Sooner or later, many businesses find themselves confronted with a crisis. So, they can either prepare ahead of time or else react to the crisis once it is upon them.

The longer it takes to react, the greater the potential for damage. This is increasingly true in a world of instant communication where bad news is the favorite menu item of sensation-hungry media audiences.

While a 100-cow dairy farm in Wisconsin may not have the same likelihood of facing a crisis as a national restaurant chain or a several-thousand cow dairy, they still must know how to respond. Manure spills, employee accidents, product recalls and concerns over animal care all make the headlines. That means it is best to be prepared, regardless of circumstances. Here are five steps that every business should consider when designing a crisis-response plan. 

1. Identify your crisis-communications team

Who will respond to the crisis? Will it be you alone? Or, someone you designate? Will you involve legal counsel? Then, identify and train the spokesmen for the team. Pick people with strong communications skills. For training referrals, contact your local chapter of the Public Relations Society of America or International Association of Business Communicators.

2. Establish communications protocols

An emergency communications “tree” should be established and distributed to all company employees, telling them precisely what to do and who to call if there appears to be a potential for an actual crisis. Teach your employees that “crisis” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad news,” but simply something that’s “very important to our company, so act quickly.”

3. Anticipate crises

Gather your crisis-communications team for brainstorming sessions on all of the potential crises that can occur at your organization. Use this to think about how you would respond. This is the kind of exercise that may even help you avoid a crisis altogether.

4. Identify key messages should a crisis occur

When a crisis does occur, stop and assess the situation first. Then, formulate your key messages. Keep it simple. Have no more than three main messages. For instance, if one of your employees dies under suspicious circumstances, you might say, “We deeply regret this tragic loss of life, and we are cooperating fully with the police department and coroner’s office to confirm the cause of death. This organization has a superb safety record and meets all regulatory requirements for health and safety. We will provide the media with updated information as soon as it is available.”

5. Ride out the storm

No matter what the nature of a crisis — and no matter how carefully you’ve prepared and responded — some people will not react favorably to your message. This can be frustrating. What do you do?

  • Take a deep breath.
  • Take an objective look at the negative reactions. Is it your fault, or their unique interpretation?
  • Decide if another communication will change that impression for the better.
  • Decide if making an additional communication is worth the effort.

If you heed at least some of this advice, you’ll be one of the rare exceptions to the “head-in-the-sand” attitude that most companies have toward crisis communications.

Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, LLC in Monrovia, Calif.,