“Here’s to Flint!” said Mayor Dayne Walling, lifting his glass.
Unbeknownst to him at the time, his toast would serve to commemorate the tragic “switch” in 2014 when the city of Flint changed its water supply from the city of Detroit to its very own Flint River. In combination with the city’s aging pipe system, the new water supply toxified the tap water flowing into every Flint home. Meanwhile, government officials described the switch as an austerity measure intended to help soften the blow of the city’s looming financial crisis.
Fast-forward two years; today, the aforementioned celebratory toast has turned into one of our nation’s most disturbing contemporary tragedies.
Many questions remain unresolved. Did the city of Flint sacrifice the health and safety of its residents to save approximately $1 million a year? Would the tragedy have been avoided altogether had the situation occurred in a less diverse, more affluent neighborhood? What are the long-term health outcomes for the victims of Flint who were exposed to the lead-laced water? Why did their voices go unheard for so long?
Congress hoped to give closer examination last week when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Both officials faced a withering barrage of questions and condemnation. Both were asked to resign. Neither did.
Politics aside, the continued blame game, finger-pointing and failure to accept full accountability on both sides—particularly for the popularly elected Snyder—is fueling the public outrage. Is good PR important to earning and keeping trust between an elected official and his/her constituents?
Let’s examine closer.
Fumbled public statements and responses haven’t helped Snyder’s office (nor the EPA) in gaining the public’s trust. In fact, numerous steps by these figures fly in the face of key PR tenets during a crisis: own your actions, communicate the facts and misdoings in a transparent manner, and inform people what you are doing to fix it.
Strike one. The facts were largely downplayed from the get-go. During a crisis, it’s critical to report the facts and interpret them objectively. Otherwise, you’re stuck in “media quicksand.” The more you say, the worse it gets.
As The Los Angeles Times writes,
“… The river drew more worrisome headlines when the GM engine plant in town decided to stop taking Flint’s water in October 2014 because it was worried the high levels of chloride, which the river water also contained, would corrode metal parts.
“The city insisted the water was still safe. GM employees, Flint officials pointed out, were still drinking the water at the plant. But then, on Dec. 16, 2014, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality notified Flint that it had violated the Safe Drinking Water Act.”
Later, and in a background memo to the governor, the state Department of Environmental Quality downplayed the danger. Throughout 2014 and into early 2015, the state of Michigan continued to placate residents.
Strike two. Lack of transparency. As The Guardian reports this January:
“The governor’s office declined to answer questions about what role it played in the decision-making process that led to Flint using the local river as its main water source, but what is clear is that the lead-contamination crisis took place while the city was under the control of Snyder-appointed emergency managers.”
Let’s not forget that the state of Michigan, under Snyder’s administration, originally authorized the switch.
Strike three. Accountability that only goes half way.
In a National Journal interview from earlier this year, Snyder admitted that his administration was aware that the state Department of Environmental Quality was mishandling the Flint water crisis in mid-2015. Even staff aides made him personally aware of the complaints about the drinking water.
Testimony from last week’s congressional hearing confirmed Snyder’s acceptance of some accountability, but it didn’t stop him from simultaneously pointing the finger in the opposite direction. (The fact that the EPA’s McCarthy is just as guilty misses the point.) In addition, it has become clear from media reports that everyone convinced each other that everything was “OK” because no one wanted to be the one to call out a problem.
Too little too late? To be fair, Snyder is on public record for saying, “I am sorry, I will fix it.” He also penned an op-ed in the Detroit Free Press following the congressional hearing declaring that he is not going to walk away from the disaster but will be a leader in solving the problem. He also gets high marks for recently recruiting the whistleblowers/heroes who raised concern early on; they are now on his team. Numerous officials at lower levels of government have lost their jobs as a result of how this crisis was handled.
Yet Snyder still faces an uphill battle in winning back the public’s trust.
NPR recently reported that he is losing support in Michigan, with approval rating falling 30 percentage points. A recall campaign has been launched. According to The New York Times, Standard & Poor’s lowered the outlook on Michigan’s credit rating to stable from positive, citing the costs of dealing with the Flint crisis, and also with a looming financial crisis affecting Detroit public schools.
Will Flint ultimately become Snyder’s “Nixon” or “Katrina” moment as a result of his PR blunders? This question, while a worthy one that will be watched by politicos and serve as a playbook for PR consultants, falls secondary to the health and safety of the thousands of people impacted by Flint’s toxic water.
—Monica McCafferty, Director of PR