According to Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic (NYSE: MDT) and now a professor at Harvard Business School, the worst thing a CEO of a company is crisis should do is "hire a PR firm and ask it to restore your image." (March 16 issue of Fortune)
Far be it from me to tell Mr. George he's wrong. But he's only half right.
Hiring a public relations firm can be the smartest move a CEO makes. A smart PR firm will work with its clients to figure out how to build their reputations in times of "peace." Diligently working to help spread the clients' gospel through all forms of media, speaking engagements and so on, is what a good public relations firm does.
Why? (1) To help grow and protect business and (2) so that in times of crisis you have a reputational leg upon which to stand as you make your case for what went wrong (or not) and how things will be changed moving forward (or not). If your company hasn't been making its PR investments, how could it possibly reap the benefits of any dividend?
The mistake so many managers make is assuming that hiring a PR firm can wait until a company is in crisis. I've said this is this space too many times to count: public relations is about what you do; it's not about what you say. If your company screwed up, you have to own up and demonstrate the way out of the mess.
Public relations professionals are not magicians and don't "spin it" for a living. PR pros help build well-deserved reputations and play a critical role in their defense.