JOURNALIST Q&A: Bethany McLean

Fortune reporter Bethany McLean touched off coverage of Enron's demise with her March 2001 feature, "Is Enron Overpriced?" Now, after more than two years reporting on the drama, she has released The Smartest Guys in the Room, a book on the company's decline and fall. PRWeek talks to her about the company's fall from grace.

Fortune reporter Bethany McLean touched off coverage of Enron's demise with her March 2001 feature, "Is Enron Overpriced?" Now, after more than two years reporting on the drama, she has released The Smartest Guys in the Room, a book on the company's decline and fall. PRWeek talks to her about the company's fall from grace.

PRWeek: What is the PR lesson from the Enron scandal? Bethany McLean: Perhaps that PR has its limits. Mark Palmer, the head of Enron's PR, did a terrific job. But he didn't know everything that was happening at the company. In the end, it was a problem of substance, rather than something that spin could fix. PRWeek: When Ken Lay and other executives pressured you and Fortune editors to kill your initial story, was that a sign that something was wrong? McLean: I think so. All companies are bothered by negative stories. In general, however, the more they protest, the more likely there's a serious problem. After all, if the story is wildly off base, it may get initial attention, but then it will fade away. PRWeek: Could Enron have kept up the charade if journalists hadn't kept poking around? McLean: No. I think journalists reflected the growing skepticism about Enron, rather than initiating it. By spring 2001, some of Enron's trading partners were pulling back; premiums in the credit derivative market were shooting up; the stock was plunging, etc. Maybe journalists hurried it along a little, but it would have come crashing down eventually no matter what. Enron's business model didn't work - it's that simple. PRWeek: Do you think the Enron people are getting off too lightly? McLean: I think that some of the more junior people have been punished too heavily. So far, Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling haven't even been charged with a crime, and, yes, if that remains the case, I think they'll be escaping far too lightly. It won't do much to deter future white-collar criminals if the top two Enron guys are able to walk away. PRWeek: Are you tired of the Enron story? McLean: Never. I think it's endlessly fascinating. It was a company made up of incredible characters who were trying to do something - in fact, many of them were quite idealistic in their own ways. But they also had the fatal flaw of arrogance, and the combination of personalities was combustible. PRWeek: What are you working on now? McLean: I'm back at Fortune working on everything from pieces about the market to specific company stories. PRWeek: How is your job different now that a lot more people know your name? McLean: It's not really different. A lot of people don't know my name - in fact, I often get called Stephanie or Daphne - which is perfectly fine with me. ----- Name Bethany McLean Publication Fortune Title Reporter Preferred contact method bethany_mclean@fortunemail.com Website www.fortune.com

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