Being connected to every link in the food chain, our C|O team has experienced the challenge of managing crisis communications for many clients over the years.

While we have no crystal ball—our counsel to clients has revealed five key points to preparing for a crisis before it hits. They are:

Have a plan – Having an up-to-date, executable crisis plan is fundamental to any business. It will create a platform from which operations, human resources and communications can execute the plan following any one of 3-5 scenarios that will help protect the company’s brand, employees, customers and the public.

At C|O, our digital community manager has an issues protocol built into our digital eco system. Once activated, every team member knows who is leading the communication, and what their roles and responsibilities are.

Have a company spokesperson, trained and ready – But, if at all possible, not the CEO. When the face of the company becomes the face of the crisis, we have another problem—the company becomes the crisis and no one wants that. However, make sure the spokesperson is senior enough to have credibility. The CEO always can come in and save the day should things go sideways. But that is a last resort only.

Subway® is more than touting eating fresh. It’s talking fresh. When your key spokesman gets into hot water, your brand could, too.

Establish allies – Credibility can be a key driver to seeing a company and its brand through a crisis. Fundamental to that credibility is third-party endorsement. Those endorsements can come from a stable of allies prepared to honestly and transparently offer public support when the company and its brand need it most.

McDonald’s® does this perhaps better than any other company. After its cage-free eggs policy was announced, allies rushed to praise the move.

Deploy “peacetime” messages – Crisis management and communication often is the farthest thing from the minds of senior management during “peacetime,” or when the company is free of crisis. This is the perfect time to focus on what the company stands for and deploy messages relevant to that stance. This will establish critical trust equity from which a company can draw during a crisis.

Smithfield® Foods and its well-established position as a sustainability leader is a great example of this. In addition to declaring a commitment to this on its website, many communicators—bloggers and reporters alike—acknowledge Smithfield’s efforts, building critical trust equity with consumers.

Be prepared to leverage the spotlight – Proactivity is not generally the first thing senior management will think about during a crisis. However, it is important to keep the following in mind: At no time are customers, the news media and the public more focused on your company or your brand than during a crisis. It is the perfect time to execute key messages that will see your company and its brand through the crisis and into a brighter tomorrow.

Chipotle® has an opportunity to make food safety a brand attribute – but must be careful not to make it an overriding brand theme. The company can and should introduce its commitment to food safety into the public discourse in a subtle but smart manner.

Senior media strategist Chuck Sanger started as a sports reporter before working in media relations for the NFL®>’s Minnesota Vikings®. Outside of work he coaches hockey. And here at C|O, he coaches public relations, CSR, reputation management and crisis communications.