Over the past few weeks, the nation watched as the communications efforts around the water crisis in Flint, Michigan were grossly mishandled. The timeline of events leading to the crisis shows an unethical string of communication and public relations mistakes - ranging from cover ups regarding the amount of lead found in the water to blatant denial of the problem by government officials. The result? Very sick families, a state of emergency and a pending federal investigation.
In the case of any crisis there are two options. The first option is selfish - avoid blame, point fingers, deny the problem exists and try to 'quiet' a noisy, unhappy constituency. This is taking place in Flint right now as government officials resign from their positions or attempt to distance themselves. The second option is fearless - walk directly into the fire, address backlash and resolve the issue. Option two means rolling up sleeves and fixing the problem, quickly -the only way out is through.
In Flint, Governor Rick Snyder has very recently retained a public relations firm to assist in communications efforts. Too often in cases like this, PR firms are hired in the hope that they will execute option one - manage and fix the problem, remove culpability and smooth over negative backlash. There is tremendous value in hiring an expert and we can hope that these efforts will be done in an ethical and transparent way - supporting a strategy that is focused on quickly restoring safety and providing aid to Flint residents. But, what is happening within the community while the governor's communications team polishes their approved messaging? Who is making sure that action is being taken right now to address public health and safety?
Enacting a traditional crisis communication plan is irrelevant in Flint right now. The damage is done, the crisis has already happened and continuing to talk about it won't fix it. The people of Flint don't need an apology or a press release or a well-crafted FAQ on a city web page - they need a hero.
The crisis strategy for Flint right now is a straightforward one - do whatever it takes to fix the problem and communicate the plan to the community. This includes:
• Getting clean water to all of the people of Flint. This is the number one priority. Every government official and involved organization needs to work together to get clean water for Flint residents right now. Communication to residents should focus on how they can obtain clean water for their family, where they can seek medical care and how the government will support this effort. It's important to remember that this is a short and long term effort - bottled water may work today, but it isn't a plan built to last. Officials need to take action to make sure that every home in Flint has running, unquestionably clean water.
• Initiating town halls and meetings to directly address community concerns and fears, even if some of the answers remain unclear. These meetings should be done face-to-face. There is no excuse for government officials to not show up to critical events and hearings. These meetings won't be positive and they won't be easy, but they are essential to ensuring public safety.
• Changing the conversation from one of blame to one of action. The residents of Flint continue to live in fear, pipes still aren't replaced and there is no excuse for it. It is critical that all communications coming from the local, state and federal government are focused on fixing the problem. The conversation needs to shift from one that questions why the problem happened in the first place - that doesn't matter right now. What matters is that every involved party is taking action and communicating directly to the people of Flint.
• Providing ongoing support and assistance to sick and suffering members of the community. The people of Flint should not have to seek out their own resources and assistance for medical treatment due to lead poisoning. Parents should not feel helpless or hopeless when their children test positive for lead. The government needs to provide crystal clear instruction directing members of the community on where they can receive support and education around health issues.
The plan laid out here isn't simple, it requires putting ego, fear and blame aside - doing the right thing is difficult, but it can be achieved. The only way out of the crisis in Flint is through action and change - less talking and more doing. This isn't the type of crisis that public relations can clean up. Once state and local officials have a viable plan of action and a solution, PR can help communicate that to the public.