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Reshaping an Image
June 5, 2003

Martha Stewart, Hillary Clinton and Sammy Sosa are not typically linked in the public consciousness, but (this week, at least) they have something in common: Each is in the midst of substantial image rehabilitation.

The domestic doyenne, the junior senator from New York and the slugging Chicago Cubs outfielder are in very different situations. But what they share is the recognition that for their careers to continue apace, public opinion will have to be shaped to their advantage. It seems little more than happenstance that all three would be in the news this week, yet theirs are interesting case studies in how one recovers from an indictment (Stewart), explains away a cheating husband (Clinton) or accounts for cheating at a top-tier sporting event (Sosa).

Let's begin with Stewart, who was indicted Wednesday on charges that she sold 4,000 shares of ImClone stock after receiving an illegal heads-up that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was about to deny the biotech firm's application for approval of a cancer drug.

Public relations experts say that watching Stewart has been a learning experience -- that is, they've learned how not to deal with a similar situation should it arise on their watch.

``I think Martha's biggest mistake is that she's taken all of her advice from her lawyers and not from public relations consultants,'' said Tom Bradley, vice president and director of public relations for Mintz & Hoke, an Avon ad and public relations firm. ``She hasn't really said anything at all, and the public takes that as an admission of guilt. Sometimes the worst thing you can say in a situation like this is, `No comment.' She really should've been more forthcoming immediately. I'm not sure what she could've said, but nothing at all is not usually a good choice.''

At the other end of the spectrum is the affable Sosa. The wildly popular right fielder was busted Tuesday when umpires discovered that his shattered bat -- broken by an inside pitch from Tampa Bay Devil Rays' pitcher Jeremi Gonzalez -- contained cork. (Players are not allowed to doctor their bats with cork or any other substance that might enable them to hit the ball farther.)

Public relations pros say that by addressing the media immediately after the game -- Sosa claimed he typically only uses corked bats in practice to entertain fans -- the beleaguered batsman handled the situation in Hall of Fame fashion.

``That makes a huge difference if people go ahead and do that,'' said Denisha Stevens, senior vice president of Vollmer Public Relations Inc. of Dallas. ``If you're seeking attention as part of your career, you can't stop doing interviews when something goes wrong. You need to be forthcoming in good times and bad times.''

Hillary Clinton, meantime, finds herself in an entirely different situation. Two years into her senatorial career -- and a few years in advance of what some believe will be a run for the presidency in 2008 -- the former first lady has not been accused of wrongdoing. Still, she does have some public relations issues, in part because of her husband's wandering eye.

Clinton has split the difference between the Stewart and Sosa strategies. After it was revealed that the president had a relationship with an intern, Clinton mostly clammed up at first (like Stewart) -- but (like Sosa) she will come clean next week with the publication of her memoir.

``Coming out to the whole country, honestly, openly, saying, `This is what happened' -- I think that's going to boost her popularity,'' said Ashley Rothschild, the owner of a Marina del Ray, Calif., image consultancy firm. ``I think it's brilliant.''

Writing a book can also be perilous, though. It was a just a few months ago, remember, that New York Yankees pitcher David Wells, no stranger to image problems, admitted that he wasn't exactly sure what was in his own controversial autobiography.

``It's risky to write a book because, if you don't come across as credible, if you appear to be blatantly spinning and not telling the truth, that will hurt you much more than it will help you,'' said Bradley. ``The other thing is that the volume of information in a book can potentially give your enemies a lot of information. You know people at right-wing think tanks will be poring over [Clinton's book] to see what they can punch holes in.''

Public relations strategies may differ, but there is one thing that any good image consultant or public relations pro will tell you: Offer up the truth, and eventually you'll be forgiven.

``American people are really forgiving, and people are looking for honesty, decency. We all want to trust someone,'' said Rothschild. ``Look at Bill Clinton. If we can forgive that snake, then we can forgive almost anyone.''

If you want other stories on this topic, search the Archives at

Ashley Rothschild picture

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