The idea is straightforward enough: a dark site is a website you prepare (but don’t promote) in advance of a crisis as an alternative or fallback to your corporate website, containing the background information you need to share with media and stakeholders. One of the most talked-about examples belongs to BP, launched during their response to the Gulf of Mexico crisis; on a simpler scale, Apple’s homepage was entirely devoted to Steve Jobs when he died.
Early in the course of the European scandal about horsemeat being substituted in beef products, supermarket Tesco developed tescofoodnews.com to document the firm’s progress in testing its products, provide data to demonstrate transparency, carry positive stories about its relationships with suppliers, and seek to regain the initiative.
Such pre-prepared digital hubs and landing pages make for a reassuring bullet point on a crisis communications plan, and sound professional, but are they a must-have?
Dark sites: a symptom of online weakness?
If your current website is fit-for-purpose with a clear and efficient publishing process, then urgent content can take over relevant pages at the flick of a switch. This has the added benefit of not panicking customers in unaffected territories, or breaking their user journey.
These days, your digital presence needs to be more than a single brochure, so if you don’t have a range of tools available to get news and comment out to your various audiences, you’re already a step behind. Why go to the effort of a ‘dark site’ then, and prepare something which you don’t actively use?
Arguably, the crucial thing is to get your social media presence right. Concerned customers or shareholders will probably turn to their own newsfeed of choice, from Twitter or Facebook, to LinkedIn and Instagram. This is where you need to be, telling your side of a story and providing updates in text, images and short films. Have the channels ready for when you need them (and even better, use them in peacetime too so your team is well-practised and has an established social following).
When is a dark site appropriate?
Having said that, in the messy reality of corporate communication there are circumstances when a dark site may be a sound option:
- your website content management system isn’t very flexible or resilient. You cannot update or edit pages very easily, or perhaps you need a dedicated publishing person or team for this situation. Be honest with yourself: do you have faith your website would support a 10-fold increase in traffic, and that you could get a statement published there within 15 minutes if needed?
- a signal of intent. Your organisation agrees unanimously that this situation is the only priority right now. The situation is so serious, the product so compromised or the service completely unavailable. Everyone needs to know you are taking this very seriously.
- a different tone of voice. In a crisis, the online audience in particular is keen to hear from credible individuals inside and around the organisation. A dark site – even a simple blog – can give you a channel to adopt a less corporate, more conversational tone with your stakeholders, either as a substitute for a conventional press release or as a flexible accompaniment to one.
- you are planning for a long-running crisis. The audience for your crisis updates is very specific. You have a wider customer base that expect to find routine business information quickly and easily in the coming months or years. Your main site is focussed on e-commerce or is hard to find in search, and you want to make the user journey for media and key stakeholders easier.
- a complicated situation, with multiple stakeholders or supply chain partners. You want to present a single source of truth on a story, combining lines and information from a number of partner organisations, suppliers, stakeholder groups or other sources, in one place. Some of this detail doesn’t naturally fit on your corporate channels (though we often find ourselves recommending to clients to publish more fast facts about their process proactively).
- a distancing strategy. The situation in question relates to a specific issue which is being or has been dealt with, a former management team or a different brand. When it’s time to move the conversation on, the ‘dark’ site and how you signpost to it can be a way to digitally compartmentalise.
Dark sites won’t solve all the needs of your organisation or audience, and without good content and sound promotion (think: social channels and paid-for search engine optimisation) they could wind up simply being a net cost and an expensive distraction when the team is busy. Whether standalone or as part of your existing website, dark sites should be thought of as an extra, and slightly specialised tool in the toolbox, rather than as the silver bullet that defuses a hostile situation online.
Image courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/wheatfields/ under Creative Commons