attention (The Washington Post, Mar 5, 2005)
(Associated Press, Mar 4, 2005)
Complete Trial Background

Dressed in a dark brown skirt and jacket but missing the electronic ankle bracelet she will soon wear during five months of home confinement, Stewart spoke for about 15 minutes, describing her experiences in prison and her vision for the future of her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc.

She said prison taught her lessons about the importance of friends and family and the fact that she cannot do everything alone. She poked fun at herself, saying her well-tended image of domestic perfection has not always been deserved.

"I don't always do my own ironing, even though I wish I could. I love ironing," she said. "What I want everyone to know is that I have been supported all these years by all of you. . . . It's time for all of you to receive your due."

Stewart said the company would focus more on the reasons people entertain and beautify their homes, rather than the precise details of how they do it. "We may have focused too much on the how-to and not enough on the why," she said, eliciting another round of sustained applause.

So far, professional image-makers say, Stewart has hit all the right notes since leaving the women's prison in Alderson, W.Va., where she served five months for conspiracy, obstruction and lying to federal investigators probing her sale of shares in biotechnology firm ImClone Systems Inc.

Among the public relations successes: No cameras caught her leaving the prison gates early Friday morning. Instead, the first shots were of a smiling Martha, waving as she walked to her private plane. Over the weekend, Martha was seen happily doing chores and sending coffee out to chilly reporters at her estate in Bedford, N.Y. On Monday, she basked in the warm glow of her employees, speaking from a stage in a large warehouse space at her company's headquarters in Chelsea, on Manhattan's west side.

The room was packed with several hundred Omnimedia employees seated in folding chairs around the stage as if they were a talk show studio audience. Television cameras whirred away on a riser in the back. Reporters scribbled every word but were not allowed to ask questions.

"You rarely see a person who has done time, even just five months, be welcomed home as such a hero," Howard J. Rubenstein, a public relations guru who has handled scores of scandal-scarred celebrities such as hotel magnate Leona Helmsley and boxer Mike Tyson, said of Stewart's reemergence.

"I think she and her advisers have thought it out very well. . . . Clearly she is trying to soften her image from that of being one tough hombre."

But Rubenstein and others said Stewart could be approaching a saturation point, at which people begin to tire of all Martha, all the time. "You do reach a point where if you just keep hammering away, sometimes people get tired of it," Rubenstein said.

He predicted Stewart's next move would be to get involved with a "do-good, nonprofit" cause, such as sentencing reform, an issue she began to champion while behind bars. (Others say she should choose something that won't remind people of her conviction.)

Stewart will host a daily, syndicated lifestyle show starting this fall. She will also appear in a spinoff of NBC's "The Apprentice," in which she will have to fire people, though not necessarily in the same harsh fashion Donald Trump dispatches failed contestants in the original version of the show.

"So far she has done everything right to emerge better than ever before," said James F. Haggerty, chief executive of the PR Consulting Group and author of "In the Court of Public Opinion," a book on the use of media during trials. "But I think she'll have to go into repose at some point and get back to running her company."

That will be no easy task. The company, which has tried in recent years to develop a brand identity not completely tied to its founder, faces declining revenue and the continuing quandary of what to do when Stewart is no longer around. And while shares in the firm soared in anticipation of Stewart's release, they have come back to earth recently. The company's stock closed at $27.97 on Monday, down $2.78, or 9 percent, on the day. The shares are down about 25 percent since hitting their recent high of $37.40 on Feb. 23.

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