Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s public apology for the water crisis in Flint brings to light several crisis issues – many centered on communications problems:
- Was this a preventable crisis?
- Why didn’t Gov. Snyder and his staff move faster?
- How do they fix what is now a chronic crisis, a la the BP and the Gulf Oil Spill? The failure of internal communications and proper oversight are inherent to many crisis situations.
A timeline of the past four years shows a series of danger signs and potential short-term solutions that were ignored by state officials. Why Gov. Snyder’s team didn’t move faster is unfortunately a question that will now be answered by investigations and lawsuits. The embattled Governor’s apology to Flint residents for “a crisis you did not create” and his “we will fix it” promise were harshly criticized as too little, too late. Lawsuits have been filed, and calls for the Governor’s resignation are gaining momentum.
At CommCore, we label Crises in three general buckets – Flash, Predictable and Chronic. This was clearly a predictable crisis that is morphing into the chronic phase. Like BP, which could not pivot to the positive until the burning oil wells were capped, the Flint crisis will be chronic until the water is safe to drink. Only then will the Snyder Administration be able to begin to recover.
Here are a few lessons for crisis that CommCore takes from Flint:
- Infrastructure projects require a Communications seat at the table during the planning process. Planning includes what could go wrong and the fallout to the brand and reputation, not just financial and construction considerations. Gov. Snyder might have made the same decisions, but his team would have been faster at responding at the early warning signs.
- Taking responsibility after the fact won’t fix an embedded culture of poor risk management. There are parallels to Bhopal in which Union Carbide did not think of the risks at its India plant.
- Fixing the problem and restoring the state’s reputation will be time consuming, costly and messy. This is a good opportunity for a collaborative effort, tapping the best minds from Michigan’s auto industry engineers, other municipal water companies and the academic and scientific communities.