After several years in the PR department at embattled energy provider Enron, Karen Denne now uses her level-headed approach and moxie to open doors for The Broad Foundation.
There's one word on Karen Denne's resume that jumps out, and not always in a way she would like: Enron.
An athletic brunette with a touch of Texas in her Southern California style, Denne served as the number two communications staffer at the infamous energy giant before, during, and after its very public flameout.
"When I started, it wasn't as high- energy and dynamic," she recalls. "People hadn't heard of Enron. Media coverage was pretty much contained to trade publications and the occasional mention in a larger industry story."
Denne joined the company in 1997 as PR director after being recruited from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP).
"I was really impressed with the team," she recalls. "There was a terrific energy from the place. This was a challenge that I couldn't pass up."
Denne was in charge of 13 staffers and all domestic media relations and internal communications at "right around the time the internet bubble was just cresting, the media had branded the New Economy, and Enron was branded as a New Economy company," she says. "We really just rode the wave up and capitalized on the media interest."
She says the first years at Enron were so positive that by 2000 the goal for the PR team wasn't just to win placements, but to win cover stories. But then came 2001, and the start of what would become one of America's most notorious corporate scandals.
"It was a hard year," says Denne. "We had no idea of what we were in the midst of. We had no comprehension of the magnitude. It was utterly inconceivable that Enron would file for bankruptcy. It was one thing after another, just a rapid descent. Looking back, virtually every conceivable crisis that could face a company happened in a short period of time. You'd never expect to experience that in your career, let alone in a six-week period at one company."
Denne says that the experience was stressful, but that the communications team was focused on "saving the company." All energy went into keeping a voracious press informed. The staff took up to 300 media calls a day.
"There were times we slept in the office," she says. "My whole team, they slept on window sills and ledges. We showered in the basement gym."
Despite the subsequent and well-documented events at Enron, Denne says she "absolutely loved the job."
"I worked with the most amazing team of professionals," she adds. "They were smart, energetic, quick, and funny. We really became very close friends."
Her former boss, Mark Palmer, gives Denne a lot of the credit for helping create that culture.
"She was my right arm, confidant, and colleague through good times and bad," he says. "She's a real team leader. She's a consensus builder, but strong enough to take a decision and drive it forward."
Denne notes that her penchant for crisis work made the job exciting.
"I'm able to think on my feet and turn around information quickly," she says.
In fact, Denne says she's loved the fast-paced aspects of PR and journalism since she began her career as a general-assignment reporter at a city wire service in Los Angeles. There, she would do "six, eight, or 10 stories" a day.
Denne left that job for a stint at Los Angeles' Daily News, but found that the paper wasn't what she was after.
"The Daily News was very stressful," she says. " I wasn't enjoying the job, but I didn't want to leave writing."
Luckily for her, she had taken the Los Angeles civil service exam during her last year at the University of Southern California - "just to keep all of my options open," she explains - and she received a call from the DWP. The utility was looking for someone to take over its internal newsletter, and Denne jumped at it. In addition to managing that publication, Denne also got her first taste of crisis work by helping with communications during the Northridge, CA, earthquake in the early 1990s.
After her stint in Texas, including staying on at post-bankruptcy Enron for more than two years, Denne's love for her native California kept pulling at her. She sought to return home, but quickly found that some companies wouldn't even interview her because of her Enron ties, a problem she says other Enron staffers faced. But Denne kept looking and eventually landed the top communications post at The Broad Foundation, a $500 million organization tasked with improving K-12 education.
Of Denne's Enron ties, Foundation leader Eli Broad says, "It wasn't a plus, but on the other hand, as we are looking at the person, her experience in that situation under fire made her better. Karen is a very accomplished person with great experience. She is very easy to work with, and she's level-headed."
And now that Denne has finally made it back home, she's hard at work at old habits. In addition to teaching a PR class at her alma mater, she also plays the organ, sings in the choir of her church, and works out every morning.
Broad says she brings that kind of energy to the office, as well, and some of her best strengths are her enthusiasm and willingness to think beyond the obvious. He gives the example of the upcoming reality show The Scholar, involving Steve Martin, which the foundation is a part of.
"She learned that Steve Martin's production company was going to do this, and she knew I knew Steve Martin, so she brought that to my attention," says Broad. That sparked a deal with the show that will have the foundation mentioned in every episode and feature segments with Broad in exchange for paying for the winner's college education.
"I'm very excited about this," says Denne. "It's a terrific way to gain more recognition for the foundation."
But if Enron taught her anything, it's that you never know what's coming, so Denne is practicing a bit of caution.
"I've got my fingers crossed that it works out well," she says.
Public affairs director, The Broad Foundation
September 1997-July 2004
Various posts at Enron: PR director (Sept. 1997-Sept. 1999); senior director of PR (Sept. 1999-Jan. 2001); VP of PR (Feb. 2001-July 2004)
July 1993-August 1997
Various posts at LA Dept. of Water and Power: PR specialist (July 1993-Nov. 1994); senior PR specialist (Nov. 1994-March 1996); comms director, office of the GM, (April 1996-Aug. 1997)
April 1992-July 1993
Reporter, Los Angeles Daily News
September 1991-March 1992
Reporter, City News Service