ITL #216 Social Media killed the dark site: re-envisioning online crisis communication

4 years, 5 months ago


Crisis newsrooms need to mirror the functionality and formats of main news and social media sites so that the audience can interact with fresh, informative incident content. By Gerry McCusker.

In the early digital age, PR practitioners helped birth the creation of the crisis ‘Dark Site’; pre-populated, one-way, web-based, text-driven pages.


The sinister-sounding dark sites existed as shadows of corporate websites, and were activated by corporate and government organisations in crisis circumstances.


In that age, the main channels of incident information were mainstream media outlets – radio, press and TV. They developed incident content via a mix of passerby accounts, circumstantial speculation and, sometimes, PR-led messages fed to them by the affected organisation.


The ‘dark site’ communications goal was to focus only on incident response, relief and recovery efforts undertaken by the crisis affected organisation. Under crisis, all other company website information (particularly marketing and promotions) was to be blacked out or ‘parked’ in favour of official incident-related updates.


This was before the advent of social (i.e. ‘the peoples’) media. But social has killed the dark site.


Expectations of instant information


In any disaster or emergency situation, people need information to help keep them safe. They need (and expect) it quickly, if not instantly. Whether it’s support for an affected community, relief for a targeted group of stakeholders or direction for a staff cohort, ‘real time’ access to accurate, shareable information can be a matter of life and death.


As documented in my 2005 reputation management book “Talespin; Public Relations Disasters”, organisations used to have around 24 hours to respond to any crisis. Nowadays, several of our clients have social media strive times (for crisis acknowledgement) of seven minutes! Our crisis simulation technology shows how social channels demand situation intel in a snap. Social media updates are way more compelling than corporate dark sites.


Too often, organisations cannot inform crisis reports or perceptions because they do not publish or share their information with enough speed, relevance or spread.


Around the world – from Australia to Alaska – post-crisis reviews continually criticise the ineptitude of traditional communications strategies, systems and and responses deployed by corporates in crisis situations.


Now, people are the media


Today, people are the media. Equipped with broadcast and narrowcast multi-format devices, their crisis content can be shared to their online peer groups. This content often bypasses media outlets. Because people trust their colleagues rather than corporates, company websites (including dark sites) are often ignored in favour of social media channels when crises break.


‘Real’ people’s perspectives – at the incident forefront – are essential in informing incident progress and/or spread. News outlets both solicit and show citizen content in a crisis.


Yet corporate dark sites are mostly incapable of curating and disseminating ‘live’ frontline content. So, the message sent is that we don’t trust citizen content and that we’re not working with them.


A historic crisis communication model cedes control


Many businesses (and crisis PR practitioners) still use a historic crisis communication model, rather than a contemporarily configured one. In crisis, many are still rehearsing the chief executive with sound bites designed to placate an ever-adversarial media.


Increasingly, too, CEOs are easily outgunned by speed, by speculation and by volume of critical Search Engine Optimised content. After all, when a crisis breaks, many people trust search engines first to help them divine which channel they’ll follow for news on the incident information.


The challenge crisis PRs must address is, how to inform and influence SEO so that it helps us productively ‘frame’ the crisis narrative. Most PRs simply want a fairer share of reporting voice.


With multiple voices shouting myriad views, businesses need to reconfigure their ‘dark site’. Their web presence must powerfully impact the organisation’s SEO relevance, rather than only gambling on CEO influence.


Brand newsrooms supercede the dark site


An ideal way to better manage the reporting narative, is to simply be in the news business.


Not many organisations can fund a multi-format news outlet. However, they can invest in online publishing and content sharing technologies to secure a larger message footprint across all online channels. Replace your dark site with a crisis newshub that functionally features:


  1. The ability to quickly publish in ways that positively impact SEO findability and ranking
  2. The facility to uniformly update across multiple social media channels (often remotely)
  3. The technology to incorporate third party content (e.g. lead incident stakeholders and, yes, even citizen content!)
  4. Ability for any web visitors to readily re-distribute any incident information among their preferred online channels and networks
  5. Mobile-device and responsive-design compatibility


By these mandatories, old-style ‘dark sites’ – born in a Web1.0, pre-social media era –  are all but redundant. Dark site best practice, to have pre-prepared ‘co-operation’ messages, facility photos, CEO statements and FAQs loaded on the site, seem antiquated in a media age where “live” citizen media video and photos can be streamed direct to social silos, the media and Web.


The crisis newsmaker


The new breed of crisis newsrooms need to mirror the functionality and formats of main news (and social media) sites so that the reader/viewer can interact with fresh, informative incident content; CNRs (cameraphone news releases), live geo-location maps, RSS buttons, social sharing icons, streaming video and more. Using these, we can establish and maintain crisis narrative authority and credibility.


Today’s communications tools offer plentiful options to publish crisis updates straight to our stakeholders. We do not need to cede narrative authority to media or social media snipers.

Yet only a minority of corporates have really restructured their message distribution strategies, and resourced their communications teams, to get into the news business.


In crises, we can harness technologies – trans-media simulators, brand newsrooms, content aggregators, stakeholder notification systems – that make our (corporate) crisis updates valuable and indispensable.


Given the changes in our information, news and content sharing environments, we must leverage the publishing smarts at our disposal to drive and disseminate our narrative across all news, social and search media. In peace times as well as crisis times.

Once the dark site served us well. But each of us must review and rehearse our drill for how we’ll manage media, mis-information and messages when crisis strikes.

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The Author

Gerry McCusker

Gerry McCusker is a PR analyst, author, founder and owner of Crisis Simulation Software, The Drill crisis simulator.

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