Flint Water Crisis Puts New Attention on PR

dirty-water-glassIt’s tough to find a story that can capture national media interest not involving a celebrity as much as snow in large amounts in New York City and Washington DC. But before that started happening, recent national attention was focused squarely on Flint, Michigan, where a multi-fold crisis involving the city’s water fits most of the traditional criteria for news. While we don’t know how long the national media will stick with it, regionally the story feels much closer to the beginning than to the end and there’s no turning point in close sight.

It’s also a story that everyone who has an interest in the future of public relations should study and think about. Here are four factors that should be considered:

-This situation demonstrates how PR is now a part of the story: Like other recent crises, the “new normal” in news coverage is to include analysis of how PR was handled and/or is being handled. In this age of driving clicks and shares, PR makes for a “talkabout” angle, where even “armchair communicators” can form an opinion. If you’re involved in handling a crisis, expect to be analyzed, scrutinized and, given the subjective nature of what we do, criticized in public forums.

-Should a firm get hired by a government entity, expect that, in an of itself, to be a bona fide news story. Critics will assail the subject of the crisis for how it handles PR and then, because the public truly does not understand PR, the criticism will intensify when a firm is hired ostensibly to improve things.

-Along the same lines, a crisis shows that the PR profession has, in and of itself, a serious reputation problem. PR pros are called “spin doctors” and worse. There’s plenty of social media content and conversation otherwise accusing “us” of helping powerful people lie. There’s no easy solution to counter this. Getting a group of PR people in a room to just to define PR would be a messy, time consuming, unproductive exercise. Plus, many on this career path have worked very hard to earn their negative reputations. So it’s time for a reality check. Those of us in these jobs need to understand how we are viewed and what we should do, individually, to work against that reputation.

-It’s impossible to know exactly what role PR played in the Flint situation. But, given the “resignation” of the chief spokesman of the Department of Environmental Quality and the front-and-center role of the Governor’s spokespeople, it’s easy to picture them right in the thick of things every step of the way. Read up on this story and you’ll see it’s a lesson on how PR should represent the public, not just “protect” its bosses. The culture of “don’t make the guy you work for look bad, no matter what” doesn’t work in the long-term. PR should be the voice asking for fact-finding and muscle pushing for the right thing for customers, especially when it comes to health and safety.

PR isn’t about cleaning up messes. Ideally, it should be about leading the way. In order to do that, it’s important to understand the evolution that a story like this illustrates.