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Dark Sites

What are they, and why do you need them?

As fast as it takes someone to snap a photo or video, and post it to social media, is how long it takes for an event to go viral. A dark website is a critical tool to have in your crisis communication toolbox to help you manage a crisis or emergency successfully.

What is a dark site?
When there’s bad news or an emergency, your website is one of the first places people will go for information. Given the extreme time pressure inherent in crisis management, there is no time to construct a new site or pages from scratch. A prebuilt dark site can quickly go-live during a crisis management situation.

When do you use one?
Your company or organization can send the wrong message if you adopt a business-as-usual mindset and continue using your website for regular business while you’re in the middle of a crisis.

A dark site can be utilized in one of three ways:

(1) Your steady-state website is completely removed and replaced with the dark site;

(2) a link to the dark site is prominently displayed on the home page; or

(3) a separate URL is created based on the most likely/obvious search terms.

Why use a dark site?
A dark site serves a number of key strategic purposes.

  • Maintains your position as the primary source of crisis information.
  • Suppresses and controls dangerous rumors and speculation.
  • Signals the news media that you intend to provide timely, accurate information, thus encouraging them to make you their first source in more balanced coverage.
  • Your transparent behavior demonstrates that you are in control and take your responsibilities seriously. Concerned members of the public judge your behavior in this way.
  • When your own website becomes a source of credible information, it translates directly into trust. Not communicating is seen as hiding, which can mean damage or ruin to your reputation, and possibly financially.

How does a dark site differ from a website used by a company during normal business?
The key differentiator is the type of content the site carries. During normal operations, websites promote a company or organization and its products or services. During a crisis, stakeholders want, need and expect very different, specific and consistent factual information from a trusted source (hint: it should be you!).

Dark sites tell stakeholders:

  • Any available facts about what happened as part of an opening or initial statement describing the crisis event and the organization’s response.
  • Special instructions telling everyone affected by the crisis what they must or must not do.
  • What specific steps are being taken to get the situation back to normal.
  • Relevant background information describing the organization, the causes, nature and likely impact of the crisis; in short, anything that promotes a clear understanding of the situation.
  • Contact information for the news media.
  • Contact information for members of the public affected by the crisis.
  • Regular fact- and action-based updates.

Cost and timing
Rapid response time is one of the two key factors in successfully managing a crisis situation. A prebuilt dark site can be customized and made live in a matter of hours.

When there is no crisis, constructing a dark site typically requires between two to four weeks, depending on an organization’s ability to provide approved content.

Extensive content customization and levels of social media integration can add to costs. However, because of their intended usage environment, we strongly recommend that dark sites be kept simple and unadorned.