Howes: There is no spinning the Flint water crisis

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

The public relations battle over Flint is lost for Gov. Rick Snyder.

Doesn’t matter how many PR heavyweights his team hires or what they get paid in private funds. God Himself couldn’t spin the unspinnable Flint water crisis, a long-running public health emergency featuring epic bureaucratic incompetence, charges of environmental racism and a modicum of political grandstanding.

The only meaningful public relations challenge is communicating what the state and federal governments are doing, and plan to do, to remedy the problem of lead leaching from pipes into Flint’s water supply — not joining the public fracas debating who’s to blame. That’s already well-established.

“This is about getting what we need done done,” Snyder has told his staff. True, and doing it will be a very heavy lift.

The governor is dispatching his fixer and confidant, Rich Baird, to Flint to help coordinate the state response and to reassure the city’s elected leaders of direct, daily contact with the governor’s office. Snyder and Flint Mayor Karen Weaver are expected to hold a news conference late Wednesday morning to update the public on efforts to contact Flint residents and improve water quality.

The state Department of Environmental Quality, implicated in the faulty decisions to withhold so-called “corrosion controls” from Flint River water pumped to homes and businesses, is working with Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards to develop water-testing protocols to answer concerns raised again last week by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The next phase of this is we want to make sure people have safe water to drink” from bottles or filters, says Bill Nowling, former spokesman for Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr and now a partner of the Finn Partners, one of the two crisis communications firms hired last week. “And to assure them that there is safe water to drink.”

Not easy to do, that, when arguably the biggest casualties of this unfolding disaster are the credibility of state government and trust between the public and officials at all levels. The only answer to understandably deep skepticism is execution — to do what you say you will do, to do it regularly and to let the evidence speak for itself.

Political pushback and media scrutiny will continue to be ferocious and not easily separated. Coming after the Detroit bankruptcy, botched state control of Detroit Public Schools and anti-union legislation spanning everything from right-to-work to straight-ticket voting, the Snyder administration’s culpability in the Flint water mess is a stiff rhetorical club its critics will continue to wield regularly.

Snyder’s comparative success implementing an agenda deemed inimical to the interests of Democrats, unions, even public pensioners amplifies critics over Flint. Evidence of bureaucratic indifference embedded in the tone of Flint water emails, combined with exposure of its children and others to lead-tainted water, make the missteps immeasurably worse.

Hiring Finn Partners or Mercury Public Affairs — where Snyder Chief of Staff Jarrod Agen’s wife, Bettina Inclán-Agen, is a senior vice president — won’t stop anytime soon the drubbing, the social media venting, the calls for Snyder to resign, the allegations of environmental racism inflicted by a wealthy white Republican on Michigan’s second largest minority-majority city.

At best, the crisis communicators can help parry the national political and media onslaught the governor’s overmatched communications staff is struggling to manage. But stifle Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, or Flint’s U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, its state lawmakers or Mayor Karen Weaver? Not a chance.

The threat to public health in Flint is too egregious. Partisans see advantage in the water debacle because the facts favor critics of the governor, the state DEQ and the federal EPA. Smart, realistic communicators already know that, meaning addressing public health, not managing bad PR, is and will be Job One.

Michigan failed Flint’s children and their parents, long-suffering property holders and business owners. It ensured elected officials that state oversight would fix the city’s worst problems, not create larger, longer-lived ones likely to stain further a reputation haunted by its past.

Pending the outcome of parallel investigations, including one detailed Monday by state Attorney General Bill Schuette, the only viable option for the governor and his team is to execute on promises to make things right in Flint — and leave the talking to others.


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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.