Over the past few weeks, we’ve watched as details around the water crisis in Flint, MI have emerged. Cover-ups regarding the amount of lead in the water to the blatant denial by government officials have resulted in very sick families, a state of emergency and a pending federal investigation. The timeline of events leading to the water crisis show questionable and unethical communication and countless public relations mistakes. While the actions of state and local officials have led to a PR nightmare, officials should be solely focused on developing and communicating a strategy that will provide clean water and assistance to the members of the community.
Enacting a traditional crisis communications 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 webpage—they need a hero.
The crisis strategy for Flint right now is a simple 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. The number one priority for every government official and involved organization needs to be working 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. Officials need to take action to make sure that every home in Flint has running, unquestionably clean water.
- Hosting town halls and meetings. Officials need 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.
- Shift the conversation from 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. All communications coming from the local, state and federal government should focus 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 – to what it being done. What matters is that every involved party is taking action and communicating directly to the people of Flint.
- Providing care and resources to sick and suffering members of the community. Parents should not feel helpless or hopeless when their children test positive for lead. The people of Flint should not have to seek out their own resources and assistance for medical treatment due to lead poisoning. The government needs to provide crystal clear instruction to the members of the community on where they can receive support and education around health issues.
The only way government officials in Flint can weather the storm they have created is through action and change. While there is plenty of blame to go around, that needs to be put aside—less talking and more doing. Everyone needs to focus on the best solutions for the people of Flint and find a way to execute. Once government official have put plan of action and solution in place, PR can help communicate that to the public.