Toxic Communication: How the Water Crisis in Flint Corroded the Governor’s Credibility

April 26, 2016

Drip, drip, drip…

Little by little, the dirty truth about the Flint, Mich., water crisis keeps coming out.

As an educator and consultant who studies environmental communication, I’ve seen my share of subterfuge when it comes to sustainability. But the Flint water crisis has exposed a systemic lack of competence, caring and character at all levels of government—all the way up to the governor himself, whose credibility has plummeted as a result.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency for the city of Flint on Jan. 5, 2016, due to dangerously high levels of lead in the drinking water. But by that time, Flint’s water customers had already been suffering for a year and a half.

Who knew what, when?

The problem began with the imprudent decision to stop using Lake Huron water from Detroit and instead temporarily treat water from the Flint River, which is 19 times more corrosive. The state-appointed emergency manager and the governor’s office made the ill-fated decision to switch source water, purportedly to cut costs. Almost immediately, residents began complaining about the water.

In a complete failure of government during the ensuing 18 months, the water became toxic, first with E. coli and then with carcinogenic chemicals (THMs) at such high levels that the city violated the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Boil-water advisories went out for the former. For the latter, government leaders sat on the bad news for nearly five months before making it public by burying it in a brief statement strategically released on a Friday — the day after New Year’s on Jan. 2, 2015.

Two additional problems developed but were not divulged — lead in the water and a spike in Legionnaires’ disease. Snyder claims he did not know about either, even though his aides were urging the city’s emergency manager to switch the water back to Detroit water three weeks before Snyder’s 2014 reelection.

Emails show that two of Snyder’s top advisers wanted Flint to resume buying Detroit water after General Motors, in October 2015, said it would stop using the new city water because it would corrode engine parts.

“The water is safe”

Behind the veil of email, the governor’s closest advisers were calling the water “scary” and the situation “urgent” practically from the beginning. In January 2015, leaders at Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) were concerned about calling the water safe because of a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak possibly linked to the city water. Snyder’s inner circle of advisers wanted to spend $250,000 for bottled water for Flint as early as March 2015.

All year long, though, city and state representatives told families in Flint, “The water is safe.”

At many points in this tragic tale, communication could have slowed or changed the course of misguided government actions or fully informed the public of the results of those actions. Instead, city, state and federal workers resorted to dismissing, downplaying, denying, delaying and deceiving — tactics that led to the ongoing public health crisis facing the city today.

The story in Flint is about corroded pipelines of all sorts — not only the pipes that have been leaching lead into the city’s drinking water, but also the pipeline of communication from officials to the public they serve in one of the worst cases of environmental injustice in recent U.S. history.

With the long-term nature of lead poisoning and legal actions, this story will continue to unfold for years to come. What is already clear is that this man-made disaster and case of environmental injustice is a textbook example of what not to do in public affairs. The lessons come at a high price for a lot of people but, by far, the biggest price will be paid by the children exposed to lead. To them, Snyder’s promise to “fix it” is meaningless, since lead is a neurotoxin that is unsafe at any level. 

Government employees are not the only ones who dropped the ball. It took 18 months for the media to truly legitimize the problem, and without media coverage, a would-be problem is unlikely to enter into public discourse or become part of the larger political conversation.

Let’s be clear: I don’t believe anyone went to work wanting to poison an entire city. Not the emergency managers. Not the governor. Not the city water director. Not the many midlevel workers. Not even the environmental agency whose “experts” decided not to add phosphates for just $100 a day and, as such, caused lead to leach into the water. And certainly not the PR practitioners who worked for any of those offices.

Nevertheless, the water poisoned people.

The wake-up call for our profession is this: Flint could happen to any of us. In our role as spokesperson or boundary manager, any one of us could make the difference between lead poisoning or corrosion control. This is especially true for practitioners working in government, where the ethical mandate to serve the public interest is tenfold.    

It’s too late now to say “sorry”

Not only does everyone deserve clean, safe water, citizens deserve to be informed if that is not the case. We all know the drill: Tell the truth and tell it fast. With such a basic need as water, the cardinal rule of crisis communications was even more urgent.

Throughout the first 18 months of this crisis, however, government workers did just the opposite, and the governor himself turned a deaf ear to pleas for his assistance. Snyder apologized to the people of Flint during his Jan. 19 State of the State address this year, but it was too little too late.

Snyder has claimed he didn’t learn of the Legionella bacteria outbreak until days before announcing it publicly this past January, although its ties to the water switch were suspected almost immediately. The governor has portrayed the wrongdoing as acts of “career civil servants” who lacked common sense.

“I’m kicking myself every day,” Snyder said during a February press conference. “I wish I would have asked more questions.”

A petition drive is underway to recall Snyder, and groups have called for his resignation. Some 69 percent of those surveyed in January said the Republican governor has handled the crisis poorly, and 60 percent gave him “fair” to “poor” marks for overall performance.

Faced with continued questions about his resignation, the governor continues to point the finger everywhere except at his own office. He responds by using framing strategies that subtly portray himself as a victim of his underlings and of a culture that needs to be fixed. At the same time, he is presenting himself as a vindicator for Flint and for Michigan in an “us versus them” strategy to show that he’s one of them and that they’re all on the same team.

Less important here is how any single individual ultimately will fare in the court of public opinion. The governor now has PR and legal counsel. His public apology preceded a checklist of actions in a crisis-response strategy that expresses mortification but doesn’t actually assume responsibility despite his promise to do so. Snyder is also using bolstering strategies, ingratiating himself with residents by focusing on concerns for their health.

Flint is just the proverbial canary in the coal mine regarding water issues in the United States. This crisis alerted many Americans to the growing needs of our nation’s aging water infrastructure, such as in Newark, N.J.

In fixing the systemic failures, Snyder and other leaders could take a lesson from West German environmental law. Vorsorgeprinzip, meaning “foresight,” refers to the preventative principle that posits when a risk to human health or the environment exists, precautionary measures must be in place to ethically ensure the safety of the affected publics and regions. In other words, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Most important in this analysis are public health and communication about public health. Recently released state emails show prodromes in this case had cropped up from the beginning. Nevertheless, these early warning signs of crisis were ignored. Rather than averting the crisis, government agents employed “subterfusion of innovation,” a concerted effort to suppress the free flow of information surrounding the new water source. Simply said, public officials were trying to communicate their way out of a scientific problem.

A task force appointed by Snyder found that the primary responsibility for what happened in Flint rests with MDEQ, which failed both in ensuring safe water and in communicating about it. In a scathing report, the task force criticized communicators at MDEQ for a failure in the substance and tone of their response to the public throughout 2015.

Both Dan Wyant, director of MDEQ, and Brad Wurfel, director of communications, have since resigned. In fact, communicators and advisers close to the governor have gotten caught up in a revolving door that started spinning faster and faster as the issue spun out of control.

Communication has consequences

As information came out about lead contamination and Legionnaires’ disease, practitioners began peeling away from the governor. The governor’s own press secretary, Sara Wurfel, APR, announced her resignation on Aug. 11, 2015, just as lead concerns were first surfacing and as the governor’s office quietly began distributing water filters to the city.

Gov. Snyder has stated he didn’t know about the lead until Oct. 1 and that no one told him, a claim that doesn’t hold water in part because his press secretary was married to his top communicator at the MDEQ.

The shake-up continued in January, when the governor hired two firms: Mercury Public Affairs of Washington, D.C., and Bill Nowling of Finn Partners, a New York firm with offices in Detroit. (The short-term arrangement with Mercury Public Affairs ended in late March.) And in February, when thousands of emails became public, the governor’s top two communicators were again replaced. Current communication director Ari Adler is the fifth since Snyder took office five years ago.

Similar to those close to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during “Bridgegate,” the series of lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 allegedly orchestrated by his aides, representatives and advisers in this case became the Teflon for the person at the top.

When one protective coat wears thin, it’s easy enough to scrape it off and spray on another nonstick layer for leaders who themselves can’t afford to get too close to the truth.

Michigan is one of only two states that exempt the governor and lawmakers from public records law, which promotes a culture of subterfuge rather than transparency. Emails from some of those closest to the governor have revealed intentional attempts to circumvent the Freedom of Information Act.

Is public relations the conscience of the organization? The man-made Flint disaster suggests no. I argue that it should be. The greatest role for PR professionals in today’s milieu rife with overwhelming issues is to serve as an anticorrosion agent.

In our post-trust era, it is not enough for PR professionals to simply be conduits. It is incumbent on communicators with great powers of influence on the public good to not corrode the pipelines and to not allow the pipelines to be corroded by those we serve. Communication has consequences.

Short term, Flint has become code for bureaucratic catastrophe, and it is eroding the $100 million tourism campaign “Pure Michigan.”

Long term, the city of Flint may be better off from monies that will be invested, and the national consciousness has been raised about the country’s outdated water infrastructure. Still, families in Flint will pay the price for the rest of their lives.

Dr. Jeanette L. Drake, APR, Fellow PRSA
Dr. Jeanette L. Drake, APR, Fellow PRSA, researches environmental communication and teaches managerial communication in the College of Business at the University of Michigan–Dearborn. Her latest book, “Communicating Climate-Change and Natural Hazard Risk and Cultivating Resilience,” was published this year. She resides with her husband in Flint, Mich.


BOnnie Halloran says:

Great analysis of the situation in Flint and Michigan government. A cautionary tale that should be required reading in all political leadership forums.

May 5, 2016

AllAboutWaterFilters says:

Yes, since water is very important to humankind, this is something that the government shouldn't put a blind eye on. They should have informed the public of the shortcomings so that the citizens can act upon the problem as they think necessary. It was a selfish gesture to keep their mouths shut despite the growing water problems.

April 26, 2018

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