Crisis communications can’t clean up Flint mess

Vanessa Denha Garmo

When communicating through a crisis, it’s imperative that you admit the mistakes and commit to fixing the problem. It is the only way to regain the trust of the people. That is exactly what Gov. Rick Snyder did during his State of the State address.

In fact, I had to chuckle when I read fellow communications strategist Matt Friedman’s tweet that night: “Anything onetoughnerd says in #MISOTS16 before talking about Flint might as well be said by Charlie Brown’s teacher.”

Yep, everything else would have been just gibberish.

Snyder spent more than half his time talking about Flint — what happened and what is being done. Documenting the problem and sharing it with the public demonstrates transparency, which is also a must when communicating through a crisis.

The governor clearly is not the only one responsible, but he is the most notable. His name will forever be attached to the poisoned water in Flint.

He also appropriately acknowledged the experts who exposed the water problem, including Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who sounded the alarm after she heard the city of Flint wasn’t doing “corrosion control” to prevent lead in aging pipes from leaching into the water supply.

Everything the governor did that night was a sound crisis communications strategy that would enable him to focus on righting the wrong. However, Crisis Communications 101 will not clean up this mess.

“Too little, too late” were the sentiments of many on social media. This is a problem you can’t just apologize for and move on. You cannot communicate your way out of this crisis.

As the media noted, the governor got a little choked up at the end of his speech. Many things were probably going through his mind as this crisis seemed far from his leadership style up to this point.

This tragic reality put Michigan on the national stage in one of the worst ways possible, but more importantly it affected the lives of thousands of people.

Yes, the state now has an obligation to “walk the PR talk” and, as the governor noted, “Government failed you at the federal, state and local level. We need to make sure this never happens again in any Michigan city.”

However, the damage is done — not just to families of Flint, but also to the governor’s political career.

No, there is no crisis communications strategy to fully mop up this mess. People will forever remember the demands for his resignation and the calls for his criminal prosecution.

Years from now, people will talk about Snyder accepting major responsibility for the Flint drinking water catastrophe in his State of the State address of 2016, setting out short-term plans and long-term promises to put things right. But no plans can completely rectify his reputation.

“I’m sorry and I will fix it,” Snyder said at the opening of the 50-minute speech, directly addressing the residents of Flint. “You did not create this crisis, and you do not deserve this.”

The apology was necessary, and it may help defuse the anger but it does not eliminate the problem.

Whatever the governor had planned for his final years in office will be put to the bottom of the to-do list as Flint takes the lead. Regardless of the millions of dollars spent for a short-term solution or the long-term plans, the crisis has mucked the reputation of the Michigan governor almost as much as the lead seeping through the pipes and rusting the drinking water in Flint.

Vanessa Denha Garmo is a communications strategist and founder of Denha Media Group.