Wilfully or not, Enron's PR people contributed to the collapse asmuch as the CEO and CFO

If you get into a serious conversation with people in the field

about words that describe good PR, "open" and "honest" come up pretty

frequently.



If you look at the way fallen energy giant Enron communicated with its

key stakeholders, internally and externally, it's pretty clear that

openness and honesty were in short supply. Much has already been written

about the culture of perfidy that contributed to Enron's collapse, but

what interests me is the extent to which the company's PR professionals

share in the responsibility for its demise - and for the suffering of

shareholders and employees who lost not only their jobs, but also their

life savings when Enron's stock plummeted.



After the CEO and CFO, both of whom have gained infamy, professional

communicators were among those most actively perpetrating the fraud that

led to Enron's demise. (Whether they were witting participants or not is

another question.)



It was professional communicators who responded to media and investor

questions about the company's finances with a firm "no comment." And it

was professional communicators who presumably, at some point, told

employees that investing their 401k savings in Enron stock was sound

financial planning - as well as an expression of esprit de corps.



Enron's PR people can perhaps be forgiven on this latter issue: No one

expects them to conduct audits of company finances before sharing

management-sanctioned information with employees. But when management

refuses to answer reasonable questions about corporate finances,

shouldn't that set off an alarm or two?



If PR people are simply mouthpieces for management, perhaps not. But PR

people who are mouthpieces for management are not PR people, or at least

they forfeit the right to call themselves PR counselors. If a company's

management refuses to answer reasonable questions about financial

performance (or environmental performance, or any other aspect of its

practices) alert PR people should want to know why.



If management declines to tell them, there are only two possibilities:

One is that the company has something to hide; the other is that it

doesn't trust its PR people. In either case, the refusal to answer ought

to attract attention. If management provides a response, PR people

should have the professional and business knowledge to determine whether

the answer is satisfactory. (That's why it's so important for PR people

to have greater business knowledge, and why IR people in particular

should have some financial acumen in addition to their communications

skills.)



Did the PR and IR professionals at Enron hold management's feet to the

fire on these questions? We may never know. But given the outcome and

what we've recently learned about Enron's culture, the question has to

be asked.



Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business

for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation

Management.



He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of

www.holmesreport.com.



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