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