When Pepsi stood by a tone-deaf protest ad and United Airlines was slow making amends for dragging a passenger off a plane, anyone who has ever dealt with crisis management took note.

Having worked with clients on crisis management strategies ranging from sex scandals to drug busts to a political war of words, we observed with interest as these multinational corporations scrambled to manage their image.

With a proper crisis management plan that lays out the exact steps to take, a stressful situation can quickly turn into a manageable situation. Failure to have one can result in backlash and an escalation of outrage from the public.

The biggest mistake Pepsi and United Airlines both made was initially refusing to apologize. Pepsi defended its ad portraying Kendall Jenner leading a protest, while United Airlines’ CEO Oscar Munoz issued a statement justifying the forced removal of a passenger.

Pepsi and United ultimately backed off their initial stances, releasing statements apologizing for the events and moving to remediate the situations, but it was too late to stop the wave of criticism each received.

In an era when social media is the primary news source for many and the speed at which information spreads is instant, failing to quickly assess a situation can wreck an entire crisis management plan. You will lose public support and confidence if you fail to realize that the clock is not on your side and a plan needs to be ready immediately.

Maybe Pepsi and United are big enough to absorb the loss of consumers if they fail to have a sound and well-thought out crisis management plan, but are you?

Here are five essential elements of any crisis management plan.

1. Recognize the situation and act quickly

Researching and collecting all the facts dealing with the incident needs to be done immediately. This cannot wait until tomorrow. It is vital to understand the complete story, from both inside your company and the public, so treat all inquiries seriously. Take action within 24 hours.

Pinpoint the people affected and determine who the audience is. Understanding the opinion and reaction of the public is incredibly important because these are the people who are not only watching your steps very closely, but may base future consumer decisions on your actions.

2. Develop a plan

After you have gathered the facts and understand the situation, it’s now time to generate and roll out a plan. Create a timeline of action. Agree on a response as a team and stick with it – don’t go off script. You should already have a crisis management team to execute your plan. Assign a spokesperson to be the “face” of the situation, such as a CEO. A respectable figure in the company offers credibility and can be perceived as showing a high sense of concern. Make sure you keep major stakeholders aware, so they are not caught by surprise.

3. Prepare to have a media presence

How you present yourself and your company is crucial when the media spotlight is shining on you. Issue an official statement through some media platform. Prep the spokesperson to handle all of the questions and concerns he/she might have to respond to by developing talking points. Be consistent with the message and acknowledge the incident fully; you don’t always need to apologize, but you better be able to recognize when you should. The biggest mistake you could make is to lie. Backtracking on a statement after a lie will usually worsen the situation. Honesty and recognizing your faults is seen as strength and will earn you respect in the long run.

4. Understand the role of social media

Social media is not only a place where news is spread at a rapid rate but it is also a forum for people to react. Having a social media presence will help you understand how people are feeling about your company and clear up any misunderstandings before they spread. Social media is a way for you to communicate directly to your audience in a timely manner. The public simply wants to know what is going on and what you are going to do about it. Utilize this platform as a way to open a line of clear communication to keep your audience in the loop.

5. Have a post-crisis plan

After the media firestorm is over, you may think you are in the clear. You are not, especially if you are a smaller company. Unless you are prepared with enough content to bury the incident in search queries, references to the event will remain at the top of your Google search results. This can detract potential customers and employees. To push your incident down on the search results, publish new and engaging content that brings out the best about your company.

Contributions by Anna Sang