For years, people used to ask if there was such a thing as bad publicity. “As long as they spell your name right” was the mantra. Wow, how times have changed.

Gary Condit. Lindsay Lohan. BP.

Yeah, there’s most definitely such a thing as bad publicity.

The key to turning bad publicity into not-so-bad publicity starts long before the bad publicity rears its ugly head. You want to create fans first, so that when something does happen that makes you reach for the antacids, you’ve got a loyal fan base to come to your defense and help cushion the blow.

How do you do that?

It starts with your customers, clients, users, whoever. What you’re doing for them on a day-to-day basis defines how they’ll treat you when you need them. Are you going out of your way to be helpful? Are they buying from you, or from a “big-no-name-store?” Will they get a human being on the line when they need one, or will they go into voice mail hell?

The little ways you treat your customer now will ensure they’re there for you when you need them. Here are a few surefire ways to make sure you’re building good will before a case of bad PR hits.

  • Transparency: Are you running your business transparently? If so, the chances of bad PR jumping up and biting you are greatly diminished. Most every piece of bad PR is the result of someone thinking they won’t get caught. When they do, the bad PR comes a-calling. Be transparent, to the point where your customers know what you’re doing every step of the way, and you’ll avoid 90 percent of all bad PR. If you’re not hiding anything, there’s nothing for an investigative journalist, an angry customer, or even Google to find.
  • Relevance: Are you relevant to your audience? Do you know how they like to receive their information? If not, is that because you’re not asking them? Ask them how they like to receive their information and then give it to them that way. The more you communicate with your customers (by listening as well as talking) the better chance your customers will be happy, and turn into fans. Fanatical customers tend to lessen the chance of problems popping up.
  • Brevity: We’re a society of 2.7 second soundbites, tweets and updates. If you’re not quick, you’ll be lost. If you’re lost, you’ll be avoided, and if you’re avoided, you’ll have no one there to say “No, they’re a good company, don’t believe what you read in the tabloids about them.” Be brief, get your message across and listened to.
  • Top of Mind: Are you the first thing customers think of when other people ask them for recommendations? If not, why? And how can you get there? The more you’re recommended to others, the more likely the good PR can shine and the bad PR can go away. How do you get people to think of you first? Engage them. Talk to them. Follow the three rules above. Say hi. Follow up. Do all of the things that very few companies take the time to do nowadays. The more you do that, the less you’ll have to rely on crisis management when the time comes.

When it comes down to it, getting your name out there is a required part of doing business, and the more well-known you become, the chances that one day your PR goes bad increase exponentially. Your goal is to have such a strong foundation that when that day comes, the bad PR is just a drop in your ocean of good PR, and the ripples will quickly fade away.

Peter Shankman is the founder of Help a Reporter Out, the largest free source repository in the world, and consults on Marketing, Social Media, and PR to Fortune 100s around the world. Find him at http://shankman.com.