H&K’s Boyd Neil and Jane Shapiro @WCDM

The World Conference on Disaster Management (@WCDM) started today in Toronto, with a heavy emphasis on social media. I attended the afternoon workshop sessions Boyd Neil (@BoydNeil) and Jane Shapiro of Hill & Knowlton on Best Practices in Crisis Communications.

The session started by stating that lawyers and accountants will almost always interfere with best practices in a crisis by wanting to wait before speaking to the public. They typically want to collect all of the information to assess liability and costs to the company before deciding on a course of action.

I’ve said before that the new Apology Act in Ontario may change things, but it hasn’t been around long enough to know for sure. The reality is that with new media, public citizens will often “report” on events via social media before first responders or reporters even arrive. This can influence perceptions of a crisis enormously, and it is the perception of an event that will usually give rise to litigation after the fact.

If you don’t at least try to give your message, others will give it for you.

In addition to social media monitoring, the panel suggested that companies create “dark site,” pre-formatted style sheets and web pages prepared in advance to a disaster that can be quickly formatted and filled in for a specific incident.

Ed Lee, one of my PR contacts prior to law, explains,

A dark site is a pre-developed, non-public Web site that can be published to the live Web in the event of a crisis….

Typically, a dark site contains pre-approved messaging and documents such news releases, pictures, official statements and other background information, as the specific details will only be added right before their release.

A dark site can be placed on a separate domain, be a distinct section of the main organizational Web site or totally replace the original. It could be saved on any of the corporate servers or be kept securely on a preferred external device.

A dark site would also allow social media widgets like Twitter feeds for real-time updates. This pre-crisis planning stage might be a more appropriate place for attorneys to be involved, in providing input about the type of information that should be included.

But if lawyers really want to be involved during a crisis, there may be other areas they can assist with. I asked the panel about moderating comments on a company Q&A dark site during a disaster. Neil said that it should be done, but with full disclosure, ensuring that all privacy legislation about suspects, victims, customers, etc. is adhered to.

Lawyers shouldn’t be left out simply because litigation concerns from disclosure are less of a concern – because everyone wants a piece of the action when a crisis hits.


  1. Thanks for publishing a summary of the workshop and the reminder about the Apology Act. (I, too, am waiting to see what impact is has on counsel from lawyers.)Your summary helps me remember what I said! And thanks also for Ed Lee’s comments on the dark site. He described it more succinctly than I did in the session.

  2. Excellent coverage–thank you for sharing, Omar. I hadn’t heard of dark sites, although it makes good sense.

  3. Six provinces now have apology legislation – BC, AB, SK, MB, ON and NS. It is largely uniform. All of them include admissions of fault among the apologies that may not be used to establish civil liability.

    Would having a ‘dark site’ prevent a company from saying that harm that the company caused was not foreseeable?

  4. John, a dark site can say anything they want it to in advance. The key is that if it really was foreseeable, it would be a good idea to lose that message before going live.

    I know there are other provinces with similar legislation, but have you seen any change in practice from them?

  5. Hi Omar, thanks for linking to my post. just one point of clarification: dark sites can say anything you want them to, but it makes more sense for them to say nothing rather than something while you wait for a crisis to hit. as i said, there are some areas which you can pre-populate but those are usually generic “about us” areas.

    each organization is exposed to so many risks and potential issues or crises that it impossible to properly plan for each one and invest in a dark site for each and every eventuality – better to have the framework, protocol and trusted advisors in place to help you develop the correct messages and content.


  6. Thanks, Ed. That makes sense to me, too.