Crisis Communications: Dark Sites 101

2008 was a really interesting year for me, professionally, as I was exposed to a tonne of new stuff including online crisis communications. As a result, I wrote the following briefing note for existing and potential clients which I am delighted to share with you. I can in no means call this my own work as with all pieces that go to clients, this was proofed and improved on by another team member – in this case the inimitable Brandy Fleming.

It’s on something that is becoming increasingly important from a communications and crisis preparedness perspective: dark sites.

What is a “dark site”?

A dark site is a pre-developed, non-public Web site that can be published to the live Web in the event of a crisis.

Why develop a dark site?

Online, it is vital to maintain a positive and accurate perception of an organization, especially in the face of a crisis, with timely and accurate information that your constituents care about.

Therefore, it is common for organizations, especially those facing multiple potential issues, to have several dark sites, one for each identified vulnerability or corporate risk. Typically, a dark site contains pre-approved messaging and documents such news releases, pictures, official statements and other background information, as the specific details will only be added right before their release.

A dark site can be placed on a separate domain, be a distinct section of the main organizational Web site or totally replace the original. It could be saved on any of the corporate servers or be kept securely on a preferred external device.

Industries in which dark sites are prevalent include:

  • Food and beverage;
  • Pharmaceutical;
  • Airline; and
  • Finance – crisis and transactional/M&As

In any crisis, it is essential for any organization to be able to tell its side of the story and to frame any issues appropriately – before anyone else does it for them. Including development of a dark site in crisis planning is critical to communications in the new digital era.

Best practices

While it is not feasible to prepare a dark site for every possible situation, there are key components that should be associated with any dark site:

Domain

Dark sites can either reside on a discrete domain (URL) or temporarily replace the main organizational Web site on the corporate URL. If the dark site will reside on a unique URL, this should be factored into the domain-name purchasing strategy to ensure the requisite domain is available and is controlled by the organization – it can be time consuming and expensive to dislodge cyber squatters or domain name traders immediately after a crisis breaks.

Design

As a dark site is generally used to respond to a crisis, any design should be clean and simple so as to not distract from the content. Branding is usually minimal and at most will include the company logo and use corporate colours – however, some dark sites are unbranded to focus more on the issue at hand than be seen as a marketing piece.

Having a pre-approved design waiting in the wings allows an organization to save precious time and to move nimbly.

Content Management

Crises evolves at the speed of light. Therefore any crisis Web site’s content must be editable quickly and easily. Having basic content publishing tools on which the site is built will ensure that updates can be made without involving IT support staff. Publishing tools can include the ability to update “static” page content (e.g. the homepage welcome message) as well as database-driven content such as news releases, email notifications, etc.

Content management tools can also allow organizations to make wholesale changes to the navigation and site structure, especially in concert with a simple design which encompasses text-based (rather than graphic-based) links.

Content

A general outline for a site map and functional requirements for a dark site is below.

1.0 – Home

2.0 – Organizational Generic Information

2.1 – General background information /history of the organization/list of leadership and board of directors

2.2 – Information about services and policies of the organization

2.3 – An overview of the organization’s track record on important subjects

2.4 – Frequently asked questions

2.5 – Media footage (such as video or pictures)

NOTE: in order to spread your organization’s message, posting media on file sharing sites such as YouTube (video) or Flickr (photography), and drawing them in from these sites, can both introduce new users to your content and save on bandwidth costs. In addition, posting content to social sharing sites such as these means your content can be embedded on blogs and Web sites, further disseminating your messages

2.6 – Information in a variety of languages and formats (as required)

2.7 – Share price ticker (if appropriate)

3.0 – Information on the issue

3.1 – Background information

3.2 – Frequently Asked Questions

3.3 – Expert commentary

4.0 – News Room/Media Area

4.1 – Pages established with areas for updates and press releases

4.2 – Draft press releases/statements for anticipated possible crisis situations

4.3 – Press contact information

4.4 – Backgrounders for media

Marketing

It can take up to a week for a new site to be indexed by the major search engines while customers, partners and employees will be searching for information on the issue immediately. To combat this lag, organizations can divert users from search engines through ads on key search terms. Developing a list of key words and phrases that people may use to find information on the issue can be done before crisis hits, in tandem with the development of key messages and materials, as can the development of the ad copy itself. Having accounts set up on all three of the major search engines with key words and ad copy pre-populated will save time in a crisis situation.

If a crisis is likely to be ongoing, it may be appropriate to have an RSS feed or email subscription function so that once someone has visited the site once; they can subscribe to further updates and not have to keep manually returning to the site. Depending on the type of crisis, outreach to the top online influencers may also be appropriate – in which case the portable assets on YouTube, Flickr etc. will be even more important.

Depending on how the situation develops, you may want to reach out to the bloggers and online influencers that you have pre-existing relationships with. However, the decision to engage online influencers in a time of crisis is not one that should be made lightly.

Hosting

As seen in the Virginia Tech tragedy, an organization facing a crisis will see a huge surge in traffic to its Web site. Therefore, it is important to have the proper infrastructure such as a dedicated server with additional bandwidth to cope with any such surge. If a user can’t access your site, they will go elsewhere for information – information that you may not control.

More information

For more information on dark sites, I’ve saved this collection of links: http://delicious.com/Edrique/darksite

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25 Responses to Crisis Communications: Dark Sites 101

  1. Great primer on dealing with this type of site. I would add that while dark sites are important, in some cases it may be necessary to drive traffic to sites like this, especially if you’re not necessarily top of mind with the public as a resource during an industry-wide crisis.

    In those cases, creating a network that can be reached easily and quickly through opt-in email lists, your blog and other social channels is important to get your side of the story to the public before they hear it from someone else.

  2. customsstreet says:

    Very well done Ed,

    This is the most helpful article I have read about online response for crisis, and I have read a good number.

    Please do keep up the excellent work

    Thank you.

  3. [...] few years ago, dark sites started growing in popularity. According to Ed Lee, blogger at Blogging Me Blogging You, a dark site “is a pre-developed, non-public Web site that can be published to the live Web [...]

  4. [...] “dark sites” are not a new idea (see Ed Lee’s 101 on the topic).  There are two relevant sites: Direct Gov claims to have [...]

  5. [...] 2009-06-11T04:29:07  Dart Sites… Interesting concept for companies that do care about online crisis management. More details here: [link to post] [...]

  6. Irene says:

    Dark sites. A new vision from the web pages. For the first time i get a clear idea about in this topic. I visited the links also and it too helped. Good work.

  7. [...] Lee, one of my PR contacts prior to law, explains, A dark site is a pre-developed, non-public Web site that can be published to the live Web in the [...]

  8. [...] Crisis Comm classmates note: RT @TheRealPRMan Here is a great primer on Dark Sites: [link to post] [...]

  9. [...] Great link, thanks. RT @TheRealPRMan Here is a great primer on Dark Sites: [link to post] [...]

  10. [...] RT @ashletts Crisis Comm classmates note: RT @TheRealPRMan Here is a great primer on Dark Sites: [link to post] [...]

  11. [...] recruit their help.Read more here, “Reinventing Crisis Communications” and here, “Creating Dark Sites.”4. What should you get out of a PR internship and what should you expect?I believe that [...]

  12. [...] and bloggers; and planning now for web communications that a crisis would require (e.g., “dark” web pages). It means identifying the high-authority bloggers that report on the industry so their coverage [...]

  13. [...] Lee, a blogger and PR professional on his blog defined a dark site as “a pre-developed, non-public Web site that can be published to the live [...]

  14. [...] @flinchbaugh RIM needs to be creative, key to crisis comms. For example, RIM needs a dark site, [link to post], for [...]

  15. [...] Trotz professioneller Analyse und Planung lassen sich Kommunikationskrisen aber oft nicht vermeiden. Im Brandfall ist es also ratsam, die Löschinstrumente bereits parat zu haben. Ein solcher Feuerlöscher ist die sogenannte Dark Site, die im Hintergrund des Webbereichs auf ihren Einsatz wartet. What is a “dark site”? [...]

  16. [...] course, this also goes back to the almost paramount importance of understand what a Dark Site is and then building one. You can never know what you’ll need it for but this underscores the [...]

  17. [...] Develop an emergency plan and a “dark website”—a pre-developed, non-public website that can be published to the live Web in the event of a crisis. (dark website resource: http://edlee.ca/2009/02/11/crisis-communications-dark-sites-101/) [...]

  18. Hi do you use traffic stats on your blog? im looking for some advice.

  19. [...] been more clear than in today’s “instant response” climate. In post on his blog, Blogging Me, Blogging You, social media pro Ed Lee explained why you need to develop dark sites of your [...]

  20. [...] most important point in an issues management plan is to pre-plan. Create a cold site, or dark site, a webpage that has been prepared ahead of a crisis that can be uploaded quickly when a crisis hits. [...]

  21. [...] more information about dark sites, visit this site: delicious.com/Edrique   Source: bloggingmebloggingyou.wordpress.com Illustration: [...]

  22. chehou84 says:

    Reblogged this on Strategic Communications Management and commented:
    The Dark Web or Deep Web
    It’s another part of crisis communication’s plan, the online proactive plan.
    When bad news or an emergency suddenly strikes an organization, its website is ordinarily the first place the outside world turns to for information. Given the extreme time pressure inherent in crisis management today, there is just no time to construct a new crisis site from scratch. Instead, a prebuilt dark site can be quickly “turned on” as needed during a crisis management situation.

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