Empathy, action, truth: How crisis communications might save Flint

Over several tense days in the fall of 1982, seven people in the Chicago area were killed by cyanide, a poison it was later determined had been delivered in adulterated capsules of a trusted over-the-counter pain medicine each victim had taken – Tylenol. It was the sort of catastrophe that could easily drive a product off store shelves forever, and its maker into a twilight zone of ruinous publicity and litigation.

But more than 30 years later, Tylenol remains as trusted a brand as ever. And the way the management at Tylenol’s manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, handled the events of October 1982 is today regarded as a model of a new kind of public relations now known as crisis communications.

Crisis communications encompasses strategies for organizations to cope when bad news is overtaking their best efforts. As when an already struggling Michigan city finds itself with a neurotoxin in its water and its people, a flood of bad publicity and a population that’s angry and mistrustful of official authority.

Can Flint be saved the way Tylenol was?

Experts suggest it can, but that trusted individuals – the researchers who exposed the water contamination and federal officials – need to take larger roles to fix the water system and restore public trust.

Matthew Seeger is dean of the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts at Wayne State University and author of nine books on crisis communication. He said most residents will follow the government’s water and health advisories, even as they doubt officials can be trusted to save the city.

But to rebuild public trust, local and state officials need to seek communications help from empathetic and trusted figures in the community.

“People’s lives are at stake,” Seeger said. “What needs to happen right now is (officials) need to partner, working together to create a consistent message. And another thing that’s important is transparency. There hasn’t been a lot of that.”

Flint’s water became contaminated with lead in 2014, after the city switched its source from the Detroit system to its own Flint River. The water lacked proper treatment and corroded lead service pipes, leaching lead into residents’ tap water.

At the time, the city was run by a state-appointed emergency manager charged with reducing the city’s deficit. City and state officials discounted residents’ complaints about the water’s bad color and smell, but independent researchers revealed the lead contamination last fall.

Lead can cause long-term problems with cognitive abilities and growth, especially in children.

One of the smartest responses by Gov. Rick Snyder was his move in January to appoint the two people who discovered the lead problem to roles in the fix, said Jessica Lenard, vice president at Levick public relations and strategic communications firm in Washington DC.

Lenard outlined a three-part first response for a disaster like Flint’s: First, get rid of people who caused it; involve trusted figures in crisis management and then flood the public with consistent information.

Several officials at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality have resigned or been fired. Snyder appointed Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Medical Center to the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee. Edwards’ research exposed the high lead levels in the water and Hanna-Attisha reported high lead levels in young children in Flint after the switch to Flint river water.

Edwards and Hanna-Attisha are trusted by the public, Lenard said. But Snyder has been widely criticized for his role in the crisis, and should not be the main messenger about the state’s response effort, she said.

“I do think one person should send the message. Someone neutral, not involved in the issue to date,” Lenard said.

The website or information clearinghouse should be centralized and widely publicized, she said, but currently, information is scattered among two different www.michigan.gov/flintwater state-run websites www.helpforflint.com and a phone hotline.

“They need to pull all communication tools to a central place,” Lenard said. “And share it in one portal where people know that is the information they can trust.”

Fix the problem, fix the trust

Snyder last week helped sort cans at a food bank in Flint. He has apologized publicly several times for the crisis, and pledged to work “tirelessly to ensure that the families of Flint can heal from this wound.”

Steven Fink worked with Pennsylvania state government in response to the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident. He later was an unpaid advisor to the Soviet Union after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, according to his online biography.

Fink said while it’s obvious communication with the public in Flint is slow and spotty, the first priority should be to save lives, and then rebuild trust. The White House needs to take over the crisis management in Flint, he said.

“Before you communicate you have to manage. The state of Michigan is just not managing the issue,” said Fink, author of “Crisis Communications: the Definitive Guide to Managing the Message,” “It’s one thing for this to happen, for the problem to still exist so many weeks later is criminal.”

About The Author

Chastity Pratt Dawsey

Chastity Pratt Dawsey is a Bridge staff writer, concentrating mainly on Detroit issues. She can be reached at cpratt@bridgemi.com

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Richard Cole
Sun, 02/21/2016 - 7:17pm
With all due respect to Dr. Matthew Seeger, and to the writer of this article, to suggest that the Flint water crisis has anything to do with crisis communication trivializes a horrific human tragedy associated with a complete government breakdown that appears to have been the direct result of executive incompetence at best, and more likely to a callous disregard for a public health threat to a community and its residents. To suggest that "managing the message" is even a relevant component of this tragedy conveys a sense that somehow these children and their families would not be suffering as much if the Governor's office would have put a better spin on this catastrophe. The messaging, in this case, that didn't get managed was the one that should have come down from the Governor on the first day of his administration -- "We have a statutory and constitutional responsibility for protecting the health and safety of every Michigan resident. Anyone who doesn't demonstrate a commitment to this responsibility should quit now." If any message was mismanaged -- or apparently missing -- it was that one. And if you want to call that a crisis communication breakdown, I guess I can agree. But I don't hear the communication experts or the reporter of this article saying that.