Going dark

Within just a few hours of flight MH370 going missing on 8 March, Malaysia Airlines activated its dark site. Made live, this formerly hidden site took over the airline’s website homepage, acting as an immediate and official source of crisis information and updates.

Promotional activities were replaced by a colourless background and logo – branding which was also replicated across its Twitter, Facebook and Google+ accounts. Together it would convey the sense that the airline was not only taking the issue extremely seriously, but was also prepared.

The effectiveness of this initial response was later tarred by mistakes, while the downing of flight MH17 just four months later then took crisis communications into unprecedented territory. But the fact remains that many remarked favourably on Malaysia Airlines’ use of a dark site for its quick and clear messaging, the correction of misinformation and the compassionate but informative tone.

Nor has it been alone in employing a dark site. BP launched a dark site in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Like Malaysia Airlines, other aspects of its crisis communications were slated in the aftermath of the disaster but its dark site is still running four years later. It remains an important section of the main corporate website, although today it focuses on economic and environmental restoration efforts rather than the crisis itself.

THE R ATIONALE FOR DARK SITES

So should more companies be considering dark sites as part of their crisis communications? There appears to be some debate on this. For Dean Parker, communication consultant at MSLGROUP, dark sites could benefit any organisation that could potentially be involved in a major crisis, in other words: ‘pretty much anyone’. But James Thomlinson, partner and managing director of Bell Pottinger Wired, thinks that going to the lengths of developing a dark site is not always necessary.

‘There isn’t a written rule linking the number of employees or turnover to dark sites, instead it’s about the influence and duty of care a company has within its sector and to its customers or supply chain’, says Thomlinson. ‘Organisations operating in higher risk sectors, such as food and beverage, energy, pharmaceutical, travel and finance, should certainly consider dark sites as part of their crisis strategy as they are more vulnerable.’ It is clear that when a major crisis hits, dark sites can act as an important tool to cut through the mass of existing but largely irrelevant online content to deliver critical information quickly and sensitively. ‘[Dark sites] provide an online space that becomes the primary source of credible information relating to a particular organisation during the time of a severe crisis,’ says Parker. ‘During this time they should become the hub for all official communications from an organisation – a focus area for both customers and journalists alike – a space where the ‘official line’ has space to breathe, incorrect rumours or slurs can be squashed and useful information can be presented.’

But Parker believes that many companies only give dark sites serious thought when it is too late. ‘From my experience it’s mostly an issue of awareness as when you start talking to companies about their role, most of them instinctively get it and start thinking about how they can develop one,’ he says.

LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE

Eurostar was just such a case, realising the vital role of such online tools only in the aftermath of its 2009 crisis when five of its trains broke down in the Channel Tunnel trapping more than 2,000 passengers just before Christmas and causing travel chaos across the line. This was to be one of the first incidents where people flocked to social media channels to find information and ask questions.

And while Eurostar was communicating via traditional news channels, the train company wasn’t prepared for this development. It didn’t even own the Twitter handles @eurostar and @eurostar_uk. Instead it had to turn to its one Twitter feed on its ‘Little Break, Big Difference’ site, a word-of-mouth marketing campaign little suited for crisis communications.

‘We learnt a lot from 2009,’ says Mary Walsh, director of communications at Eurostar. ‘It was the first scenario where the power of digital/social media really played out.’ It proved a catalyst for devising what is now a comprehensive and sophisticated online crisis communications strategy that aims to integrate social media, website channels and offline activities to deliver up-to-the-minute, consistent and cohesive messages to customers in the face of crisis. As part of that, it is little surprise it has also chosen to develop a dark site.

‘We developed a dark site for the hopefully never-to- be-fulfilled extreme situation,’ explains Walsh. ‘I think we regarded it as very important because we felt that where there was a severe incident you need to pare down your communication to be very simple, direct and accessible. Much of a website is irrelevant in this context and you run the risk of it looking deeply disrespectful. Having a dark site as a much diminished version of the website is very important and you have to keep reviewing it.’

FIRST CONTACT

This is particularly important when the dark site is likely to become one of the first ports of call in a serious incident. ‘When a crisis hits, people turn to the web for more information, starting with Google, the company website and social networks to get the latest information,’ says Thomlinson. ‘The most effective way of ensuring content can be found across all of these channels is by responding first from the company website.’

There are two reasons for this, he adds. The website will already be ranked highly in search engines for brand-related searches, so media and customers will most likely see it first. But he also thinks that by responding in a timely and detailed manner the company has a better chance of influencing social media conversation and the news agenda.

‘A company’s website is its shop window. Its presence in social or traditional media is an extension of this and any crisis response or proactive campaign should be consistent across all channels,’ he says.

As a first point of contact, therefore, a dark site needs to be immediate, up-to-date and easy to navigate – enabling visitors to get to the right information as quickly as possible. Maintaining a dark site to achieve this aim, though, may be difficult when it is a hidden resource that may never be deployed. ‘Due to the thankfully sporadic and unlikely nature of crises, there is a danger that when the time comes everyone has forgotten how to use the dark site to manage a crisis, even when the best laid plans have been put in place,’ admits Parker. He thinks regular updates and training are required – in the same way that companies might approach their weekly fire drill – but how much most dark-site-wielding companies actually do this is uncertain.

IS IT WORTH THE EFFORT?

Challenges also arise around the content that can be prepared in advance. After all, the whole point of these sites is to have a ready-made and immediate response to crisis. As Parker says, the quicker you are able to get a dark site up and running the better. ‘If it’s a matter of days, then you run the danger of losing control over the communication around a crisis and will be playing catch-up going forward,’ he says. This is easier said than done, though, when the specific nature of crisis is invariably unknown.

Eurostar’s Walsh agrees that you can’t predict every scenario that might happen but she argues that you can make some reasonable assumptions about the likely causes of a serious incident and prepare as much as possible for that while accepting it’s never going to be comprehensive.

‘We put a lot of effort into graphics and useful infographic material because as a travel brand, if you have any kind of incident, the first thing that customers and family would want to know is where it’s taken place and what has happened. So we’ve done lot of work on producing graphics such as maps that can be flexible and annotated live.’

It sounds reasonable but for Mark Flanagan, partner at Portland Communications, it might not be enough to warrant the effort. ‘I’m not a huge fan of so-called dark sites,’ he says. ‘All crises are different so messaging you are likely to use would be so generic you may as well have it in the public domain.’ The only circumstances when he can see dark sites being relevant is where companies need to buy more time before specific content can be created in response to a crisis. ‘This could be to get the right facts from people on the ground or to get your crisis team established,’ he says.

Flanagan believes that most issues can be addressed within existing channels – assuming the website has the processes in place for quick and easy publishing and social channels are available to get messages out fast. Indeed, Tesco did just this in the handling of the horse meat scandal online – securing in the process widespread recognition for its handling of the crisis. It used its blog to post articles related to the crisis and after a few weeks launched the website ‘Tesco Food News’ to present the results of testing and other important information. Parker suggests they might have wished the platform had been ‘ready to go’ before the crisis, but it doesn’t appear to have been necessary for the response to gain positive feedback.

Dark sites are unlikely to be necessary or suitable for every organisation. There may even be a certain naivety in thinking that a company can deploy a pre-prepared hidden resource that goes any way to delivering what is really needed within today’s ever-increasing speed of digital communications.

Except perhaps in one important instance – where the severity of the incident is such that there are likely to be casualties, a serious health risk or major physical or environmental damage. This is when a dark site can provide critical contact and emergency information, as well as vital links and updates, almost instantly. It can also do this stripped of inappropriate and potentially offensive marketing material that may be unavoidable on existing channels.

For those organisations facing this level of threat, examples already show how effective a dark site can be to convey the right messaging as quickly as possible. Many, like Eurostar, have already followed that lead, dedicating time into developing and maintaining a dark site as part of an integrated online crisis communications strategy. Others will no doubt follow and then hope that it is one piece of work that will never need to be deployed.

PUTTING TOGETHER A DARK SITE

1) Sketch out different scenarios and agree exactly what critical information might be needed for each – and what can realistically be prepared in advance. More than one dark site might be required.

2) Avoid developing a dark site in isolation. A dark site needs to be part of an integrated crisis communications strategy incorporating all online and offline channels.

3) Ensure the site is CMS driven, so that content can be uploaded easily andquickly by non-IT personnel – and agree processes for how content will be created and approved.

4) Agree clear criteria for deploying the site. Disagreement here could undermine the whole process.

5) Consider putting it on a separate platform to cope with large surges of traffic.

6) Think of ways to ensure that it will be seen by as many people as possible through adequate links between channels, online advertising and search engine optimisation. Also ensure that the site is mobile optimised for better access on the move.

7) Be ready for the site to evolve. It may only be needed for a very brief time or for years, as shown by BP’s Gulf of Mexico site.