03/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bad Press Is a Sign of Bad Leadership

There is really no excuse for the spate of seemingly unbelievable gaffs made by industry leaders in the last few months. Why weren't they using crisis PR teams to manage their actions if they couldn't manage themselves? I'm joking of course... or am I?

The list of Marie Antoinette moments is astonishing (see Arianna"s post) - all the way up to just 2 days ago with Tim Geithner's $435,000 severance upon being promoted to Treasury.

But there should be no need for such insensitivity! There are PR firms that specialize in helping management teams through bad times, firms like Burson-Marsteller and Ogilvy who, if they are allowed in to decision making when the flack is flying, will ride management to think about the implications of what they are doing before they act.

Tainted food is a classic example of how a crisis can be handled well. Everyone remembers when someone spiked Tylenol with cyanide - and instead of avoiding the problem Jim Burke, CEO of Johnson and Johnson (JNJ) at the time, stepped up and took accountability, even though it was an individual's criminal act. He initiated a comprehensive voluntary recall within two weeks - and made it a positive for Johnson & Johnson's brand.

Likewise Clif Bar (CLIF) has just last week voluntarily recalled all products with peanut butter in them whether or not they are at risk of being exposed to the current salmonella outbreak, reinforcing their brand of healthy products.

PR people would say that press management is easy when the leader's actions are right.

So what does it say about management when moments of executive cluelessness happen and they don't do the right thing?

The sad truth is that no amount of executive handling can protect bad leaders from themselves. Maybe the auto executives were so used to flying everywhere on their private jets that it didn't occur to them not to - but I wonder if their PR head spoke up and told them it was a dumb decision. Maybe John Thain's office really did need refurbishing rather than redecorating - but why not wait until better times and then be reasonable?

Good CEOs earn their pay by creating jobs and shareholder value - and as importantly they get good press for their companies and high marks from their employees. Let's hope a silver lining to this crisis is that the bad leaders will be exposed and be moved on.