NEW YORK – True to her perfectionist reputation, Martha Stewart is using a stylish and highly detailed personal Web site to tell her side of the story as her high-stakes trial approaches.
Crisis-management experts say the site, Marthatalks.com, is remarkably thorough. It is updated almost daily with letters from fans, supportive newspaper editorials and fresh pictures of the domestic style maven.
People close to Stewart, speaking on condition of anonymity, say she is heavily involved with the site even in her final days of intense pretrial preparation. She is due in court Jan. 20.
"She's essentially the photo editor," carefully selecting which pictures are seen by her fans, one source said. The source said Stewart has also been "very involved" with the design and updating of the site.
Stewart is accused of lying to investigators and her own investors about why she sold ImClone Systems Inc. (search ) stock in 2001 just before it dropped sharply on a negative government report about an experimental ImClone cancer drug.
Stewart claims she and her broker had a pre-existing agreement to sell, but the government says she had privileged information — that ImClone founder Sam Waksal (search ), a friend of Stewart's, was trying to unload some of his shares.
A guilty verdict could land her behind bars and severely damage the brand she has stamped on thousands of books, magazine covers and home products.
Some of Stewart's steadfast supporters believe deeply in her products and say she is being targeted because she is a successful woman. Image consultants say the site is an attempt to retain that support — an online sermon to the choir.
It's also an end run around press coverage and the story advanced by prosecutors who can use press conferences and court papers to tell their version, consultants say.
"In a crisis situation, the media have a crucifixion bias," said Eric Dezenhall, who runs a public-relations firm. "The Internet gives you the freedom to talk right to your audience without filtered interpretation."
Last week, Stewart told fans on the site that she was "hopefully optimistic that I will be exonerated" and launched a new section called Trial Update where her publicists hope to post same-day trial transcripts.
She also has used the site to explain her version of events — "I simply returned a call from my stockbroker" — and to say the government's prosecution "makes no sense to me."
Stewart's prominent Internet defense is unusual, image consultants say.
Michael Jackson, accused by California authorities of molesting a cancer-stricken boy, has a personal-defense site as well, but it contains only a single, non-changing letter from the pop star and a series of press releases.
"It's certainly going further than most," Dezenhall said of the Stewart site.
Still, Stewart is far from persuading a broad section of the public that she is innocent, some public-relations experts say. One pointed out that she has yet to live down a 2002 television appearance in which she declared her innocence while fiercely chopping a cabbage.
"The Web site is too little too late, from an overall PR point of view," said Richard Levick, president and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications in Washington D.C.
According to Citigate Sard Verbinnen (search ), the Manhattan public relations firm where employees work with Stewart to manage the site, 16 million people have seen it since its launch in June.
The firm says 80,000 people have sent Stewart e-mails from the site — notes that Stewart and the staff sort through and post selectively.
"I'm sure it is clear to you now that you have many supporters out there that feel the charges against you are unfounded and ridiculous," one fan, Darren Hayden, wrote Nov. 24.
The site, adorned in tasteful muted-green and light-blue type, makes plain that it speaks only for Stewart herself — not her media company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. The disclaimer is posted on every sub-page of the site.
The distinction is important because the government has charged Stewart with securities fraud, saying she meant to deceive her own shareholders when she said in 2002 that she was innocent and cooperating fully with investigators.
Still, if Stewart is acquitted at trial, her spade work on the Web site may help her retain the support of customers who became wary of the Martha Stewart brand when the name became associated with financial scandal.
"I don't think it's going to make a decisive difference," said Fordham University media studies chair Paul Levinson. "But it certainly can't hurt."