A crisis usually descends upon us without warning. It doesn’t care whether you are good or bad, right or wrong. It begins to expand uncontrollably, like the gushing oil from BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, taking on a life force of its own. And since the crisis is usually unimaginable, it is extremely likely that you are completely unprepared for it.

The consequence of your every action in a crisis becomes magnified by an uncontrollable public need to identify a villain and its willingness to believe the worst about anyone involved. The time to prepare and react is shortened by the magnitude of the anger unleashed. It is the worst time to be learning on the fly.

Even Johnson & Johnson, which emerged revered for its handling of the deadly contamination of several bottles of Tylenol in 1982, had no experience or structure in place for crisis management. PR was confined within marketing. Worse, in the onslaught of hyper media coverage (more than 125,000 stories appeared within the first week of the crisis) J&J had to establish that it was a victim of terrorism. It could only do that through its actions.

J&J virtually shut down a brand that accounted for 19 percent of its revenue, pulling every bottle of Tylenol off every store shelf in America even though the problem appeared to be localized to a store in Chicago. It committed freely to providing help and restitution to the families of victims even though the company did not commit the crime that caused several deaths. And it took quick steps in packaging to prevent this from ever happening again.

So what can businesses of any size learn from the public relations disasters of BP and other major corporations that have been caught in the grip of crisis? Fortunately for all of us, Tylenol wrote the playbook. Remarkably, it has been followed with incredible infrequency.

Let’s look at eight steps you can take to be more like Tylenol, and less like BP.

1. Regret, restitution, reform and recovery
Every PR crisis goes through these four steps in precisely that order. Most companies’ immediate response in most crises is to direct blame elsewhere and try to establish that they are in the right. Admittedly, that would be great if you could pull it off, but it has never happened.

Casting blame projects defensiveness. Denial attracts doubt and disbelief. In the first stage of a crisis, responding only that the facts will prove you right is an act of arrogance and detachment. What people want is to be convinced of the sincerity of your regret for the crisis and its consequences, and your determination to make things right. The assignment of blame will come, but probably not from you.

The longer you take to establish regret, the longer it will take to make restitution, and the more likely it becomes that restitution will be decided for you by the government (President Obama insisted BP set aside $20 billion for cleanup and restitution to the residents and businesses of the Gulf) or the courts (Bridgestone’s adamant and extended denial of responsibility in its faulty tires that resulted in nearly 200 deaths in 2000 lead to a government investigation, an ultimate admission of guilt, and a court settlement of $80 million).

The intended result of restitution in crisis management is to put an end to the story. However, without establishing true and convincing reform, doubt lingers, and the PR crisis becomes a corporate legacy. The credibility and nature of reform establish the context and public perception that preclude recovery of the business or brand, and directly affect the time it takes to rebound and get back to business. How long the recovery lasts will depend on whether you truly sustain the reforms that re-established trust in you in the first place.

2. Suppress your emotional reactions
It is natural to believe you could never be assumed guilty for something disastrous. Most often the crisis is not the result of something you did directly or intentionally. But this is the court of public opinion, for which there is no presumption of innocence, but rather a thirst for accusation of guilt.

You will feel betrayed that people--and on a local level, this will include people you know, friends you thought you had--could think such horrible things about you or your company. You will feel like a victim. You will believe in your ultimate exoneration, and that the truth will set you free. But facts take time to assemble, and you will face a rush to judgment. Facts spread no more quickly than half-facts and falsehoods. In most cases, facts are slower to come by while innuendo spreads like fire. It is very hard to get beyond these feelings in a crisis. But you must, or you must step aside.

Len Ellis, an ingenious PR expert for several major firms and the author of Silicon Simulacra, puts it this way: “Crises are unpredictable. You can’t deal with content. It comes from everywhere. But you can prepare the process.”

The process, though, depends on clear definitions of the problem and your goals, and a tactical and practical action plan to accomplish them and only them. You may be emotionally invested in your company, your job, your employees and your stakeholders, but that emotion will cloud the clarity of insight and analysis you will require immediately. And if you express those emotions publicly, you will undoubtedly be misunderstood. So don’t.

3. Define the problem
We’re dealing here with real crises, but not all PR problems fit the bill. You need to define the problem and its potential consequences. Some things that look catastrophic are actually the opposite. Not always the case, but you need to determine what is over-reaction. Here are a few examples.

In 2002, Abercrombie & Fitch was the target of two outbreaks of indignity. First, it produced and promoted T-shirts depicting Asian stereotypes that brought an outcry of racism from Asian groups. Shortly after that, mothers screamed with rage when Abercrombie introduced sexy thong panties in children’s sizes.

Abercrombie kept its cool (despicably, depending on your moral view) and seemingly deliberately mishandled the “crisis.” On the Asian stereotype issue, the company rather sloppily said, “We probably thought Asians would love these T-shirts.” In a move that makes BP look extremely competent, Abercrombie’s statement on the kiddie thongs was, “They were intended to be light-hearted and cute.”

Mothers became more outraged. Abercrombie’s business grew. The outrage came from people who didn’t approve of Abercrombie’s youthful sexiness in the first place. If they had caved to the protests, they would have betrayed all those teens who had overcome their mothers’ objections and bought Abercrombie anyway because it was cool and renegade. The protests gave Abercrombie and its actual customers a common enemy: the overbearing mother. That is very rock ’n’ roll, and in this case it worked.

In another example, earlier this year Kentucky Fried Chicken launched its grilled chicken (a more politically correct product than its fried mainstay) with a healthy push from Oprah Winfrey. The Oprah promotion created such immediate demand for the chicken that KFC could not handle the demand, and potential customers were left furious in their stores. KFC offered free chicken in the future for all those offended and denied, which in turn increased sampling and helped turn the grilled chicken into a major hit for KFC.

4. Create a structure and process
If confronted with a real crisis, you need a structure to define the response, and a process to facilitate and sustain the effort. Look at everyone you have, inside and outside your company. Define roles for each, and assign them duties. Be sure to get all interested parties involved and their interests and perspectives represented.

If you’re going to disseminate facts and information, set up a process where the releases go out at the same time every day, preferably at times that will be most beneficial to reporters trying to make deadlines, or on social networks at peak hours of usage.

However, do not try to control what you don’t have control of. You are trying to get pieces of information into the narrative of the media and social media coverage. You do not have control of the story itself, and you likely never will.

Even then, it requires a tremendous commitment of time and resources to track the story as it develops. In BP’s case, for example, the company had PR people watching every account of the disaster as it was given on television. In one case, as a CNN newscaster was commenting on live footage of the attempt to cap the well, he received a tweet from BP that he was making comments on a different cap. The newscaster corrected himself on air. Will you have the time to do something like that? If not, you have to control your role in the story some other way.

5. Reveal character first, story second
There is an adage in public relations: Stay on point. In a crisis, it is more essential than ever. Limit the number of responses you make, and make those and only those in answer to any question--even if it doesn’t directly answer the question. In every response to a query, the answer should demonstrate your character, concern, regret, responsiveness, responsibility, willingness to bring restitution to those harmed, and dedication to protecting the consumer forevermore. Nothing else.

If you present a fact, put it in a context that demonstrates those qualities. If there is a follow-up question, resist reacting emotionally or even personally, and re-emphasize your commitment and character. Nothing else. In the heat of the BP crisis, company CEO Tony Hayward was being challenged about the company’s response and commitment to the victims of the spill. He responded personally, saying, “Nobody wants this corrected more than me. I want my life back.”

In even a slightly more sympathetic context, he may have been forgiven for sharing the stress this had placed on him. But the subject was the victim, not him. It is always about the victims. Hayward resigned shortly after this exchange.

6. Prepare for social media terror
This year, movie director Kevin Smith boarded a Southwest Airlines plane and was too large to fit in the seat he’d purchased, so he moved. After some protest, he was removed from the plane when he refused to relinquish the new seat. Smith then went on a 36-hour Twitter barrage, setting off a viral media explosion that became the lead story on every entertainment news show and made the nightly network newscast, as well. Southwest didn’t see it coming.

Nestlé innocently enough started a Facebook fan page. It had visions of chatting with people who loved its candy bars. What it didn’t expect was Greenpeace posting relentless hate messages condemning Nestle for using palm oil that came from forests that threatened the existence of orangutans. Greenpeace even posted a video that looked like a commercial for Nestle’s Kit Kat bars, in which a man opens a pack and takes out a severed orangutan finger and munches on the bloody thing. Nestle responded by demanding Greenpeace stop making alterations to their registered trademarks and logos.

Domino’s suffered the indignity of having employees film themselves stuffing cheese up their noses and other disgusting acts, then making pizzas from them. The video was posted on YouTube and became one of the most watched and shared videos at that time. Domino’s brought in a new CEO, and shortly after launched an ad campaign admitting its products were lousy, but that they were ready to be better.

If you are on Facebook, Twitter or other social media, you need to be establishing your character and voice, and making friends. When disaster hits, you’ll need all three. You also cannot change your character or voice during the pressure of the crisis. You need to extract the goodwill you’ve established. If you’re not prepared at all in social media, you will still need to communicate in a voice and character that embodies the essential characteristics needed in a crisis: concern, honesty and openness.

7. Make reform convincing and advantageous
When Jet Blue betrayed its well-earned image as the people’s airline--one in which passengers helped to keep flights both cheap and pleasant--during an ice storm in New York City, it faced its first crisis. Passengers who left the gate were kept on the plane for more than 12 hours. Conditions on the plane reached their own crisis level, but still Jet Blue did not respond. The eventual backlash was severe.

Jet Blue managed the public relations crisis in two ways: It produced a passenger bill of rights, which provided reform and assurance that it was trustworthy again. Its restitution was a free ticket for anyone stuck on those planes, which had the side effect of getting the disgruntled to try the reformed airline again. The two sped the forgiveness process.

8. Believe in recovery
Remember the e-coli outbreak that devastated Jack-in-the-Box? The fast-food chain’s first response was complete denial of responsibility. It blamed its supplier. It blamed government watchdogs. But then it cleaned up its process, followed stricter cooking procedures, and became an advocate for these safety measures. In time, it returned to being the fifth largest fast-food chain in America.

No matter how gnawing the PR blunder, there will come a time of recovery--even without redemption. Toyota will recover just as Audi did. And BP will survive (and some predict thrive) just as Exxon did. Your crisis may never be as big or as menacing as theirs were, but yours, too, will somehow, someday find an end. The instinct is to try to force that ending. The secret is to speed regret, restitution and reform and let recovery come on its own. It will.