Lessons From Flint: Where Crisis and Ethics Intersect

Lessons From Flint: Where Crisis and Ethics Intersect

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March 11, 2016

In January, the nation watched in shock as news of a man-made public health crisis unfolded in Flint, Michigan. Authorities knew there were dangerous levels of lead in tap water, threatening the health and development of thousands of children, and they did nothing about it for more than 18 months. This revelation has us all wondering whether our own tap water is safe, and it has PR people wondering, how could this happen?

Lots of factors contributed to the operational crisis in Flint, creating a perfect recipe for disaster: an aggressive water, lead pipes, a lack of treatment, a lack of data collection and a lack of communication. Though many communities have lead pipes, they don’t have the other factors to deal with, and so another operational disaster like Flint is unlikely. What is likely, however, is another similar PR disaster. Why? Discrimination, social injustice, and at its most basic – ethics.

It’s a cautionary tale. To avoid reputational damage, financial loss and litigation, brands think they need to erase their errors, spin their shortcomings or co-opt the conversation. On the contrary, the key to a long-standing trusted, profitable brand is honesty, transparency and, of course, an ethical approach.

Profits Over People
At the heart of the Flint crisis, which is at the heart of most crises organizations face, is a question of allegiance. Most organizations put their allegiance entirely to their brand. Why? Because they fear loss of profit and reputational damage if they don’t. Protect the brand is what we PR people are hired to do. Or is it?

Actually, the number one ethical principle underlying the practice of public relations is to “act in the public interest.” Simply put, that means our allegiance, if we’re working ethically, is first to the greater good for the majority of people and then to the brand we represent.

Stop and consider that. Are you acting in the interest of the greater good? Does your organization put the public interest before their brand? In perhaps the most famous, and sadly one of very few, cases where a company actually did, was Tylenol. In the early 80s, they recalled 100 percent of their product when they learned that criminal tampering had led to seven deaths. The action cost them $100 million and loss of market share. More than 30 years later, Tylenol is still at the top of the pain relief market, and remains the poster child – the exception to the rule – for crisis management.

Crimes vs Mistakes
What happened in Flint was a crime. So, from a PR perspective, the options aren’t great. If you found out tomorrow your organization had committed a crime or purposefully misled its stakeholders, which, in turn caused damage, what would you do? Make no mistake, this is a watershed moment in your career. If your savings account permits, it’s an easy answer. You can walk away. But how likely is that the option we have? If you can’t quit, can you convince your organization to fess up and do the right thing? Moreover, do you have the strength and stomach to guide them through it? Is your organization willing? Do they even agree they have done wrong?

Many companies are either unwilling to admit wrongdoing or their lawyers will preclude it. Lawyers rarely even allow clients to say sorry because they say it is an admittance of guilt. In all other aspects of humanity, we know that saying sorry is an act of empathy, and the first step towards receiving forgiveness. Situations like Flint, with a breach of ethics so bold, pose a tough decision for PR people. It’s hard for a brand to recover from an outright crime and the PR person who stays to help them through it will undoubtedly test or breach the tenets of our Code of Ethics. At least for an innocent mistake, there’s hope. This is where the value proposition of PR comes in.

PR’s Value Proposition
Odds are in your favor if leading up to an event like this, you have built a long-lasting, enduring program of proactive public relations with ongoing, two-way engagement between your organization and the people on whom its success depends. Assuming you have built this kind of program, and your organization puts the public interest ahead of its own, you have a fighting chance. So when a crisis hits whether self-made or by accident, here’s the drill:

  • Step One: Be first to admit what you did, and, show regret and empathy.
  • Step Two: Describe in detail how you will fix it and prevent a recurrence, then over deliver on that promise.
  • Step Three: Do everything you said, and make sure everyone knows.

Very easily said. How these three steps get accomplished is not so easy and a Blog unto itself. Timing, credibility of spokesperson(s), word choice, nonverbal behavior and of course – the enterprise-wide operational feat of making things right again – is a formidable endeavor. But, as Tylenol proved, it’s always the right one if a full recovery is to be realized.

PR can’t fix bad behavior. Only good behavior can do that. PR can only reveal. It’s a lesson for us all. When you put the greater good as your focus, and let transparency be your guide, you will always come out right. But put your brand first like Flint did and you will end up meeting the destiny you fought so hard to avoid.

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