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No Spin on Sites, Agency Finds

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Burson-Marsteller says firms lack online crisis control

Prompted by recent corporate scandals, WPP Group's Burson-Marsteller audited the Web sites of 26 U.S. companies that faced crises in 2002. Surprised to find that the firms rarely voiced their side of the story online, the New York-based shop saw a communications vacuum.

In response, Burson, which helped Johnson & Johnson's PR efforts after seven people died from taking cyanide-laced capsules of Extra Strength Tylenol in 1982, has launched proprietary Web audit system Prepare, which uses a 62-item checklist to help companies practice better online crisis communications.

"What we've learned is that companies are not up to speed in understanding that [the Web] is a form of advertising their point of view," said Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief knowledge and research officer. There was nothing about Martha Stewart's insider-trading case on her site, she said, "even though the papers were raging with stories about [her]."

Burson has already used Prepare for Valeo Electrical Systems and Ames Department Stores, which both filed for bankruptcy last year.

"The principle of having [the information] on your Web site makes sense," said David Kalson, senior managing director at crisis-communications shop RF Binder Partners in New York.

"When a company is in crisis mode, the last thing they are thinking of is what's on their Web site," said Hank Shafran, a Boston-based crisis-communications specialist.

Gaines-Ross said Global Crossing and WorldCom responded well to crisis via the Web: The former had a glossary of bankruptcy terms, and WorldCom posted releases in multiple languages.