Crisis and Risk Communication and the Flint Water Crisis

waterflintI have to assume (from the fact that you’re reading this blog) that you, too, have been following the Flint, Mich., water crisis (#FlintWaterCrisis is a good place to start, if not). It has been changing every day and is a textbook example of a crisis and risk communication case study: a mid-sized, mostly poor, town being kicked to the curb for months; claims of long-term health effects from polluted drinking water; politicians playing the blame game (or just passing the buck); seemingly inept regulators; Michael Moore; the water utility threatening to shut off residents’ (polluted) water if they don’t pay their bill.

I could keep going with the list, because there’s so much more. If you’re a professional communicator or emergency manager you should be studying this case closely to answer two questions: “Why is this such big news?” and “Why are people so outraged?” There are easy answers to both, of course. We must go deeper (cue the Inception horns!).

The Media Piece

I’m not on the ground in Flint or Lansing or Detroit, but I’ll posit this (from having to communicate stories like the Flint crisis): don’t believe everything you read or watch from the media as being the absolute truth about the situation. Reporters sometimes make mistakes about highly technical matters, omit some details from their stories or focus more on opinions than facts. That’s just the way it works, and how it’s worked for years. I’m not anti-news media, I just know how they operate (sometimes).

However, opinions are what is important for much of this story (more on that in the risk section). I saw an exchange between a social media user and a reporter the other day, in which the user was critical of the reporter’s coverage: “This is a horrible tragedy, but it’s terrible on its own – it doesn’t need reporters fueling the flames!” “Circling the wagons” doesn’t work when you’re already in crisis mode (people keep trying, though!), and reporters aren’t fueling any flames with the Flint story – they’re doing their job. This story has legs simply because it’s hitting on so many of the basic elements of mass appeal:

  • Suspense – Seems like there’s a new angle to the story every day!
  • Prominence – The governor of Michigan and mayor of Flint are key figures in the story. But, President Obama has weighed-in, Michael Moore has organized protests (Flint’s his hometown), pro athletes and rock bands have raised money for the citizens of Flint or donated thousands of bottles of water. Again, I can keep going.
  • Conflict – This story has it in spades! Government vs. citizens, politicians vs. the media, etc.
  • Emotion – Check.
  • Consequence – Check, again.
  • Oddity – The oddity of this story for me, and at least a few people I’ve talked to about it, is the confusing idea that this is happening in an American town in 2016.
  • Progress – Part of the reason Flint citizens and their supporters claim that they’re “being poisoned” stems from a switch of their drinking water supply, from Detroit to the Flint River.

You don’t have to be an editor or news director to understand the learning point: the more of these elements that your crisis or incident hits on, the more likely it’ll end up in the news. You check off enough boxes, and it becomes national (or international) news.

The Health and Environmental Risk Piece

If you’ve studied Covello or Sandman, you’ll recognize some of what you’re about to read (full disclosure: I’m a fan of both). Just like the elements of mass appeal, the Flint crisis is hitting on so much risk communication theory and lessons learned that I’ll just hit the high points.

I wrote above that opinions about what’s going on in Flint are some of the most important parts to recognize in news coverage, and that’s because of the simple risk communication maxim of, “Perception is reality.” Some people are hung up on the data that’s swirling around but that doesn’t matter. At all. If the people in Flint believe they’re being poisoned by their drinking water, that is their reality. Doesn’t matter if the water’s safe or not.

The people of Flint have been in the “high concern/low trust” category, about their water, for months. That’s when you’re really supposed to be communicating risk, by the way. That didn’t happen immediately with the people in power who probably should have been talking to the citizens of Flint affected by the crisis. Let me throw out a few theories from Covello, and see if you can understand why they’re important for communicators in this situation (even if you’ve only followed the Flint story here and there):

  • People that are upset are often distrustful.
  • People who are upset have difficulty hearing and processing information.
  • People who are upset tend to think negatively.

Lets add a little bit more to the study – some of Sandman’s risk perception factors. Put yourself in the shoes of a resident of Flint and contemplate how your perception of the situation would be affected by:

  • The (potential) catastrophic health effects of your contaminated water.
  • The origin of the health risk. I.e., you’re being affected by tap water, which is supposed to be safe.
  • The effects on children. Widely reported in the last few days for the Flint crisis.
  • The effects on future generations. What is this doing to pregnant women or to people who want to have children?
  • The media attention. More importantly, the content of media stories. I bet some people in Flint are so confused that they don’t know what the real facts are, but they do know this – they have to deal with the consequences of tainted water, whether it’s on the 6 o’clock news or not.
  • Dread. Again, it has to be there in Flint, in spades.
  • Who shares the risk? The governor and other officials in Lansing can say all they want, but they’re not drinking and bathing in water from the Flint River.
  • If the risk can be avoided. I’m no engineer, but I’m pretty sure this is a no-brainer – if you used to pipe-in clean water, then switched to tainted water … well … switch back? (Correction: The water supply was switched back, but the damage had been done with the corrosive water from the Flint River on the city’s pipes.)
  • If you’ve chosen the risk, or if it has been imposed on you. This one’s easy. I don’t know of any towns in America in which you get a choice of water utilities.

Just like the elements of mass appeal, the more you can tick off risk perception factors, the more people will be concerned, upset and/or distrustful (if you, as someone who has to communicate the risk, do nothing or do your job poorly). There will be more lessons learned from Flint, but it’s too early in the crisis to do more than this – a quick study on the current situation. Hopefully for the people affected by this crisis, they see a quick resolution to the problem.

Image labeled for reuse by Paul Hudson https://www.flickr.com/photos/pahudson/6872786713

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