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Web Site Control

The Internet is arguably one of the most powerful and flexible communication tools created. Yet for most communicators, that power remains largely leashed. With the current content and communication management systems available, it is quite surprising that more communicators and communication managers are not protesting the restrictions that artificially limit their ability to make use of this vitally important tool. To gain control of the Internet means more than being able to fully and completely manage the content of public Web sites. However, that is a basic starting point that the vast majority of communication managers have yet to get to. The company's public site is one of the most important faces the company puts forward in a time of crisis. To be forced to go through even one layer of personnel or policy to control that site, let alone multiple layers—as is now quite common—makes the Web a tool with limited usefulness to the communicator when it is needed most.

With the many options for commanding Web content available today, there is no policy or security reason that should prohibit communicators from taking command of the content. It should be clear when I say "taking command" that I mean being able to fully control, including changing or adding content without requiring the involvement of any technical resource, even if the communicator is only able to perform the most basic of word processing functions. Today's Web content management technology allows this; the question is whether or not the company will allow it. That is a matter of understanding the critical role the Web will play in a crisis.

This role is better understood when executives understand how a reporter reacts to initial information about a story. The first and natural reaction now is to hit the organization's Web site. It is the fastest, most convenient source of basic information about the company, including location, what it produces, number of employees, size, and so on. Knowing that this is the behavior pattern of reporters will lead forward-thinking executives and communicators to realize that the telling of the story that is unfolding can be best facilitated through the company's public Web site.

That is not to say that the public site used by the company for general information or for conducting routine business should be used in crisis communications situations. There are two good reasons why a separate site should be used: to avoid the dual problem of obliviousness and overreaction, and to take the burden of public information traffic off the normal business infrastructure.

Let's say you are a food manufacturer that has a serious problem with a batch of product, requiring a public recall. When the news breaks, the reporters will hit your Web site, as will many customers or consumers looking for details about which products have been recalled. What will they find? Business as usual? Nice statements about how long you've been in business and your long-standing reputation for safety and quality? That's obliviousness. It communicates a powerful message that the company just doesn't get it. This is scary for people and serious for the media and people directly affected by the product's problems. On the other hand, if the Web site is totally subsumed by huge warning messages and all other information is lost in the information about this one particular product, the damage to ongoing business could be much greater than necessary. I went to one well-known national food manufacturer's Web site without knowing anything about a product recall. The site was completely dominated by safety warnings and the product recall information. If I had been a customer looking for some basic information, it would have given me serious pause.

A related problem is the issue of traffic. In a major public news crisis, there is very great potential for heavy traffic. Most companies' public sites are not designed for crisis communication traffic. A site that works well managing hundreds of thousands of hits will likely crash under the burden of millions. Even if it remains operational, significant slowing can result in viewer frustration and the use of other means to communicate, such as picking up the phone. Then, one of the most important and efficient tools will have gone silent both for ongoing business and for communicating about the rapidly evolving crisis.

The solution to both of these problems is to have crisis communications managed on a separate site hosted on crisis-capable servers. This is the direction more companies are taking, despite the very serious obstacles raised by many IT departments. IT departments face the uncomfortable dilemma of committing precious, limited budget dollars to building crisis server capabilities or altering their policies to allow outside services to host these special-purpose Web sites.

Having a separate site on separate servers manage the public communication provides the opportunity to divert traffic from the public site for both appearance and infrastructure benefits. An objection might be raised that people will go to the public site anyway and therefore you don't avoid the hits by having a separate site. The answer to that is when the initial information is submitted, it needs to include a Web address specifically for the public information site. An increasing number of organizations are securing domain names to be used in the event of a major crisis. For example, XYZP Consulting Services might have a regular domain name of www.xyzpconsulting.com and set up a domain name such as www.news.xyzpconsulting.com or even a simple www.xyzpresponds.com. Those receiving the initial information will know which site to go to; those who haven't—the majority—will go to the main company site looking for information. A link on that site directing them to the specific incident site should be clear and unmistakable, but it need not dominate the site or significantly detract from the company's ongoing operations. Two problems are thus solved—the organization is seen as neither oblivious nor overreactive, and the Internet infrastructure of the business is protected.

The topic of incident dark sites was mentioned earlier. These sites are prepared in advance specifically for this purpose. If they are built on the kind of Internet-based communication management platform described in this chapter, they not only fulfill the public Web site function, but offer fully integrated communication management. However, to meet "now is too late" instant news demands, these sites need to be able to be launched by an executive or communication manager anytime, anywhere. To activate a Web team or to get the IT staff moving in the middle of the night to activate a Web site is not kind, practical, or necessary. Today's technology provides for launching such sites at the touch of a button by authorized staff with the appropriate passwords.

This ability to launch new and specific-purpose Web sites is one important element of taking control of the Internet. Today's well-appointed press rooms have all the functional capabilities described in this chapter. They are fully loaded with background information about the company; releases can be drafted, edited, approved, and posted online by clicking the right buttons. Information prepared in the press room can be instantly distributed to infinitely flexible contact lists via email, fax, or even telephone. Databases of contacts are built at least in part automatically by users registering on the public Web site, and inquiries are recorded and fully managed within the system. Now a crisis hits.

As an example, we'll say it is a legal issue involving a top-level executive. The story is not going to go away. No incident or dark site has been prepared for this particular eventuality. The communication manager launches a new site based on the existing press room site. She selects all the existing information to be transferred and all the existing databases. The new site is then built and launched. The horde of new reporters and other audience members who register on this incident-specific site are captured in that database and do not taint the original press room database. Information specific to that incident is created, approved, and posted to that public site. Team members like attorneys who need access to that site are not given access to the inside of the press room site. The incident's communication activities can be managed and controlled much easier through a specific site dedicated to the incident. The ability to launch, transfer data, and independently manage this "spawn" or subsite is a key part of today's communication management technology that is being effectively used by a number of companies, agencies, and organizations.

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