7 PR and crisis woes from Flint

The lead-laden water that has poisoned city residents dominated Gov. Snyder’s State of the State address Tuesday, but it’s been a busy 24 hours. Here’s a breakdown of what’s happened.

There are “mini crises within the crisis” in Flint, Michigan.

For nearly a year, residents in the urban community have been consuming lead-contaminated water from the Flint River. Despite citizen’s complaints about murky and foul-smelling water—and scientific research conducted in part with a local hospital and whistleblower doctor—the situation has never been properly addressed. Until now.

On Tuesday evening, Gov. Rick Snyder acknowledged in his State of the State address that he failed in his responsibility to protect citizens.

Let’s dissect the various messages and consider whether leaders and their representatives have helped or hindered.

Snyder’s speech and role

1. Crisis: Broken trust and failed leadership.

PR messaging: “You deserve better. You deserve accountability. You deserve to know that the buck stops here with me. Most of all, you deserve to know the truth. No citizen of this great state should endure this kind of catastrophe. Government failed you—federal, state and local leaders—by breaking the trust you placed in us.”

Court of public opinion:


2. Crisis: Immediate help is needed to provide clean water to residents.

PR messaging: Snyder said he would ask the state Legislature for a $28.5 million supplemental appropriation to cover bottled water, filters and other immediate needs. The funding was approved by a legislative committee Wednesday morning.

Court of public opinion:


3. Crisis: News media outlets and the public demand that Snyder release his 2014 and 2015 emails under the Freedom of Information Act. The emails were released Wednesday morning, although one reporter tweeted that he had reviewed the electronic messages and none was specific to the lead and water issues.

PR messaging: “Anyone will be able to read this information for themselves. The most important thing we can do right now is to work hard and work together for the people of Flint.”

Court of public opinion:


4. Crisis: The federal Environmental Protection Agency didn’t respond in a timely manner. Snyder announced that the Obama administration had appointed a “water czar.” Dr. Nicole Lurie of the federal Department of Health and Human Services will coordinate efforts with leaders in Flint.

PR messaging: White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday: “The city and the citizens of Flint are going through a difficult time. We’re doing what we can.”

Court of public opinion:


5. Crisis: Flint Mayor Karen Weaver met with the administration in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, Obama braved the frigid weather—and chilly sentiments in Detroit, some 70 miles from Flint. The planned Obama visit was to praise the rebounding automotive industry.

Question for PR pros: Should the visit have been modified to include a stop in Flint?

PR messaging: The situation is anything but being ignored by the White House,” Earnest said.

Court of public opinion:



Also, USA Today reported on Tuesday that Obama vetoed a bill that would have rolled back clean water standards.

Presidential hopefuls step in

6. Crisis: A political and divisive tone quickly emerged as candidates running for president spoke out about the contaminated water and the long-term effects on children and the struggling minority community of Flint. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was first to mention the situation last Sunday during a televised debate. On Tuesday, Republican candidate Ben Carson, a Michigan native and retired neurosurgeon, was the first GOP candidate to address the tainted water in that city.

PR messaging: “Unfortunately, the leaders of Flint have failed to place the well-being of their residents as a top priority,” Carson said in a statement to the Huffington Post.

Court of public opinion: This cartoon was all over Twitter.


The check is in the mail

7. Crisis: The city has delivered tainted water for months, and Flint residents who have been exposed to it are receiving bills and shut-off notices for late or unpaid bills. (This isn’t mentioned on the new website set up by Snyder, HelpforFlint.com.)

PR messaging: Attorney General Bill Schuette posted on Twitter: “If you can’t drink the water, you shouldn’t be billed for it. That’s nuts and it must be fixed.”

Court of public opinion:


Celebrities and a subliminal live TV message

As if all of the above weren’t enough to make a crisis manager’s head spin, celebrities are hitting the airwaves and social media networks to weigh in on the problem.

Cher, filmmaker Michael Moore, Erin Brockovich (the real one, not actress Julia Roberts who portrayed her in a movie) and others have been voicing their outrage about Flint’s crisis. Many are donating large amounts of bottled water for residents. Ordinary citizens from around the world are also helping through authorized GoFundMe campaigns and other charities.

Snyder’s speechwriters and others on his communications team were certainly busy Tuesday crafting his message. Yet when Snyder’s State of the State address went live, it was (kind of) obvious that someone overlooked how the framed live shot would appear to millions of viewers. Note the empty water pitcher on the right side. This scored some retweets and comments, too.



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