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12.10.10

How a Publicist's Death Became a PR Nightmare

Police solved the mystery behind Ronni Chasen's murder this week, but bloggers, conspiracy theorists, and the chattering classes just won't put the case to rest.

Saul Bellow observed in his novel Herzog that a scandal is a service to the community. Bellow would have marveled at the Ronni Chasen tragedy.

It is no small irony of this case that the murder victim was a publicist, this fabled breed of professional who can, according to legend, make you believe whatever she wants you to believe. Only she can't. Not about herself. Not if she is alive, and certainly not if she has been murdered.

In the past few weeks, we have learned the most salacious details of Ronni Chasen's life from a zillion anonymous sources who clearly knew nothing at all. We learned details about her sex life, which included reports ranging from celibacy to promiscuity; alleged family feudsa temper that may have provoked her killer; her finances—the implication being that because she was successful, somehow her gains may have been fatal; mob connections (an always reliable catch-all); and, my favorite, an " art deal gone bad."

Ah, yes, all of those lead-slinging, Jackson Pollock-loving Manson Family disciples that populate the republic.

Nobody's reputation could survive such a pureeing once the media-cyber vortex got going and, if there is any lesson of the age, it's that no spin doctor, dead or alive, can inject sobriety into the physics at work here. Not when the sheer desire—no, the maniacal insistence—on believing the darkest, most complicated narrative is in our souls and in the DNA of the new millennium's communications.

Information Age? Another paradox because what we've been saying about the Chasen murder for weeks doesn't remotely resemble information. If we learned anything about this case from the outset, it was that nobody knew anything. The Beverly Hills Police were smart to avoid providing running commentary, in theory a bad PR move.

Of course, not even the crime's solving can stop the media-cyber vortex because its closure is simply proof that the real perpetrators are so diabolically clever that they've gotten away with it, and are on an island somewhere high-fiving with the crew that killed JFK and Princess Diana. They're that good.

There is no greater default explanation for the world's violent mysteries than the old "mob did it" folk song. Having grown up around these guys in New Jersey, I'll share a disappointing revelation: They're not an impressive bunch. Sure, they're violent, but they are rarely marksmen. They are also averse to killing civilians, let alone the bubbie demographic. Regardless of whether they are Russian, Italian, or Martian, inviting the wrath of law enforcement with the massacre of a nice lady is the ultimate no-no. Gangsters are generally interested in stealing as much as they can steal with as little headache as possible. Period.

Then there are the folks who have been watching a little too much CSI. Their contribution to the Chasen case was the blackly comic theory that Chasen had been the target of an orchestrated hit because hollow point bullets were used. Guess what? Most of my gun-owning friends keep hollow point bullets in the chamber because they bring down assailants; and most could hit a target a few feet away pretty well. I suspect that very few of my friends are contract killers.

The truth is often a soul-crushing snooze, the only spin being this: A very decent woman was killed by a very bad man.

Espousing a conspiracy theory is a grand narcissistic device. It is an indirect way of saying that "I—not you, I—have a special insight into the world's mysteries. I know more interesting people and I have access to the skinny. Keep your eyes and ears trained on me, nowhere else, for your enlightenment."

As sociologist Daniel Bell wrote, there is something "in the American temper, a feeling that 'somewhere, somebody' is pulling all the complicated strings to which this jumbled world dances." Or, as I told more than one entertainment industry conspiracy theorist: "I think you're going to be very disappointed when this case is cracked." It's so much more fun to archly whisper, "I don't buy it." (Oooh, please tell me what you know!)

People will be people and technology will be technology. There is no call to action here, but I feel strangely protective of Ronni Chasen, a woman I never met, but who strikes me as the kind of person I have known for years, someone in that diffuse media orbit where I also bounce around.

The truth is often a soul-crushing snooze, the only spin being this: A very decent woman was killed by a very bad man.

Eric Dezenhall co-founded the communications firm Dezenhall Resources, Ltd., and serves as its CEO. His first book, Nail 'em!: Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Business, pioneered techniques for understanding and defusing crises.