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The Flint Water Crisis: Risk Communication

Posted by Brandon S. Brewer on June 22, 2016 at 11:06 AM


History of the Flint Water Crisis

The origin of the Flint Water Crisis can be traced all the way back to early 2013, when the city council approved a plan to switch the city’s water supply from Detroit to a system still under construction, in order to save money. This meant finding an interim water supply while the system was being completed. Thus, the city’s water plant was placed back into operation as a stop-gap. The City of Flint switched to using the Flint River water on April 25, 2014 and issued a statement that the water was safe to drink.

However, over the next several months, three separate advisories were issued – one for E. coli, one for coliform bacteria and one for trihalomethane, a byproduct of disinfectants. State and federal agencies began investigating the complaints regarding the water supply, however the water remained in the same condition.

In September 2015, an independent study indicated that corrosiveness was causing lead to leach into the city's water. Flint issued a lead advisory and gave recommendations for safe use, but also maintained that the water was safe according to federal standards. A week later, a public health emergency was declared.


Risk Perception Outrage Factors

In a crisis like that in Flint, people become angry and outraged, making the situation volatile for those who have to communicate risk. Individuals directly or indirectly involved may have elevated levels of fear, anger and outrage based on real and/or perceived risks. And, in the case of Flint, they have no control over the risk since the water is supplied by a public utility and there are no other alternatives. Also, the distribution of risk is inequitable, meaning that those officials working on solving the problem don’t share the risk with the residents. All of these elements combine to create more outrage and present more problems for those who have to communicate the risks to the public.


The Seven Cardinal Rules of Risk Communication

Risk managers and people in leadership roles can deliver information to the public more effectively by following these seven guidelines:

  1. Accepting and involving the public as a legitimate partner
  2. Planning carefully and evaluating efforts
  3. Listening to the public’s specific concerns
  4. Being honest, frank and open
  5. Coordinating and collaborating with credible sources
  6. Meeting the needs of the media
  7. Speaking clearly and with compassion

If you look back at the history of the Flint Water Crisis, it didn’t always appear that officials applied these rules with any consistency or regularity. To prevent situations like this from developing and escalating in the future, it is crucial for officials and leaders to build trust and credibility with the public before a crisis occurs. Officials need to put themselves in the shoes of the people that they serve, using empathetic brainstorming ahead of time in order to meet the needs of people affected by their work in both good times and bad.