February 3, 2016

Crisis 101: Be Transparent—Before It’s Too Late

Most agencies and corporations have crisis communications plans that map out important tasks such as identifying a crisis team and creating a media strategy

Are you prepared for a crisis?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of months, there’s probably one thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word crisis: Flint, Michigan. On January 16, 2016, President Obama declared a state of emergency in the city of Flint, Michigan, and surrounding areas. Why? The people of Flint have no access to clean, safe water.

Back in April 2014, the state switched Flint’s water supply from Detroit’s system to save money. Instead of water from Lake Huron, Flint residents have been drinking water from the Flint river, known for its filth. Almost immediately, residents began complaining about the quality of their tap water, noting peculiar color, taste and odor. What was supposed to have been a temporary switch turned into an almost two-year-long nightmare. Two years of highly corrosive water eroding the city’s iron water mains, turning the water brown. Two years of lead leaching into the water without the residents’ knowledge.

Yet it wasn’t until October 2015 that city officials advised people to stop drinking the water. This is after a group of researchers from Virginia Tech conducted their own tests, finding high levels of lead in the water, and a team of Michigan doctors found alarming levels of lead in children’s blood. The Michigan government and Department of Environmental Quality publicly denounced these findings, saying that the tests were flawed and the claims were creating unnecessary hysteria. Despite this evidence of high lead levels and several red flags being raised internally—think Environmental Protection Agency—Michigan government officials repeatedly told the residents of Flint that there was nothing wrong with their water. Finally, the city and state admitted that the water is extremely toxic and can cause lifelong health issues and behavioral problems. However, for the people of Flint, this confirmation comes much too late. Many wonder if these officials knew the dangers all along and chose to hide the truth.

The resulting crisis? Thousands of people have no clean water, the National Guard has stepped in to deliver bottled water and filters, a state of emergency has been declared on three levels—city, state and country—and people are really, really angry. As in several families in Flint have filed a class-action lawsuit against the state. Oh, and people are calling for the resignation of Governor Rick Snyder.

This is a crisis—a terrible and costly situation. From it, however, we can glean a few valuable PR lessons. Public relations and marketing professionals always have to be prepared for crises. Most agencies and corporations have crisis communications plans that map out important tasks such as identifying a crisis team and creating a media strategy. One of the most important traits of a good communicator is transparency. This means that we, as professionals, have to practice the art of open and honest communication that addresses the issues and defuses the crisis with a plan of action.

Here are my takeaways from the Flint Water Crisis.

Be prepared.

As I said, have a plan that outlines a variety of scenarios that could occur in your world. The city of Flint may not have been able to foresee the disadvantages of switching water systems, but what steps could they have taken to minimize the impact?

Be honest.

The truth always comes out. Why not be the source of the facts? To maintain integrity—and the support of your stakeholders—be proactive in your communications. Honesty goes a long way with the public and proves that you care about the big picture, not just your own reputation.

Act fast.

A problem doesn’t always have to turn into a crisis. If your organization has made a mistake, correct it right away before it affects more people. Outline what you have learned about the situation and the steps you will take to correct it. If Flint and Michigan officials had acted right away after learning of lead levels in the water, they may not have needed to declare a state of emergency.

Admit fault.

There’s nothing people hate more than when someone plays the blame game. If you have done something wrong, don’t waste time trying to find a scapegoat. Just accept responsibility and focus on fixing the problem. Sincerity in a crisis conveys leadership and will probably help the public empathize with you. Everybody makes mistakes, but not everybody owns up to them.

You may not always be able to avoid a problem, but you should always be able to handle a crisis. Be prepared to minimize damage to the environment, your community—and your reputation.