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Ken Lay should stop dodging and come clean


Dave Yewman

Y ou may recall, a long time ago in a galaxy that now seems far, far away, the media were obsessed with a coiffed elected official and a young missing intern.

The situation involved sex, power and politics. Months of denials, evasion and outright lies led to a level of media attention that rivaled Monicagate. It also led to the American public extracting its pound of flesh from Rep. Gary Condit.

And now comes disgraced former Enron Chairman Ken Lay -- same schtick; different day.

A situation involving corruption, millions of dollars and even a suicide. Lay puts his wife, Linda, on the TV redemption circuit. She tearfully states that her husband is being unfairly besmirched (and that the couple is "struggling for liquidity," a phrase only an investment banker could love). And Lay continues to duck the media and refuses to voluntarily testify before Congress, before which he is expected, under subpoena, to plead the Fifth Amendment today.

Scandals like this follow depressingly similar trajectories. Condit is my personal Public Relations Hall of Shame Poster Boy, a classic case of what not to do when a crisis hits: First, stall everyone and say nothing for months allowing speculation to run rampant.

Second, lie about what really happened, even though that never works because the truth always surfaces. Third, when you do decide to state your case, stonewall your way to ridicule in a robotic fashion and refuse to answer hard questions. Condit repeatedly blurted to Connie Chung that he was "not a perfect man" when what everyone wanted was an apology and an answer to "did you kill her?"

When its citizens or its corporations screw up, the American public requires remorse and repentence -- and quickly. The court of public opinion wants the truth, the whole truth and a sincere apology. The American public forgives confessed indiscretions rapidly (think Hugh Grant) but people get very upset when they're lied to or stonewalled (think Bill Clinton). "No comment" makes people think, "What's he hiding?" There is no choice. You have to play the game.

Condit tried spin but it didn't work. Lay is trying evasion, but he sure can't run forever. How different things might have been if Condit and Lay had been straightforward, contrite, listened to some hard counsel and done the right thing.

Imagine: Ken Lay donates $20 million of his considerable fortune to a fund set up for displaced Enron employees and their families. He appears at a town hall meeting with former Enron employees. He testifies before Congress and accepts responsibility for what his company did. He says something like, "This was a horrible fraud that Enron perpetrated on its stockholders, its employees and the American public. I am ashamed of it, and I will do all that I can to work with authorities to ensure it never happens again. This happened on my watch and I take full responsibility."

Note that even a statement like this delivered sincerely and broadly won't magically fix ugly situations. But it does clearly communicate personal commitments, a desire to help make things right and the person's side of the story.

Everyone makes mistakes. Guys with corner offices frequently aren't used to being prodded by reporters asking difficult questions, but they should know enough to prepare and accept what seems obvious to the rest of us.

There's not really any secret to getting your point across effectively. You must be sincere. You must be candid. You must be human. You must speak English and be as unlike the Bill Gates Department of Justice deposition debacle as possible.

Ken Lay and Gary Condit are both brilliant guys who rose to the tops of their respective professions. But they couldn't even bring themselves to tell their sides of the stories, and for that the American public will continue to extract its pound of flesh directly from their hides. Dave Yewman is senior vice president/general manager of Weber Shandwick public relations firm in Portland. The company worked with the Portland office of Enron Broadband Services in late 1999 and early 2000.

-- (Kenny Boy @ Dubya's. partner in crime), February 13, 2002

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