The Flint water crisis is a drinking water contamination issue in Flint, Michigan, United States that started in April 2014. After Flint changed its water source from treated Detroit Water and Sewerage Department water to the Flint River its drinking water had a series of problems that culminating in lead contamination, creating a serious public health danger.
The corrosive Flint River water caused lead from aging pipes to leach into the water supply, causing extremely elevated levels of the heavy metal. In Flint, between 6,000 and 12,000 children have been exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead and they may experience a range of serious health problems.
With the long-term nature of lead poisoning and legal actions, the Flint water story will continue to unfold for years to come. What is clear is that this man-made disaster is a classic example of what not to do in public relations. The lessons will come at a terrible price for many people. The biggest price, by far, will be paid by the children now suffering from lead poisoning.
Public health and communication about public health issues are at the heart of this story. Recently released emails show early symptoms had been detected from the beginning. Nevertheless, these early warning signs of crisis were ignored. Government agents employed “subterfusion of innovation,” a concerted effort to suppress the free flow of information surrounding the new water source. Simply put, public officials were trying to talk their way out of a man-made problem.
As information emerged about lead contamination and Legionnaires’ disease, PR practitioners began distancing themselves from the governor. The governor’s own press secretary, Sara Wurfel, announced her resignation on Aug. 11, 2015, just as lead concerns were becoming known.
Flint has become shorthand for a bureaucratic catastrophe.
Public relations professionals have an ethical responsibility in all situations. However, where public health is concerned those same professionals have an even greater duty, which is to protect the population at large. There are clearly times when PR and Communication agencies have to provide advice and guidance that their clients do not want to hear. Flint illustrates
President Barack Obama said of the crisis, “What is inexplicable and inexcusable is once people figured out that there was a problem there, and that there was lead in the water, the notion that immediately families weren’t notified, things weren’t shut down. That shouldn’t happen anywhere.”
President Obama visited Flint on May 4, 2016 to reiterate his thoughts and drank a glass of filtered Flint water to show it’s now safe.
First published by Adrian G Stewart at OOKII.Company