Dark Sites Can Help Brands Shed Light for Stakeholders During a Crisis

Does your company have a process to shift gears quickly on its web site when a crisis hits? If not, during a grave incident or crisis your site might continue doing business as usual, loaded with upbeat content and imagery.

In the digital age there are few more visible communication mistakes than failing to update site content or social media accounts when your company is mired in a bad situation or crisis.

Boston Market’s Social Turkey

Recall Boston Market’s predicament during Thanksgiving 2020. Knowing customers were opting not to travel for the holiday during the pandemic’s height, Boston Market offered a solution.

Order a turkey dinner with all the trimmings from us in advance. Pick it up the day before the holiday or early Thanksgiving morning. Some outlets gave customers 15-minute windows to pick up their food.

Sales were wildly successful.

For reasons yet unexplained, though, a slew of Boston Market locations were unable to promptly fill these pre-paid pick-up orders. At some outlets, customers waited for hours to get food.

Others, though, were caught in long lines only to find out hours later there was no more turkey left.

For this article, though, we point to Boston Market’s sites and social media accounts. For days they blaring “Happy Thanksgiving” messages. In addition, they promoted Christmas turkey specials despite the brand’s awful situation.

The Kill Switch

One way Boston Market could have reduced reputation damage is with a social media kill switch. Such a device quickly halts social media publishing when, for example, during a crisis.

Once a kill switch is activated, the social media team takes direction from crisis communicators.

Options include quickly posting appropriate social content. In many cases this includes an apology.

Some brands prefer to keep social media accounts quiet until a crisis communication plan is ready.

Lighting Dark Sites

Companies that are well-prepared for crisis often have procedures that adapt their sites for grave incidents and crises.

One option is to house pertinent information on a dark site or dark page. These are microsites or webpages that remain hidden from public view until they are deployed, or lighted, shortly after an incident or a crisis occurs.

Sometimes a dark site holds content in advance of lighting. For example, a dark site might contain pre-approved messages, graphics or videos that can help consumers or other stakeholders during an incident or a crisis.

In other cases, the dark site is a placeholder only, standing by to accept information and for deployment instantly when a crisis or incident strikes.

In both cases the time-saving advantages of dark sites for communicators are obvious. Having a series of pre-approved messages ready for quck activation can be a godsend for a PR pro in the midst of a crisis.

Similarly, even when a dark site is an empty shell, awaiting content just prior to deployment, it eliminates several tasks that less-prepared communicators must address during a crisis.

Uses for Anticipated Crises

Once a PR pro accepts the time-saving importance of a dark site or page for crisis preparation, she can add to the tool’s sophistication.

For example, content stored on a dark site can apply to anticipated crises. Oil and gas companies face spills and other emergencies somewhat regularly. Their need to house centralized information hubs that can go live quickly during a crisis makes dark sites a must-have.

Other use-case examples for dark sites include product recalls in the food, medical and auto industries.

Indeed, just about any company that builds products could benefit from having a dark site with general information about recalls. Once the specifics of a situation are known, communicators can tweak pre-approved dark site content just prior to deployment.

Varied Content

In addition to the above examples, there are other versions of dark site content. For example, a dark site could host information about a new product that’s needed as a fix.

Other information loaded to dark site pages could include safety protocols based on anticipated weather events.

Dark sites don’t always need to carry information of a, well, dark nature. Companies can and do create dark sites to house embargoed content about new products or promotions.

Security and off-network sites

Regardless of how dark sites are used, since their content typically is sensitive, security is key. Well-trained and trusted staff or vendors are the only people you want working on them, says Tim Roberts, CEO at Wieck.

And you might consider an off-network partner hosting the site. This way, if there are cyberattacks, information [on the dark site] “is isolated from exposure and [companies] can still operate in the middle of a crisis,” Roberts says.

Still, avoid getting too fancy with a dark site. The most effective ones are simple, easy to navigate and offer clear messages, says Justin Buchbinder, director of social media at FINN Partners.

Dark sites are not intended “to market or brand. They [exist] to provide important information quickly and without frills,” he adds.

Yet you must always consider security. For example, Roberts concedes communicators with modest budgets could adopt a scrappy approach to dark sites. A company could create dark sites with relatively low-security tools. If so, beware of security leaks or accidental publishing, he warns.

Finally, once you’ve lighted your dark site during a crisis make sure you update regularly. Even if your update is ‘Site last updated at...’ And don’t kill your dark site once a crisis dies. Since visitors are used to accessing it, load crisis-related legal information on the site, for example.

Sophie Maerowitz is senior content manager of PRNEWS.