The Canadian Public Relations Society

The CPRS Calgary 2012 / 2013 Speaker Series Presents: Corpen Group’s Greg Vanier Shedding Light on Dark Sites

In CPRS, Events on November 13, 2012 at 9:42 pm

Reviewed by Gina Sutherland

Does your company have a dark site? Should it? “If you have any kind of risks within your organization that could lead to a crisis, you should get a dark site now,” said Greg Vanier, Director, Crisis and Risk Communications at Corpen Group, at an October 30th luncheon for CPRS members at the Palliser.

In today’s hyper-connected world of citizen journalism and social media, even a small incident has the potential to become a credibility-damaging crisis. But the power of digital communications can work both ways, and you too have the ability to respond at lightning speed. With the help of dark sites and other online platforms, organizations can do more than just keep up with the story – they can inform it, thereby becoming the official source of credible information without having to rely on the media. A dark site – a pre-populated web page that is hidden until needed – can rapidly and specifically satisfy your stakeholders’ diverse needs in a way that traditional media can’t.

You may not be able to predict exactly what type of crisis may strike your organization, but according to Vanier, a dark site will help you do the two most important things in a crisis: act quickly and be transparent. His presentation to CPRS members focused on why dark sites are relevant, how to develop one, and what to do when it goes live to make it as effective as possible. Here are the highlights:

Benefits to a Dark Site

Vanier shared an interesting statistic that, in the early stages of a crisis, 60 to 80 per cent of all information being gleaned by people on the ground turns out to be false. During this period of speculation, organizations need a place where information can quickly and easily be updated. A news release becomes public record, Twitter often spreads misinformation, but a dark site can be an evolving hub where details can be added or clarified. It also works across all platforms, providing an easy dashboard for managing social media as well as a place to connect with and inform traditional media.

How to Build One

1. Decide where it’s going to live Your dark site can be a page on your existing website or a separate site linked from your homepage.

2. Hide and protect it – Make it non-index able so Google can’t find it until it’s needed.

3. Pre-populate it – Consider all potential risks across your organization and have static pages pre-populated for each of them. While it’s impossible to anticipate all the information that will be required, certain key details won’t change – i.e., contact information, asset details, policies.

4. Embed it with tools from your existing repertoire – If your company uses Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or Flickr, include those apps on your dark site. That said, Vanier noted that social media is not imperative in a crisis. “While it’s a useful way to monitor the conversation, a lot of social media simply echoes traditional media, while any misinformation that gets generated is usually weeded out naturally.”

5. Make it social You may want to consider using apps that enable sharing. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions, invite feedback, enable comments.

Launch Time

Let’s say a crisis occurs, and fortunately, your dark site is ready to go. Time to turn on the lights.

Vanier – who has developed crisis response strategies for publicly-traded corporations, federal and provincial government bodies, privately-held companies and non-profit organizations – offered these four steps to successfully weather the storm:

1. Launch it – This should happen within hours. Have two or three pages ready to go. “Transparent doesn’t mean full disclosure,” said Vanier. “The important thing is timeliness.”

2. Resource it – Have someone on your team who can update the content. Make sure you have a list of videographers and photographers on deck.

3. Spread the word – Publicize the URL at every opportunity: on the corporate site and news release, at news conferences, to stakeholders, on road blocks. Everywhere.

4. Resolve it – Evolve the content away from the “who, what, when, where and why” and move toward forward-looking statements. Over time, slowly start dropping pages as people stop viewing them. Once the crisis has subsided, you can eventually make the site dark again and move any pages that are still relevant over to the main site.

Vanier left the audience with this final thought: “Be careful that what you’re doing online is not too fancy, not too corporate. People come to the site because they need information. Some of the best dark sites are very plain, very human and don’t look pre-planned or glossy.”

For more information on how to prepare for a crisis, visit

Gina Sutherland is a CPRS volunteer and Sr. Coordinator, Communications and Engagement at C3 (formerly Climate Change Central).


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