Like it or not, the world we live in today is more or less defined by sound bites and pictures, small snippets of information easily shared via social media and text messages. For public figures and organizations, it means that reputation can be won or lost in an instant.

That is why it is so important to have a plan in place to take control and mitigate damage in moments of crisis. Whether it’s threats to personal character, a brand, or a movement, it is critical to move swiftly to protect the integrity of a company or individual’s reputation. Every moment a crisis situation is left untouched is an opportunity for it to spiral out of control.

However, taking time before a crisis occurs to understand potential risks and put together a solid crisis communications plan can go a long way in mitigating potential damage along the road.

In my work with individuals, companies and organizations, ranging in scope from large corporations to institutions of higher learning and small start-up firms, I start with an initial framework to build a personalized and fully inclusive approach to crisis planning and response. I share my top five tips that should be a part of any crisis communications plan:

Create a scenario playbook. Help yourself and your team to prepare for every possible situation so that you are ready to respond quickly and adeptly. Ask yourself – what keeps me up at night? What are the hot-button issues and how are others responding? Schedule a media training that includes a “crisis scenario”, which will help to practice fielding all types of media inquiries. It is in your interest to be prepared for every possible situation that may arise. Look for best practices and learn from mistakes that may have already been made by others – and don’t repeat them.

Define policies and procedures. If you don’t know the answers to these questions – what is a crisis? Who is on the team? What are their roles and responsibilities? Who is the designated spokesperson and is that person trained? How will you work together? – then you need to go back to the drawing board. Put together a guide and a chain of command so that you and your employees know how – and when – to act fast.

Develop key messages. Planning ahead gives you time to understand who you are and what you – or your organization – represent. What differentiates you? Consider holding a messaging session, where you can hash out key words and messages that embody you and resonate with target audiences. Have clear, concise messages that are already in play and reflected in all communications – from email, to traditional media, to social media. Train your others within your organization to use these key messages.

Respond thoughtfully. A quick response is not always the right one. Assess the situation and decide if and when is the right time to respond. Sometimes a quick but thoughtful response can shut down a problem before it spins out of control, but other times, some issues fizzle out naturally. And always take caution to avoid knee-jerk responses (particularly via social media!) that can come back to haunt you later.

Know your friends. Identify possible third-party validators, those trusted sources who know you well and can step up to the media in a pinch. Nothing you say about yourself will have as much impact as when it comes from someone else.

Above all, know that honesty always wins. Be authentic to who you are – and let that sense of honesty guide your decisions and actions. Know that none of us are perfect. Mistakes and missteps will happen, but a crisis with a plan in place is always manageable. And sometimes, bringing in professionals who are trained and ready to deal with crises is the best thing for everyone.