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Dark Sites: Manage Crisis Communications Online

By Dean Parker, Communications Consultant, SAS, MSLGROUP EMEA

Does your digital strategy prepare you for the unthinkable? From oil spills to faulty products, volcanic ash clouds to shareholder revolts – the business landscape is more unpredictable than ever and given the viral way in which a crisis is now likely to evolve, corporate communications and PR teams need to be better prepared than ever before. A ‘dark site’ – or series of them – should become one of the most important elements of your crisis communications plan.

What is a dark site?

In short, a ‘dark site’ is a website or series of web pages that have been pre-prepared and ready to publish quickly to the internet in the event of a crisis. Their main purpose is to keep various audiences informed and updated about a potential or current crisis.

Why should you have them?

As we have seen during recent crises such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the communication around them often evolves at break-neck speed, mainly due to viral effect of social channels such as Twitter and Facebook. While organisations could previously get away with responding to a crisis within 24 hours, they now need to be ready to respond within minutes.

While the role of social media in the way a crisis develops has been well documented, the use of ‘dark sites’ is relatively unknown.

Although the response from organisations across social channels is incredibly important, ‘dark sites’ will often become the hub for all official communications related to a crisis and the place that people are referred to from social channels for more detailed information.

Because they are dedicated to a single issue and free from ‘business as usual’ information, ‘dark sites’ help tell your side of the story and frame issues in a way that suppresses dangerous rumours and speculation. They also help position organisations as the primary source of information and encourage the media to make them the first place they visit when trying to get a balanced view on a crisis. And they can help maintain relationships with key audiences over the course of the situation by keeping them informed and providing ways to interact.

As ever, transparency is key and therefore the depth, timeliness and accuracy of the information you provide on a ‘dark site’ will ultimately determine how successful you are in communicating how in control you are of the situation and how seriously you take your responsibilities.

In short, there are three key reasons why you need to create ‘dark sites’ as part of an overall crisis communications plan:

  1. They provide a quick and easy way for an organisation to get its response out to a diverse set of audiences and away from the ‘fog’ of normal business operations
  2. They create a dedicated online hub for all ‘official’ information related to a crisis – both during and after the event
  3. They give assurance that the situation is being taken seriously by an organisation

Are there different types of ‘dark sites’?

There are different approaches that can be taken to developing ‘dark sites’ – each one more or less suited to different types of crises and organisational issues.

At the most extreme level, and one that should only be considered during the most major crises or severe disasters, is the temporary replacement of a corporate website with a ‘dark site’. While this approach indicates complete dedication by an organisation to a particular crisis, it should only be used when normal business operations are unable to carry on.

A more likely approach is to develop a separate site that will live alongside your existing websites. This means that ‘business as usual’ content can still exist (after all it is likely that not all your audiences are effected by the crisis and it is important to show your ability and desire to carry on meeting their needs) but does not get in the way of important information related to the crisis. If this is the approach that you take, you should give serious consideration to the use of blogging platforms such as WordPress due to their content focused templates, ease of updating, and seamless integration with tools and channels such as RSS, Twitter and Facebook.

In most cases however, most people will instinctively navigate directly to your website to find the information they’re looking for about a crisis. This makes your homepage incredibly important in communicating your response and linking people to the place where they can find more detailed information.

An effective strategy that SAS helped BP deploy during the Gulf of Mexico crisis was to create a separate section to their main corporate website that contained all the information related to the situation, linked off to the relevant social media channels and evolved over time as the event unfolded and the needs of its audiences changed. It still exists more than two years after the initial event, but has now changed to focus on the restoration efforts rather than the spill.

While it’s worth considering a number of different scenarios and possibly even developing different strategies to cater for different vulnerabilities, the five most important things to consider when working out your approach are:

  1. Putting a system in place that allows you to quickly and easily keep the site up-to-date without the need to get your agency or IT department involved
  2. Effective cross-linking to and from your main corporate site, ‘dark site’ and social media channels
  3. Providing tools that makes it easy for people to get constant updates – these may be RSS feeds, email subscription services or micro-blogging channels (e.g. Twitter)
  4. Looking at additional bandwidth so your site is ready to cope with large surges in traffic (especially if you are using the same platform as your main site)
  5. Consider a keyword strategy and even PPC (Pay-per-click) campaign to push people to the ‘dark site’ from search engines (if possible develop a list of search keywords before a crisis hits)

What information do you put on a ‘dark site’?

Obviously the content and functionality you put on a ‘dark site’ is all dependent on the type of crisis you are dealing with. However, there are some common elements that most ‘dark sites’ will feature:

  • Statement(s) describing the crisis event and the organisation’s response (sometimes a message from the CEO or other Board members may be appropriate)
  • Instructions to everyone affected by the crisis clearly articulating what they should or should not do
  • Description (and ideally timeline) of the specific steps that are being taken to get the situation back to normal
  • Background information that helps promote clear understanding of the situation (e.g. causes, nature, likely impact, what is being done etc.)
  • General information about the organisation (e.g. leadership, history, FAQs, track record on important subjects, media footage, share price etc.)
  • Contact information for the journalists and other media
  • If appropriate, contact information for members of the public affected by the crisis
  • Regular updates to facts about the situation and actions being taken

Where possible, pre-approved messages and documents such as press releases, pictures, official statements and background information should be created and loaded onto the ‘dark site’ ready to go.

Whatever information you decide to include – it should always be focused on the essential facts and could just consist of a couple of web pages. The design should be clean and simple so the sole focus is on the information and is not seen as a marketing piece.

And finally, a ‘dark site’ needs to evolve over the course of a crisis. For example, at first the focus may be on providing people with emergency information, then move to more detailed information related to what is being done to solve the crisis, and finally switch to the aftermath and plans for making sure a similar event never happens again. This of course means that the site, as well as the conversations going on outside it (e.g. Facebook and Twitter), need to be carefully managed and monitored to ensure they are constantly meeting the needs of your audiences.

Dean has over 15 years’ communications industry experience across digital strategy, interaction design and user experience. He has advised on and led projects for clients across a wide range of platforms and technologies – websites, online reporting, intranets, interactive television services, DVDs and interactive kiosks. He can be reached at dparker@saslondon.com

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