Kathy Hoekstra: On the Flint Water Crisis, Snyder Should Take a Page from Bush After 9/11

Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas

Even though it’s clear that breakdowns at all levels of government led to the Flint water situation, Gov. Rick Snyder is undeniably the sole face of the problem.

He may not like it. He may not deserve it. He certainly never asked for it. But he will not escape it. So Snyder needs to stop trying and do something he should have been doing all along –– embrace it. I think the governor really does want to help the people of Flint, but he has to show it.

Being the face of a crisis situation is often unpleasant. But in the long run, a lot of good can be done for a lot of people.

It may simply be foreign for someone with a business pedigree to realize the importance of being the face of a company, much less run point on crisis management. Amid calls for his arrest, resignation and, in the case of the singer Cher, execution, Snyder’s first stab at controlling the situation was to release waves of emails by his office. That was a decent move, but given what we’re seeing in those emails, it is painfully obvious the people under Snyder’s purview to help him with the situation were either incompetent, indifferent or muzzled.

Then there’s the restaurant incident. In late January, a woman shouted at Snyder across a restaurant where he was dining with a companion. According to reports, Snyder and his companion walked out without a word.

The very next day, Snyder signed a $28 million aid package for Flint. Again, a nice move. Except he did it in Grand Rapids rather than Flint, surrounded by smiling people who don’t appear hurt by lead-laden water.

Perhaps this stuff works in a corporate boardroom. It definitely does not work in the court of public opinion where animosity already heavily fueled by the likes of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, filmmaker Michael Moore and the Democratic presidential candidates, has made the Flint water crisis a national hashtag.

All of this is not to say Snyder is failing to right some very clear wrongs. He’s just looking like the uncaring businessman his enemies want everyone to believe he is.

Snyder could remedy this by taking a page or two from history.

Three days after September 11, 2001, attacks on our nation, President George W. Bush went to Ground Zero in New York. He erased his initial PR disaster (remember the heat he took for not leaping to his feet and deserting a room of schoolchildren to whom he had been reading?) Standing atop a pile of rubble with a bullhorn, and accompanied by a firefighter, Bush told onlookers, "I can hear you!" and "The rest of the world hears you! And the people –– and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."

At that moment, Bush became the face of the war on terror. And he never failed to acknowledge this, even as the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq became increasingly unpopular.  

Snyder missed his “bullhorn moment” in Flint. But there’s plenty of time for him to recover.

The FX series, “The People v O.J. Simpson” takes viewers back 20-odd years to one of the most high-profile murder cases in our nation’s history, which saw the ex-NFL star acquitted in the slayings of his estranged wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman. Back then, we may have tagged defense lawyers Johnny Cochran and Robert Shapiro, or prosecutor Marcia Clark as the faces of that drama.

But long term, the faces became the victims’ family members. Nicole Brown Simpson’s sister, Denise, became a champion of domestic violence victims, with relentless media pushes, and started a national nonprofit organization dedicated to stopping abusive behavior. Goldman's dad, Fred, became the face of justice for the forgotten victim, winning a $33.5 million civil case which stripped Simpson of many assets, including his Heisman trophy and rights to a book and movies.

As with those murders, not everybody in Flint who was wronged can be made whole. And Snyder will always have critics.

I believe berating your governor in a restaurant is just plain rude, and says more about the woman than the governor. But as the face of the problem, Snyder should know that turning away is not an option. A more healing reaction would have been to hear the woman out, tell her he understood everyone’s anger and that he was angry, too. And he should have been appreciative.

The Flint water situation will, no doubt, entail more emails, politicking, finger-pointing, hearings and lawsuits well into the foreseeable future.

Being the face of the problem is not acknowledging full blame. But as Nicole Brown showed us with speaking up for battered women, Fred Goldman did by advocating for crime victims, and President Bush did uniting the nation with a bullhorn, it can go a long way to making sure something as horrible as poisoning water doesn’t happen again.

Kathy Hoekstra is Senior Communications Manager at Job Creators Network. She an occasional guest host for the “Frank Beckmann Show” on WJR Radio in Detroit. For 15 years, she worked in local radio and television news in the Port Huron and Flint/Saginaw/Bay City markets, respectively. She has worked in communications for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and been the media relations director for former presidential front-runner and businessman Herman Cain. Email her at khoekstra1814@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @khoekstra.