Crisis communications planning has risen to the top of the priority list for many brands, as they watch the train wrecks that seem to occur on almost a daily basis.

Of course, no matter what a brand does, they can never know exactly what to expect or when a crisis might befall them. But it isn’t a good strategy to stick one’s head in the sand, pretending that your business is crisis-proof. Big or small, companies need to plan for a crisis in the event one hits.

Why Even Small Businesses Need to Have a Crisis Plan

“No matter what size company or client you work for, crisis communications needs to be integrated into your overall communications strategy,” says Matt Falso, director of brand strategy, Soteryx Corporation. “While large companies often have these plans baked into their overarching approach, smaller businesses may see them as an unnecessary expense. A crisis, however, can happen to any company—regardless of size.”

“Crisis communications planning is even more critical for smaller businesses because they can less afford the financial consequences of a significant crisis,” says Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management and author of “Manager’s Guide to Crisis Management.”

And according to Dave Pidgeon, founder and CEO of Navigate Strategic Communications and former spokesperson for Norfolk Southern, it doesn’t take a lot to create a crisis for your brand.

“Bad accounting, an irritated employee, a customer who had an unfortunate experience, a municipal code violation, a misguided quote in an otherwise innocuous media story – they can all lead to greater public scrutiny of your business,” Pidgeon says. “And if you don’t know how to handle that scrutiny, the situation can get much, much worse.”

How Can Brands of All Sizes Be Prepared for a Crisis?

Given that a crisis can happen at any time to any business, how should brands prepare in advance?

“The primary preventive tactic is maintaining a very positive online presence on all major social media platforms,” says Bernstein. “This creates a cushion of goodwill and also gives an organization an ear to the ground if negative information starts appearing online.”

Beyond maintaining a good reputation, companies need a plan.

“Being prepared with an established crisis communications plan can make a world of difference when communicating with the media as well as when sharing critical information with your employees,” says Falso.

And make sure to revisit the plan periodically.

“A crisis communications plan works as a living, breathing document,” says Pidgeon. “Don’t let it sit on the shelf unopened.”

And practice. “Avoid assuming what you did last year, or even last month, will work this time around,” advises Pidgeon.

“Actively practicing (simulating a crisis) is essential to being fully prepared,” agrees Falso.

Time is of the essence when responding during a crisis. If you’re not thinking ahead about what you’ll say—and who will say it—you can lose valuable minutes or hours, resulting in a lack of public trust.

Should You Handle a Crisis In-House or Hire External Resources?

Is it better to handle a crisis on your own? Or should you bring in an expert resource to help?

Bernstein says hiring a good crisis communications pro in-house can cost top dollar, which many smaller businesses can’t afford. “So, just as a small business would call on outside legal counsel, they can outsource functions such as crisis prevention and response.”

Pidgeon feels it’s best to have an in-house spokesperson. “If your spokespeople have built credibility and trust with communities and media sources, that trust and credibility are needed in a time of crisis.”

Whatever you do, don’t wing it, Pidgeon advises. “That’s a recipe for disaster,” he says.

And don’t address a crisis from afar. “Handling a crisis through written statements-only is an unintended invitation to the public and the media to scrutinize you further. It creates a perception you’re hiding or avoiding something. Being there in person builds empathy and is more conducive to building a relationship with both the public and press.”

However You Do It, Prepare for the Worst

Crisis experts agree that companies need to plan ahead and be prepared for the worst, whether they leverage in-house staff or external resources to help.

“After all, reputations take time to build, but can be destroyed in a matter of seconds,” says Falso.

Since stress runs high during crises, having a crisis monitoring worksheet and ready plan of action can be a lifesaver. And, don’t forget the important role of media monitoring and social listening to track and take the temperature of public opinion.