November 26, 2019 Websites | Tech advisory

The anatomy of a panic button: dark sites, crisis communications, and you

By Ilinca Nastasia

Dark sites are a longstanding part of the communicator's crisis arsenal and it’s not hard to understand why. Rather than having your day to day activities paralysed by a crisis, a dark site ensures you will always have an escape route in place. At the flick of a switch, communicators can now direct users to a platform pre-loaded with information, assets, and functionalities designed to manage stakeholder communication.

Committing to this solution means you will now manage two websites, with all the associated costs that implies: domain registration, hosting, maintenance, health checks, and so on. At the same time, your website should already come pre-packaged with certain functionalities you can leverage in an emergency. So, as is the case with any investment, you should be asking yourself two questions. Is a dark site necessary? And how many resources do I want to invest?

The dark site: is it right for you?

Consider what your ideal first-response scenario looks like, which will dictate the type of user journey you want to encourage. Would you prefer to direct your audience to contact information or would you like to provide in-depth information that users can sort through on their own? Is your dark site a stop on their way to a different location? Depending on your answer to these questions, your crisis solution end up looking very different, ranging from a simple blackout banner on your homepage to a dedicated section to, yes, a custom-built dark site.

The crisis checklist

Here are some suggestions to get you thinking about your crisis response:

Traffic levels

During a crisis, you will attract a larger audience than usual, are your servers optimised for this? Building a dark site can work as a way to redirect some of this excess traffic and avoid overloading your regular website in case of an emergency.

Disclaimer pages

Your site should already be able to populate disclaimers/firewall pages for sensitive, region-locked information. Also consider that you might have to gate content behind IP-blocks, either as an alternative or as a complementary function.

Domains

Where will you host your crisis centre? If you are interested in setting up a separate domain, you need to ensure that this is registered ahead of time. Your approach to this should depend on the severity of the crisis - something that stops normal operations will probably need more than a homepage banner, while a smaller issue could be addressed by a single page on your live site.

If you're choosing to build a separate site, don't forget to have your SSL/TLS certificate in place, so you can be ready to go as soon as possible.

Design

Prepare some assets that you can easily drop into your crisis centre as soon as possible. Minimal branding and subdued colours are recommended. Visually, you will also need to highlight the most important pieces of content (e.g. personal contact details) to ensure a smooth user journey.

Content management

How will you handle the flow of updates and information? An ideal crisis centre should provide several options that you can pick and choose from. Key functions are the ability to set up static content pages and distribute news releases/email alerts.

Contact details

These will differ between stakeholder groups. Email addresses and telephone numbers should suffice here, but there is an opportunity to go one step further if the situation calls for it. For example, a chatbot system might help ease the flow of communication, but only if you have a good idea of what questions your audience will be interested in.

Whatever your decision, the interface design and functions should be simple and easily convey the benefits of using this system.

Real time updates

Prioritise speedy responses over complicated systems; the most important thing about your content management interface is how simple and quick to use it is. Integrating social media/regulatory feeds is another way to reduce the amount of manual work you need to do while guaranteeing a constant information stream.

Crosslinks

What are the other relevant sources of information? How will users navigate back to your regular site if they need to do so?

Where to take it from here?

There is no solution that will accommodate every possible scenario, but thinking about your ideal case can help you understand what you can reasonably focus on without losing out on the core functions of a crisis communications centre. Consider your options, think ahead, and build the crisis response framework that works best for your needs.

And if you need help with planning for a crisis, ask us – we know how!

Staffan Lindgren

CEO

staffan.lindgren@comprend.com

+46 70 971 12 12

James Handslip

Managing Director (UK)

james.handslip@comprend.com

+44 (0)20 8089 1583