Last week, The Edmonton Humane Society closed its doors to owner-surrendered pets because it was over capacity. Then, they executed a PR campaign to rectify that situation. It involved social media, and very successful media relations that resulted in widespread coverage of the issue. People who had been thinking of adopting a pet were moved to take action--and one of those actions was to visit the website, which crashed under the heavy traffic load.
Those of you who have had me as an instructor have heard me harp on the importance of having user-friendly, robust, accessible websites as part of a strategic public relations strategy. In fact, having a stable, usable website that actually helps your audience find what they need is a larger contributor to brand and reputation enhancement than having colours and logos and bling, as research by Bolchini, Garzotto, and Sorce examined in 2009.
EHS's campaign was near-perfect. That amount of earned media would make any PR pro proud. But the organization is very lucky that their reputation was strong and positive to begin with, and that the issue they were managing was (literally) hugs-and-puppies, to borrow a phrase from Buffy.
The importance of involving your web team in your public relations cannot be overstated. Here are a few things you can do before, during and between your crisis or campaign.
If you're about to go public with a URL, brief your web developers (or whoever in your organization is charged with keeping that site up and running). Give them worst-case scenarios; for example: "We're about to tell 1 million people they should visit our website to solve XYZ problem. Can our site handle that much traffic? What can you do (quickly) to bolster its capacity?"
Make sure your web team is kept in the loop so that they can do everything they can to keep the site up and running. Failure to communicate with IT may result in a scheduled maintenance taking place right in the middle of your issue.
Most importantly, ask your IT team to be on standby during the height of your crisis. If the site does go down during a crisis, the fact that IT is watching closely will be a head-start in getting it back up.
Let's be frank: the above are pretty stop-gap. The best thing to do is work with your organization's developers between issues to ensure your site conforms to W3C best practices so that it doesn't crumble under pressure (and if your organization's developers are as talented as some of those I've had the pleasure of working with this, they already know this).
You might also consider having a "dark site" or "dark page" prepared for emergencies—a low-memory, fast-loading, text-only page or site that answers basic questions for when traffic load is higher than usual.
The important takeaway here is that your website is the most important tool in your PR toolkit, and the team that keeps it up and running should be involved in PR planning and execution.
In the end, things worked out for EHS. Even without a site, EHS's plea resulted in nearly 170 adoptions over the long weekend, and their site is back up, looking pretty good.
But how many might have been adopted if the site had stayed up during their crisis?