Most people are familiar with how Tylenol reacted when someone laced medicine with cyanide in 1982 and more recently, Toyota’s insistence that “unintended acceleration” was simply operator error. These are examples of crisis situations; dire, unexpected and disastrous for their brand. But you don’t have to be big like Tylenol or Toyota to experience a crisis situation. Crises are equal opportunity offenders—nonprofits are just as susceptible. Most of our nonprofit clients creatively find ways to maximize their budget so they can do everything to build their brand. So, think of a crisis communications plan like your brand’s insurance policy.

So what exactly is a crisis? My personal definition of a crisis is anytime my client feels they are in the “hot” seat; even if the seat is just warm. According to a business dictionary, a crisis is a critical event or point of decision which, if not handled in an appropriate and timely manner (or if not handled at all), may turn into a highly undesirable outcome. The only way to be able to ensure that you will be equipped to appropriately and swiftly respond to a crisis situation is to be prepared.

We recently helped train one of our clients and their staff on crisis communications and authored their written communications plan. It may sound intimidating at first, but once you’re on a roll the answers starting flowing pretty freely.

Here are the seven fundamental steps you need to take to ensure you’re prepared:

  1. Build your crisis team

This should include your CEO, your legal counsel and your communications leader/staff at a minimum.

  1. Identify spokespeople

Typically this is your CEO, COO or communications leader.

  1. Media training

Whoever will be your spokesperson needs to be an expert, a good speaker and appear trustworthy.

  1. Identify key internal and external stakeholders

Once you figure who your stakeholders are, you’ll know how to craft your messages.

  1. Establish a communication protocol

You will need to determine how you will communicate with your stakeholders. They come first.

  1. Anticipate and plan for a potential crisis

Prepare your response to as many potential crisis situations as possible.

  1. Develop sample holding statements

Keep these on file in advance of a crisis so you have a head start if/when something happens.

The easiest way to start is to do a quick, bulleted outline of steps #1-5. Then add a list of potential crisis scenarios—try to think of at least 10. Once that’s done, assemble your team and start talking through what your holding statements would be and how you would handle each scenario. Remember, the key to successfully managing crisis situations is the 3 T’s. Respond in a truthful, transparent and timely manner.