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Net not proven as crisis manager

Media frenzy on the murder of a six-year-old pushed her parents to the Web for crisis management, but whether their effort will be effective remains unclear.

Fierce media frenzy regarding the recent murder of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey in Colorado forced her parents to turn to the Internet for crisis management, but whether their effort will be effective remains unclear.

The family's public relations firm, Rowan & Blewitt, set up a Web site with up-to-date press statements on the case. The Web site is obviously an attempt to quell rumors by distributing official statements about Ramsey's death.

The family has opted out of the traditional method of holding numerous press conferences. Instead, it has left it up to Rowan & Blewitt to accommodate press requests. Crisis management is one of the firm's specialties, but the Ramsey Web site is the only client site is has currently posted.

In what seems like an oxymoron, people are increasingly using the Net to control chaos. The medium allows people like the Ramseys to distribute one message to many people quickly, cheaply, and around the clock.

Crisis management sites were also posted after the Oklahoma City bombing. The most recent site, created by Families and Survivors United, has support information for those affected by the bombing. It will also provide breaking news during the upcoming trial of the suspects charged with the bombing.

There are currently two releases on behalf of the Ramsey family on the site. One posted on January 11 is about the family's cooperation with authorities. Another statement posted on January 9 regards the highly controversial publication of crime scene photos by a tabloid.

"The ghoulish publication of these photographs by the Globe is beneath contempt. It is a callous act that poses a grave threat to the integrity of the criminal investigation of JonBenet's murder, and it has caused unimaginable pain to the family," it stated.

The release also used the Net to make a direct request of the media. "We call upon all other media to decline to republish or televise these photos out of consideration for the Ramsey family."

However, the site may not be effective in restraining scoophounds if isn't updated often or doesn't offer journalists information they can't find elsewhere.

"I think it's a very good way to crisis-manage if the Web site contains real information or attempts to communicate with the audience in a meaningful way," said Mary Doyle, an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of Western Ontario. "The Ramsey site is certainly not an example of this. It's a couple of press releases that most journalists would have reported on anyway."

Companies are better known for using the Net to calm storms after corporate disasters. Last fall, Odwalla sought to warn and inform juice fans online after the E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria was found in some of its products.

The government also uses the Web to disseminate vital information. The Federal Emergency Management Agency maintains a Web site with tips on how to handle crises such as natural disasters.

For the Ramseys, the Web may seem like a safe place to make statements and avoid the media's sometimes aggressive tactics.

The family has been bombarded with attention since their daughter was found strangled to death in their home on December 26. The police have kept a tight lid on details of their investigation, which has fueled speculation.

Discussion of the Web site was lively on Planetary News, an online mailing list for newspaper professionals and researchers run by a Boulder, Colorado journalist.

"A lot of the reaction to the Web site is kind of cynical," said Steve Outing, president of Planetary News and a columnist for Editor & Publisher. "I would certainly understand why the family would want to counter some of the stuff in the media. But it's sort of like fighting a forest fire with a water pistol. I don't think they'll have much success."