As you already know, public relations professionals can help your company get publicity about the products or services you provide. But a good public relations program can also help your company avoid litigation.

Premises liability is one of the fastest growing areas of litigation. It generally involves a property owner who is negligent in acting reasonably to avoid an injury or accident. Lawsuits have been filed against landlords who haven't made their properties safe from violent criminals and retail establishments where customers have suffered "slip and fall" injuries.

In one case, $2.25 million was awarded to a 52-year-old woman who slipped at a hardware store in Illinois. The woman, who underwent surgeries for knee and ankle injuries, alleged she slipped on a puddle of water left by an employee tending to plants. The retailer contended there was no water at the location and the woman didn't pay attention to a wet floor warning sign.

Here are four ways that first-rate PR can provide protection:

1. PR can help manage media relations during a crisis situation. Let's say your company is responsible for an accident that pollutes the environment. Now imagine that you're in the middle of negotiating a major deal when the news hits. The accident can hurt your company and put the deal in jeopardy. What can you do?

A good PR person -- whether it's someone who works for your firm full-time or a member of an established public relations firm -- knows how to talk to the media during a crisis. These professionals work to either move the story out of the news or put a spin on the incident that can help your company keep its business.

At other times, the crisis is on a smaller scale. Do you know how your employees would behave if a child was hurt on your property? Would someone call a doctor to arrange an on-site visit? Would someone get the child's parent a glass of water? These expressions of concern might seem like common sense, but not everyone is good in emergency situations.

The right reaction by one of your employees might make the difference between paying for a simple medical checkup and paying for a costly "premises liability" lawsuit.

And consider the lost business if the child's parents start telling the story of your heartless corporation to everyone they know. In many cases, litigation stems from a feeling that the plaintiff's suffering was ignored or minimized. Handling injury situations properly doesn't take the work of a media professional - it simply requires some conversations with key members of your management staff.

2. Public relations can help manage relationships during litigation. Some types of legal actions, like those involving insurance coverage and reinsurance disputes, are between companies that have ongoing, profitable business relationships. It's smart to talk to a professional who can help balance your lawyer's strong advocacy on your behalf with sensitivity to the business relationships and the public image that keep your company financially healthy.

3. Your company can use public relations to boost employee morale during times of financial difficulty. Sometimes, reaching out to the media can help with employee morale. For example, if your company has to make financial cutbacks and reluctantly lay employees off, other staff members might start to worry about their future with the company. They might start answering calls from head-hunters or actively look for other job opportunities.

You might address the problem by establishing or maintaining professional development or other performance incentive programs. But think how much more effective your effort would be if a public relations professional helped you tell this positive story to the media. A newspaper article or local television profile would reassure your current employees and attract talented candidates in the future.

In addition, business partners and vendors would have greater confidence and enthusiasm in their dealings with your company.

4. Good public relations can present a consistently positive image of your company. The court of public opinion is a powerful force in today's justice system. Crisis management strategies can be enhanced by a consistently positive image of your company. We've all seen the trend toward frivolous lawsuits and noticed the skepticism toward corporations in light of well-publicized abuses by a few firms.

If people see that a company is spending money in the community, volunteering at charitable events or helping its employees with professional development, they might be less likely to sue for minor injuries. At the very least, they may accept a reasonable settlement if the company offers it. Reputation management cannot be ignored in today's litigious world. A small investment in public relations today can bring a huge payoff tomorrow.