Role of PR grows as Enron tries to repair and rebuild

HOUSTON: Two headlines last week made Enron MD of corporate communications Mark Palmer wince. One touted Playboy's forthcoming "Women of Enron issue.

HOUSTON: Two headlines last week made Enron MD of corporate communications Mark Palmer wince. One touted Playboy's forthcoming "Women of Enron issue.

The other was the revelation that WorldCom had hidden $3.8 billion in expenses, and now faces bankruptcy and an SEC lawsuit.

Palmer empathized with WorldCom's PR team. "I have a lot of faith that they will rise to the occasion and do just fine, he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if their status is lifted by this."

He has seen it happen. Since his company's catastrophic fall from grace, his role has grown significantly. Palmer has been promoted from VP to managing director, and now holds the first-ever PR seat on the senior-management committee.

The transition occurred when Stephen Cooper was brought in as interim CEO and chief restructuring officer, and Jeff McMahon was named COO. "Jeff really saw the need for real-time participation by the corporate communications function in the management of this company."

Palmer said he hopes Enron's failings will be instructive. "People have seen the importance of not just media perception, but public, internal, political, and investor perception, beyond just the numbers, he said.

"It is so important that management understand how these kinds of business decisions will impact not just perception, but the daily give-and-take between the various publics that we have."

Enron's corporate PR staff used to number around 30, including staff in Europe and India. The corporate PR team now comprises three professional staff, a webmaster, and two assistants. Palmer calls his colleagues "incredible people. They have been a tremendous inspiration to me."

Enron's non-debtor companies, which are outside of Palmer's corporate remit, include Portland General Electric and Enron Transportation Services, and have PR staff numbering about 25.

Enron retains Hill & Knowlton, which is doing most of its work in Washington, DC, keeping track of the government investigations and political activities connected with the scandal. "(H&K CEO) Howard Paster and his team are just very good hands to have, Palmer said, while also praising the work of Kekst & Company and Brunswick Group, who are no longer working with Enron, but were deeply involved in the early days of the crisis.

Palmer admits he did not have all the information he needed when the company filed for bankruptcy in December. "I probably would have liked to communicate better to the media and public from the start the difference between debtor and non-debtor companies, and the fact that we had 15,000 employees that were working at Enron and still getting a paycheck, he admitted.

This remains Palmer's key message, even as the name of Enron will cease to exist. "The company that we structure from this bankruptcy will have a new name and identity that will largely be a grassroots, homegrown effort."

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