Dark sites in crisis communication

A dark site can be a stand-alone website or web pages that you prepare (but don’t publish or promote) in anticipation of a crisis or emergency.

A dark site or pages should be ready to share critical information and updates for key audiences. Examples of these on corporate websites include in the event of an oil clean-up operation, an investigation into a missing aircraft, or when a high profile leader dies.

When is a dark site appropriate?

There are circumstances when a dark site may be a good option: 

  1. If your website content management system isn’t very flexible or resilient: You cannot update or edit pages very easily, or need a dedicated publishing person or team for this situation. Could your website support a 10-fold increase in traffic? Could a statement be published to your landing page within 15 minutes if necessary?
  2. As a signal of intent: Your organisation agrees unanimously that this situation is so serious that it must take priority.  
  3. To demonstrate a different tone of voice. In a crisis, the online audience in particular is keen to hear from credible individuals inside and around the organisation. A dark site can provide an outlet to adopt a more conversational tone with your stakeholders, either as a substitute for a conventional press release or as a flexible accompaniment.
  4. If you are planning for a long-running crisis.  The audience for your crisis updates is very specific. You have a wider customer base that expects to find routine business information quickly and easily. Your main site is focused on e-commerce or is hard to find in search, and you want to make the user journey for media and key stakeholders easier.
  5. In a complicated situation, with multiple stakeholders or supply chain partners. You want to present a single source of truth on a story, combining lines and information from a number of partner organisations, suppliers, stakeholder groups or other sources, in one place. Some of this detail doesn’t naturally fit on your corporate channels (though we often find ourselves recommending to clients to publish more fast facts about their process proactively).
  6. As a distancing strategy. The situation in question relates to a specific issue which is being or has been dealt with, a former management team or a different brand. When it’s time to move the conversation on, the ‘dark’ site and how you signpost to it can be a way to digitally compartmentalise.

Committing to a dark site means you will now manage two websites, inclusive of all the associated costs and maintenance work. Without good content and sound promotion, your site could end up being a net cost and an expensive distraction. These sites should be thought of as an extra, specialised tool rather than the only option to defuse a crisis.

How to make the most of your social media presence

  1. Make sure you have a range of tools available to disseminate news and messages amongst your key stakeholders as soon as possible. Consider how you will manage the flow of updates and information and distribute content.
  2. Get your social media presence right; concerned customers or shareholders will turn to their most trusted channel during a crisis, from Twitter or Facebook, to LinkedIn and Instagram. 
  3. Provide updates using text, images, and video to increase interest and encourage engagement. Search engines favour content that is relevant and varied, so make sure that you’re including important information in meta descriptions and tags. 
  4. Have your channels prepared and ready for when you need them, including regular posting to stay connected with your audience and an established social following. 
  5. Make sure your team is well-practised in managing and communicating across your channels, and aware of all the functionalities that can be leveraged during an emergency.

Download this free resource: Dark sites in crisis communication

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