Monday, February 1, 2016

Gov. Snyder's Flint aid bill signing a PR disaster

Posted By on Mon, Feb 1, 2016 at 11:08 AM

click to enlarge 'A motley assortment of Grand Rapids-area legislators resembling a rural PTA.' (Click to see larger version.) - PHOTO COURTESY GOV. SNYDER'S OFFICE
  • Photo courtesy Gov. Snyder's office
  • 'A motley assortment of Grand Rapids-area legislators resembling a rural PTA.' (Click to see larger version.)

They say a picture is worth 1,000 words.

And if you’re the embattled governor with more than 500,000 people demanding your arrest, you’d probably think long and hard about what any picture of you expresses.

Well, that’s what you’d think, anyway.

After all, take a look at the latest photo opportunity from the Snyder administration. It was the signing of a bill appropriating $28 million in short-term aid for the people of Flint.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in the U.P., you’re aware that decisions made by a Snyder-appointed emergency manager led to the city’s water being poisoned with lead, and the city’s infrastructure being damaged, perhaps permanently.

Needless to say, offering funding to deal with this man-made problem should be an excellent opportunity for the governor to rehabilitate his image as a bean-counting skinflint. He couldn’t pick a better time to demonstrate to the overwhelmingly poor, majority black citizens of Flint that he cares, that he is contrite, and that, good to his word, he will do what it takes to “fix” the problem.

So take a look at this photo, which Michigan Radio has credited to Gov. Snyder’s office, and tell me how it isn’t a PR disaster.

First of all, why are these people smiling? You’d think their faces should show stolid determination to help the people of Flint. Instead, they’re grinning as though the event were Snyder’s birthday party, and the bill a gift to him.

Second, why the heck was this event held in Grand Rapids, 100 miles away from Flint?

Then there’s the motely assortment of Republican legislators gathered around the governor. As far as we can tell, the only legislators from southeastern Michigan were Rep. Martin Howrylak (Troy, Clawson) and Rep. Kathy Crawford (Novi).

So who are those other legislators, particularly the ones who make it look like the meeting of a rural PTA? (For instance, that’s Rep. Holly Hughes in the ill-fitting, bright blue suit, and Rep. Phil Potvin in the circa-1977 used-car-salesman polyester number.)

Well, you can’t see all of them, but they are mostly republican state senators and representatives from Kent County and an arc of counties north, west, and south of there. (In other words, districts even more distant than the Grand Rapids location.)

There are some outliers we can identify, among them Kevin Cotter, who, as house speaker, probably has to be present. But what is the preposterously plaid Potvin doing there? His district is up in Wexford, Osceola, and Mecosta counties. Also, he’s got to be the last person you’d want at a press conference earmarking money for an environmentally damaged public water system. Why is that? Well, Progress Michigan reported that Potvin was caught dumping toxic pollutants into the ground in Wexford County, right in his own district. And that district includes Nestlé’s Ice Mountain Bottling Plant. Isn't that a liability, given the way Nestlé's former CEO once called the idea that “as a human being you should have a right to water” “extreme”?

Not that Gov. Snyder is necessarily guilty by his association with his own legislators, but … wouldn’t you want at least a 10-foot pole between you and Potvin while signing a bill helping the very people whose water was poisoned by people you appointed, answerable only to you?

Compounding my surprise, didn’t Gov. Snyder just hire two public relations companies to help him with this PR pileup? How could any PR professional allow a tone-deaf press photo like this to have been contemplated — let alone staged, shot, and released to the public? You might as well release a photo of the Hindenburg crashing.

I was so flummoxed by this disastrous photo that I got into a conversation about it with Detroit-based public relations professional David Rudolph. He’s bent our ear from time to time, and he’s a PR guy who believes he and his clients should be accountable and truthful, “even when it hurts.” He said the photo was a classic case of “how to make a horrible situation look worse.”

“Here’s how it should have went down,” he said. “Sign the bill in Flint with the mayor, with community folks, and wrap yourself with the people you are trying to help.”

It’s good advice, and you wonder if the governor has been pitched the idea. And bear in mind, Rudolph is a black Republican who not only supports Snyder but knows him personally.

“I would advise the governor your new working office is in Flint,” Rudolph says. “Show these people you mean it by moving every department having a hand in fixing the problem [to] Flint. This is not brain surgery: Do the right thing and let people see you care and feel their pain. His daily briefing reports should start with the state of Flint.”

Even though I’m anything but a Snyder supporter, Rudolph’s remarks resonated with me. I certainly expected a much tighter PR game from Snyder, especially given the way he’s brought in consultants.

Which calls for just a little more Monday-morning quarterbacking.

First of all, maybe Snyder is simply too used to the executive culture of being a private sector CEO. The maladroit handling of this press conference suggests that only yes-men are penetrating his inner circle.

Also, he really must be tone-deaf to go through with this cheery dog-and-pony show, let alone to utter words such as this: “I always try to think about the person in Flint that can’t use the water coming out of the tap and what their life’s like and how they’re in a worse place than I am.” (“A worse place than I am”? That’s contrition?)

Finally, there’s the possibility that the photo is exactly what it appears to be: Michigan’s GOP legislators, particularly on the west side of the state, circling their wagons and playing exclusively to their constituencies. In which case, it means they wrote off the poor people of Flint months ago.

Frankly, that’s the scariest prospect of all: that Snyder and company view this photo as an asset.

If that’s the case, the people in this photograph are far beyond the help of any PR agency.

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