Online crisis communications: Beware of the dark site, young Skywalker

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Is there a universal solution to preparing for crises on the Web?

Earlier this week I moderated a panel on crisis communications at the PRNews Media Relations Forum in Washington DC. Just check out the session titles and (as can be expected in today’s world of economic turmoil and online networking) you’ll see that social media and crisis communications were the prevailing themes throughout the day. 

These two topics intersect at one point: How should a company use the Internet during a crisis to get their message out to consumers, clients, shareholders and the media?

A 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 in the event of a crisis.” Dark sites are typically developed for areas of known risk or vulnerability for an organization.

For example, check out this post from Idil Cakim, GolinHarris’ VP of Interactive Media on his dot WOM blog from a few weeks ago about the Turkish Airlines’ crash near Amsterdam. Turkish Airlines’ quickly put up a dark site in multiple languages with information about the flight and crash, a hotline and passenger information. Because of their quick response and preparedness, Turkish Airlines’ was able to provide valuable information during a crisis and was able to control their messaging by providing a hub for people looking for information about the crash.

For companies that require a lot of pre-approval of messaging, releases, statements, etc., a dark site might be the right solution, like for airlines or a company going through a controversial merger or acquisition. Even in these situations, content can be prepared for approval ahead of time without a dark site. A dark site is beneficial for preparing a design where the crisis news is first and foremost on the homepage.

But should every organization have a dark site? Many are arguing that the value of dark sites is diminishing quickly.

With current technologies that allow us to publish content very quickly online, many times a dark site is not the best course of action. Prescient Digital Media CEO and blogger Toby Ward discussed the topic of dark sites on Ragan’s Content Matters blog after the Virginia Tech tragedy. VT’s site crashed shortly after the tragedy because their server could not handle the thousands of additional visitors to the school’s site. Toby argues that a dark site would not have solved this problem; the only thing that would have helped was if VT’s server was ready to handle such a large uptick in visits.

The growth of social media has added another dimension to this discussion: Is the purpose of a dark site to provide real-time updates during a crisis or to engage a community in conversation about a crisis? Shel Holtz discusses a variation of dark sites, ‘dark blogs,’ on his blog a shel of my former self. He hears more and more communicators encouraging organizations to maintain a dark blog in case of crisis. Shel believes the key to whether or not a dark blog is the answer lies in the intention behind the blog: If the blog is there to provide rapid updates, great. If it is to engage in conversation, a dark blog is probably not a good idea – there is no established voice or credibility to the blog.

Sometimes search is a concern during a crisis. What if your site appears on page 3 of a Google search when people are looking for information about your company? Chances are, visitors will go to one of the dozens of sites listed before yours first. Using SEO techniques and keywords for a particular crisis or issue can help.

At the PRNews Media Relations Forum, Monte Lutz, vice president of digital public affairs at Edelman used President Obama’s campaign as a case study in social media usage. One example that Monte used that stood out to me was how the president’s campaign handled the questions on whether or not Mr. Obama was a Muslim. The campaign was very aware of keywords and how people would search for an answer to this question, so they bought the domain When you type “Is Barack Obama a Muslim” into Google, this site is the second result returned, giving the president’s campaign control over the messaging on the issue.

President Obama's campaign created Web sites with URLs of popular search terms to drive readers to their content and control messaging.

President Obama's campaign created Web site with URLs of popular search terms to help readers find their content and control messaging.

It is clear that a dark site is appropriate for some organizations, but is not the one universal solution to addressing crises online. However, there are a few fundamental lessons to be learned from the examples above on addressing a crisis on the Web:

  • Always engage your community in an authentic manner. Being deceptive will get you nowhere.
  • Ensure that your website can handle an uptick in visitors. You don’t want your site crashing when people need it the most.
  • If you don’t have a dark site, know how and where to post important information during a crisis so that visitors to your company site can quickly find what they’re looking for.

Do you have any examples where a dark site has succeeded/failed? Please share any stories in the comments below.

About Heidi Sullivan

One of PRWeek’s 40 under 40 in 2012, Heidi Sullivan is Senior Vice President of Digital Content for Cision and a self-proclaimed social media metrics nerd. She leads the company’s digital and broadcast content teams, the global research team for Cision’s media database, Cision’s social media community team and the company’s content marketing strategy. You can find her on Twitter @hksully.

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