Tradition Meets Innovation: using Dark Sites

Once a crisis reaches its tipping point, it can spread like an inferno, quickly destroying brand reputation, consumer trust and partner loyalty. When attempting to successfully manage such a fire, the most vital firefighting element is control.

By its very nature, crises will demand reactive decision-making. However, there are many proactive tactics you can employ that can help make a major difference later. To successfully establish and maintain control over the information being delivered to the public, a comprehensive crisis management plan must consider all channels, traditional and non-traditional, public relations and marketing tactics. Today, these methods translate to online and offline tactics, ranging from designating a crisis task force to RSS feeds. They even include developing inactive Web sites, known as dark sites, prior to a crisis.

Lighting the Path Through a Crisis
Public relations professionals are well schooled on the traditional components of a crisis management plan: designate a company task force; develop key messages; secure media, partner and customer contact lists, etc. While these tools are essential, the advancement of communication has caused the need for more non-traditional tactics.

Crisis situations can take on a life of their own in the interactive, instantaneous, unpredictable ether known as the World Wide Web. With the introduction of the Internet and Web 2.0 technologies, traditional timeliness has evolved into the need for immediate responsiveness. It is no longer acceptable for a company to respond to a crisis within hours—people demand answers within minutes. Companies are reluctant to remain open with the public when a blogger can post biased or fictitious information. Consistency is a challenge when a spokesperson’s informal comment can be plastered on high-traffic Web sites.

The Internet threatens a company’s ability to control a crisis if it is not adequately prepared to respond with online tools. Savvy PR professionals recognize the importance of incorporating traditional and nontraditional media strategies into clients’ crisis management plans to ensure that companies provide a timely, transparent and consistent response.

Online tools, including e-mail blasts, RSS feeds, and blogs, can improve crisis communication plans, but there is one technology that can guarantee timely, transparent and controlled communication during a crisis: a dark site. 

Enter the Dark Site
Dark sites, which are Web sites produced prior to a crisis that remain inactive until needed, are one of the most effective online crisis communications tools. By providing a centralized source for accurate, up-to-date information, dark sites allow companies to own and control their messages. Without a centralized information source, key publics search blindly for facts, which often can be inaccurate and can reduce a company’s control over public opinion.

For example, consider the lead paint scare that caused Mattel to recall millions of toy products over the past six months due to safety concerns. Mattel currently has a Web page devoted solely to information about product recalls, providing a single, centralized source of information. Thus, any concerned Mattel customers can visit the site directly to find important safety information about any product they have purchased. 

A dark site can be created at any time, but remains invisible to the public until its creator deems it appropriate. A dark site can either replace the company’s original Web site, or the company’s home site can provide a link to the dark site. The site should be activated as soon as a crisis hits and can remain active until the situation subsides and the public no longer needs to be addressed on an ongoing basis.

Information can change at the drop of a hat, making it difficult to determine what a dark site should include. The site should echo a company’s key messages and incorporate any information that is important to the public, including partners and the media. A successful dark site will answer the questions that the public is asking.

Foundational elements of a dark site include:

•    Official company positioning on the crisis at hand
•    Designated point of contact
•    Guidance from third-party organizations, such as government authorities (which should be approved prior to site activation)
•    Registration form for updates or RSS feeds
•    Actions being taken to resolve the situation
•    Pertinent background information 
•    Positive press coverage

Once the shell of the dark site is created, it is easily updatable. Though it is a collaborative process, PR professionals should have final word on the content, messages and activation of the dark site.

Designed to address public needs on an ongoing basis, dark sites are more likely used in the business-to-consumer market. Dark sites are also critical for the pharmaceutical, mass transportation, agriculture and utilities industries.

By developing a dark site, a company can activate a message platform instantly, allowing the company to focus on the message, not how to best convey it.

The Next Generation of Strategic Crisis Communications
With progress, comes change. In a world of constantly evolving communication, taking advantage of Web 2.0 technologies can enable and empower the next generation of crisis management. Communications professionals must learn to combine the most up-to-date, effective tools available with traditional tactics to provide the most effective means to manage a crisis.  Integrating the latest Web 2.0 strategies, such as dark sites, into traditional crisis communications plans will drastically improve a company’s ability to extinguish a crisis’ fire.
Dark sites arm companies with an instant crisis response channel that ensures timely, transparent and consistent communication with key publics. While there is no substitute for core crisis management principles, dark sites provide another vehicle for companies to prepare for and control a crisis in an unpredictable, Web-centric world.

This article was written by David Gorodetski COO and creative director at Sage Communications and Julie Litzenberger, SVP of public relations for Sage Communications. It was excerpted from the PR News Crisis Management Guidebook, Volume 2. To order a copy, visit the