The Only Real Crisis? If You’re Not Prepared for a Crisis.

Disclaimer: in my book, crisis communications is not about lying or covering these things up. It’s about being transparent, skilled, forward-thinking, and public. If that is unsettling to you, please read on.

You can define the drama – whatever it may be – whenever it may come. Things never just go away. If you think like that, often they will come back later, bigger and badder, or with a completely different spin. You may learn how to react to and control the message, but the good audience you build before the crisis also helps to define your success. The brand development you put in place before the crisis gives you a strong platform. If people already know you as a good listener, able to empathize – and you’re genuine about that – then the cat’s almost in the bag. Everything you do BEFORE the crisis is critical for when it hits.

However, let’s be clear – you can mitigate a crisis, but you cannot undo it. This is where public relations gets a bad wrap: the communications types who try to use crisis communication to gloss over details, provide “alternative facts”, or stay high up in the ivory tower. The advice and opinions in this blog post are not in support of that – it’s hard to own up to your mistakes, but if you do so with transparency and forward-thinking solutions, you will understand the meaning of a phoenix.

Ubering from Crisis to Crisis

So for a whole year, Uber didn’t let anyone know that 57 million users’ data were compromised. That means while you were worrying about Equifax hackers, you should have been worried about Uber hackers too. And what else don’t we know about? Do you feel some distrust in Uber? Equifax? For sure, they have tried to appeal through empathy with well-crafted statements and good solutions such as free credit report access, but what’s your rating on their moral, ethical standing? Hiring Bozoma Saint John may have been a good internal reaction to Uber’s equal employment and harassment issues, but they can’t keep putting all the problems on Bozoma’s shoulders (which they do, though I am not sure if she has any limits in her talent).


What should they have done? In Uber’s case, coming out right away, instead of one year later, would have been the right move. Before it hit? They continuously fail at customer communication; the window into Uber’s phone, chat, and email is foggy at best. This makes them seem unreachable, careless. Fixing that from Day 1 of their existence woud have built more trust with their users. And clearly, investing in the security of their people and products should have happened on Day 1 too. It was clear – the old leadership there didn’t want to deal with crisis situations.


For Equifax, the messaging was bland and soulless. Does this company have a voice, distinct from others? Seems not. Some time to develop their character more, and answer some questions like “why do you matter?” or “what makes you different from other credit reporting agencies?” would have been easy and brilliant leading into this situation. More and more, companies are going to have to find better ways to deal with customer data and how they are protecting it.

The good news: you can be prepared to survive and recover, maybe even prosper, from the next crisis event, by completing or improving the things on your rainy day public relations checklist! And by doing so, you’ll create an arsenal of skills and materials that can be applied elsewhere in your work. Involve your leadership, talk to your co-workers in all areas – everyone’s opinion is valid and meaningful. You can’t hide out in the ivory tower forever… (picking up on the mantra?).

Fingers in Ears

Copyright Jason E. Ballmann (2017). Yep, I draw as well as a 8-year-old. Also yeah you can use this cartoon if it responds to you, just put the first sentence of this paragraph near it.

Before you go on reading…

The following are some great tips for you, and also some approaches and new ways of thinking. You might hate them. You might like them. Is this comprehensive? No, but it’s the basics.

Before the Crisis: A Checklist

– Listening

Assign major value to media intelligence platforms, and dedicate serious time. As a communicator, I’ll be the first to tell you that you should operate as your brand or entity’s worst enemy. Drinking the Kool-Aid will only you make you bad at your job, and your leadership should understand that sentiment with a heavy heart. Find all the negative about your brand. Turn that in to your product/service development people and follow the solutions step-by-step. You are the brand; you must be involved at every meeting you possibly can be in.

*Steps off soap box*

For traditional media monitoring, I’ve always liked Critical Mention to cover radio, tv, and online news. It’s fast, comprehensive, and the reports look nice. Plus, intuitive and easy to use. IQ Media and Cision do a great job too, though IQ media only tracks tv and print (online too), no radio. Cision is just pricy.

For social media monitoring, Social Studio is an expensive behemoth, but worth it if you can afford it. HootSuite and Buffer offer some listening capabilities, and other tools like TweetReach and Keyhole are geared toward more specific platforms.

You can’t go wrong with any of this stuff, as long as you stay consistent and encompassing in your listening. Really, a good 15 minutes in the morning and the afternoon ought to help keep the crises at bay.

– Resource Building

You should have headshots and bios of your key staff, and your company’s logo in vector format, ready and updated at any time. Just a few quick emails to complete that task. Need a photographer? An iPhone 8+ might surprise you if you choose “Portrait” mode.

Fact sheets and FAQs, however, are a different story. What reporter has ever said, “I can’t wait to read your fact sheet.” We all hate these, don’t we? But if you keep it online in a digital format, you have something on hand at all times that can be easily updated and grown over time. And you can track data on that pages’ visits with Google Analytics for any inferences on how to improve it. People use these things, they just don’t always remember or appreciate them. Oh, and – people do use your fact sheets at some point, whether they admit it or not, remember it or not.

Internal talking points: spend some time mentally thinking about these, approaching from various angles and times of day. Think about how different reporters you know might react to hearing them as you write it all up. Talk them out with co-workers. Then, you can write them down. Be tedious. Record yourself and others saying them. Play it back. See if the words work.


– Training

A monthly or quarterly communications training for your key staff members is essential and will be valued. Remember to video conference it for those who aren’t in the office that day or work in a different office altogether (and whip it to make sure people stay on video with you). Your first one should pose the question: “What all do you need the most help with?” And go from there.

Along the journey, increase and decrease the pressure – play “snarky reporter” or “nice reporter” – and make sure people take breaks in the trainings. Remind them frequently they are in control, because they are, even in real-life media interviews. Get some partners involved too, perhaps – a multi-organizational training just means better collaboration for everyone.

Why do all this? This is your army.

(Bring in some fellow trainers too, if you want to really mix it up.)

– Networking

Find some journalists and other communicators to network with – you’ll learn a lot from them, and they’ll want to learn a lot from you. Yeah we’re all busy, but a 30 minute coffee meeting should be something people can fit in at some point in the next couple months.

LinkedIn can be a great way to find reporters in your area, and ofcourse big media intelligence platforms offer you the ability to search for those who cover your area or topic. I also find that phone calls work well with journalists who are inundated with emails. Even texts. These people’s job is to write the truth and do it well, extend your hand to a profession that’s suffering from some serious, unfounded, illegal attacks right now.


As you go around these events, think about a couple pitches to prepare ahead of time, but also be mindful that many may have stories already in mind and might want to sit down with you to fill in any missing holes. Or, they may just appreciate a connection you have, or an online educational resource you can recommend. Focus on what you can offer.

All of this groundwork will help make sure your media interactions are respected, meaningful, and valued. An ivory tower mindset, where you only come out to yell news down the valley, will just get lost in the hills (there’s that mantra again). And look, perhaps you will one day represent or have to speak for something “bad”.

Last thing I’ll say about this: media are great people, they are the best friends of democracy. Value them, cherish them – think like them. And pay for your subscriptions to help them.

– Worrying

Keep a note somewhere where you log all potential crises for your organization. This keeps you on your feet, and lets you deal with things as something to accomplish, not as something that only exists in your mind. You can also use these in the media trainings with staff. The scenarios that always feel the most irrelevant or under-appreciated are the ones you need to harp on; remind your staff that it’s the most uncommon or irregular that people trip over, and that’s the stuff we need to practice. And remember – you are the brand, you may mitigate a lot of these theoreticals by working with your various teams around you to solve product failures, provide HR training, or clean up your public-facing website.

This anxiety can be your friend, but be careful that it does not manifest within you. The project here should be treated as a cold, analytical process, not as a cornucopia of fearful possibilities that could wake you up in the middle of the night. You would be doing this because you are a professional who cares about the safety and well-being of your organization, and you know that a little speculation never did anyone harm.

– Drilling

When was the last time you put together a punchlist of action time items? Did you ever drill it? It takes time, people, and money to get ready for a press conference, put out a news release, or set up a call tree for interviews. At least once a year, drill the press conference set up – see how long it takes you to get the step-and-repeat assembled, the lights arranged, the experts ready, the release printed, the chairs and tables organized, and more. Address any pitfalls, and have back-ups of everything you possibly can. Something will go wrong – but what’s the other mantra here? Be prepared.

Shape 2

Once you have all of this set, you’re ready for the clouds to roll in – just make sure you hear the thunder in the distance first.


Social Media Perspectives on Recent M8.3 Chile Earthquake and Tsunami

Immediately upon getting home last Wednesday, I received the U.S. Geological Survey Earthquake Notification Service‘s alert for the Chile earthquake and subsequent tsunami. It was a long week with the 2015 SCEC Annual Meeting, so visualize the look on my face when I was ready to unwind but saw that alert come through!

(Hey – I’m not special. You too can sign up the USGS ENS service =>)

Whenever a large earthquake occurs, my job requires me to stay on top of it, communicate information to the public and media as necessary, and dive deep into the conversations happening to learn about what’s going on. Note: I’m not an emergency responder, but a communications professional. Think of it like this: we want to get the most accurate information, because we have people coming to us wanting to get that information. If we don’t know it, we can’t help. (Tons of reasons why, way beyond this blog post, shhh that’s not the point of this post anyway.)

And with a tsunami advisory issued out to California and Hawaii, it was time to roll up my sleeves and get down to business.

Within minutes, I started looking to Twitter. Not too much going on… I quickly deduced that many were probably evacuating due to the probable but unconfirmed tsunami. I didn’t know it at the time, but Santiago (large capital city, and largest city near the epicenter) have pretty legitimate buildings. Chileans have learned a lot.

Proof to us in the United States that hey, strong building codes really do save lives. Imagine that.

But then, this Twitter user (@Maikelsin) posted a few photos that a lot of journalists picked up, and you can see why. Despite all the ruckus, it’s clear: Drop, Cover, and Hold On makes sense. When things are falling and flying, the ground is moving, why try to run? What’s a doorway going to do for you? Think about it…

Drop before the earthquake drops you!

from Mall de la Serena (Coquimbo, Chile). Drop, Cover, and Hold On!

from Mall de la Serena (Coquimbo, Chile). Drop, Cover, and Hold On!

I switched over to our friends at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the NWS (National Weather Service, a division of NOAA) to see what the tsunami situation was like. is the absolute resource for tsunami alerts, which is operated by NOAA/NWS’ tsunami warning centers. Sure enough, a tsunami had struck the Chilean coastline within minutes, and it was headed to California and Hawaii. Fortunately, Hawaii and California were mildly affected (enough to bob some boats around and create strong currents).

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and National Tsunami Warning Center were tweeting about the earthquake and tsunami, with our accounts retweeting and spreading the information. You should follow them too:


Also, Facebook’s new “Safety Check” feature was working well, as NBC Chicago reported. See how one woman living in San Diego was able to discover that most of her friends back in Chile were safe and well.

NBC Chicago Reports

NBC Chicago Reports

CNN summed it up: Chile knows how to deal with earthquakes. So much that maybe we ought to be jealous here in the states.

They also hold the record for the largest recorded earthquake, in fact. The 1960 M9.5 Valvivia Earthquake and Tsunami rocked not only Chile, but the entire Pacific. From the U.S. Geological Survey:

Approximately 1,655 killed, 3,000 injured, 2,000,000 homeless, and $550 million damage in southern Chile; tsunami caused 61 deaths, $75 million damage in Hawaii; 138 deaths and $50 million damage in Japan; 32 dead and missing in the Philippines; and $500,000 damage to the west coast of the United States.


Why does the Pacific coast of South America have such huge earthquakes and devastating tsunamis? Find out with IRIS. It’s these big tectonic plates, or blocks of earth’s crusts, that are colliding and involving thousands of square miles. Imagine all that mass, just smashing together. And when it happens under the sea, it shifts water around. Clap your hands under water next time you’re in a pool or bath tub. That water has to go somewhere, right? That’s what creates a tsunami.

When you feel shaking: Drop, Cover, and Hold On!

When you feel shaking: Drop, Cover, and Hold On!

The 3 Rules of Social Media

Stravinsky, doing what he loved before the Twitter bird rolled over his head in this promo shot for The Modern Ear.

Stravinsky, doing what he loved before the Twitter bird rolled over his head in this promo shot for The Modern Ear.

The great composer Igor Stravinsky, known for his controversial Rite of Spring ballet music, once said:

“the more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.”

Social media marketing is not as easy as it sounds. How can something with so many users be funneled into a powerful tool for brands, websites, products, and causes? What’s the purpose of it all? Why are there all these character limits? Why can’t I upload GIFs to Facebook but I can to Twitter? Lo, the shackles!

It does not happen overnight, or with a small budget, or just one mystical intern.

You might be going at it the wrong way, or you’re trying to be too over-the-top. Here are a few rules to help you organize your “everyday” and that “annual report.” These are the ingredients to a more successful strategy:

  1. Worry less about creating awesome content, worry more about listening to people. Social media is a gold mine of data. And that data? That data is a bunch of real people. If you are a new eco-friendly clothing brand, search on “eco-friendly” or “environmentally conscious” or “green energy” – build your branding and reputation by engaging in conversations that matter. You will probably generate some leads and uncover new partnerships.
  2. Stop writing long tweets and Facebook posts, post more pictures and video and be thematic. Sometimes the answer to that visual content is laying on your desk or in a store room. Grab some of those promo items, turn them into little figurines that playfully move around your desk in a fun Vine, or make a crossword puzzle that can be tweeted out as an image. Everyone wants to interact and see something atypical, few want to just read your promotional copy. (Unless it’s funny?) Make a schedule, think ahead. You’ll start drawing parallels and connections you never would have thought about. Oh – loop in public relations and marketing calendars too… social media is a tool for them. Be a useful tool.
  3. Set goals and analyze success. What’s attainable and realistic, and how will you measure it?

What are some stories you have that illustrate the “rules” above?

PR in 2015: How to Pack a Punch

Over the past few years, many trends have emerged in our beloved communications industry. Email marketing is still strong, paid and earned social media continue to have their intrigues, and some are still doing customer service well…. but we’ve been through QR codes, Viddy, Google Plus, sponsored flash mobs; enough trends to make a landfill jealous.

However, do not let these fads mislead you. It is often not the platform or device that sells, but the people responsible for steering the ship. So, how are you going to be one of those people this year who packs the punch in 2015?

Photo on 1-10-15 at 10.16 PM #2

You’re going to get better at being editorial (because-you-already-were-kind-of doing it, right?)

This means, and don’t take it lightly:

1) You will look ahead this year (and into January or February of next, because we all know that stuff hits the fan when you come back from winter holidays). Plot out what the highlights will be for your company (product release, quarterly report dates, etc…), and the nation/world (elections, holidays, and more). I find a big whiteboard helps, but hey – pencil and paper does just fine.calendar-36971_1280

2) You will look at all those opportunities, and fill in time for necessary preparations (brainstorming, meetings, analysis, and more). Don’t underestimate anything. That ship might be steered by great people, but they depend on you to sail with the winds and do it quickly. Stay the course!

3) You will block it all into a schedule. Best be on iCal, Asana, and/or whatever your favorite taskmaster tool is. You will not remember it all – commit to this law of PR. Hint: morning time is the best creative time for your mind (based on a little science), but I like to think that this because the morning is generally before everyone rains on your day with their inquiries, maladies, and whatever else.

4) You will sugar it with all your fun new platforms, devices, events, and other trendy communications phenomena. But, worry more about getting the job done, not how cool it is to use Snapchat if Snapchat won’t be the most useful. No matter what those thought leaders say :D, you and your team (+ a good consultant?) are the best judge at the end of the day. Right? If you answered no, I am worried for you.

5) You’re willing to see some things fail and succeed surprisingly, and you will be okay with it.

If you do it all right, think of all the fun PR buzz terms you can use to describe yourself, like “content marketer” or “social media evangelist!” *DISCLAIMER: Please don’t use these terms. They are but one part of what you probably do and are generally limiting.

So get to it, Monday’s here. 

The Fall of the Traditional Telephone

Phones, like any other medium we use to communicate, are a form of social media. In fact, any time we communicate to each other than face-to-face, that is… (say it with me)… social media.

Pen and paper, the public writing walls in Pompeii, the Gutenberg press, Elizabethan aristocratic poetry, Morse code and telegraphs, and even that pesky morning newspaper that once hit your front door but now lives in an app…. all forms of social media. I highly recommend Tom Standage’s book Writing on the Wall, available at your local, independent bookseller – it dives a bit deeper into the history of social media in very insightful ways.

Graffiti on the walls of Pompeii. From The Art Archive / Alamy, via an article by The Smithsonian’s writer Kristin Ohlsonon.

Modern telecommunication services like Skype, FaceTime, Google-Hangouts, and those cheap cable phones (VoIP) are the best examples of how much we have revolutionized our communications. We can type and speak to each other at the same time, and even see each other – or all three! Long-distance calls are cheap and three-way calling is a synch with VoIP phones. However, all of these sources rely on several vital resources: power lines, cable lines, and/or wireless routers and voice/data centers.

How??? What.

That’s right, your Grandma’s phone didn’t need a cable line, just a phone line. The mechanism powering her phone is simple, just a couple copper lines controlled by the phone company’s circuit board that connected her to who she called with a voice-to-electric-signal conversion technology created by Alexander Graham Bell. Our contemporary dependencies, fueled by the cable company (some of these companies were once just phone companies, remember?), make our life easier… but not if the power is out.

An analog phone.

An analog phone.

When the power does go out, like as a result of a major disaster, that old analog phone line still works (permitted the buried, copper cables didn’t break, an unlikely occurrence anway). You can still make calls!

But, with a VoIP connected phone, you have to depend on two things both working: power (to charge the phone) and the cable line (to supply the call service). These are two things that are unlikely to hold up during a major disaster.

And that iPhone? That will not last you more than the end of a day. The voice and data towers could be destroyed, too. Or your phone will just die.

But the FCC likes you.

They do. They want to make sure that by 2018, we are all connected to and reliant upon the VoIP network, a cable network that allows calls and other data across internet lines. The old telephone system will be completely removed, says the FCC chairman Tom Wheeler.

Wireless phones will still exist, and you should learn hoFCC Logow to tweet via SMS in order to broadcast your emergency request in times of limited data, or just learn what SMS is and how to use it. Understand, however, that wireless phones require batteries that must be charged, typically by an A/C outlet, and those will be scarce in a major disaster and/or loss of power. The towers may also be damaged, disallowing any connectivity.

What should I do?

Hang on to that old telephone company line if you still have it. Chances are you cannot get it as a new service – most companies do not offer it anymore. If you know of any, please respond in the comments below!

Here are some other tech-savvy ideas to keep you connected:

  1. Read my last post about using Twitter via SMS during an emergency, for starters, and heed the advice. Install other social media apps onto your wireless device if it allowed (Android and iPhone users can). Facebook is especially helpful because the people you will be broadcasting your message to are your friends and family, also known as people who probably actually care about your well-being.
  2. Consider a battery back-up option for your home phone. A recent call with Time Warner Cable said, however, that many of their telephone modems do not allow a battery back-up anymore. This is an important question to ask your cable company!
  3. Keep a pencil, pen, notepad, and tape in your home’s emergency kit. You may need to tape a note to your door letting people you are okay and to meet somewhere at a certain time, for example. You may also want to write down directions to the nearest shelter. The American Red Cross apps are fantastic at finding shelters and giving you information about what to do, either before, during, or after a disaster, by the way.
  4. Get a NOAA weather radio. Seriously though. It may be your only source of information during a major disaster.

There are many more concepts to explore. For further reading, consult the FCC website on “Emergency Communications.”  FEMA also has an excellent blog post about this too with far more detailed tips. I look forward to comments too, as always!

Face It: Content is Bling

Flash it, flaunt it… make them want it. This is not your grandmother’s book club anymore. These days, you need to bring more the table than just finely weathered copy. Your content arsenal needs to be diverse.

I will not tell you everything, but I will tell you something – social media contains the word “media”, so get crackin’:

1. What are your music skills like? Check out this clip I composed, perfect for providing a soundtrack or editing as a ringtone:

2. What about video? Check out what I did for an arts blog at the company called THE TWEET SQUAD

3. Have you thought about what a photo can contain? Wait, just think “image file” instead of photo. That should help.

Fake GAP Promotion.

Fake GAP Promotion.

I hope this helped charge your thoughts about what content can all contain. Comment below – what types of content have you used and what brands do you follow who have great content?

Other types of content:

  • Cartoons
  • Word clouds
  • Educational Guides
  • Vine App videos
  • QR codes

What else can you think of?

4-Step Cartoon: What Social Platforms Should my Brand use?

Cartoon by Jason E. Ballmann

Overloaded with information? Don’t know where to turn?

Deciding what platform to use for your brand can be daunting. Consider the following:

1) What is my brand best at? Short, concise messages (Twitter)? Describing why you need an item? (Facebook) Flashy colors and unique design (Pinterest/Facebook/Tumblr)?

2) What resources do I have? Can I produce content easily and efficiently? Aka, is it worth the investment?

3) Do I understand the style of each platform well enough to create content for it? Or should I hire this platform out?

4) Is this a platform that my traditional audience will enjoy, or am I trying to reach a new audience, or both?

What else do you think is important when selecting a social platform for a brand?