When you’re working to manage communications for a public health disaster that has attracted the kind of international attention the Flint water crisis has generated, a consistent message helps cut through the clutter and make sure you’re most important goals and objectives are being heard.
Karen Weaver knew when she became mayor of Flint last November that the crisis was going to cripple Flint for years to come if the city didn’t receive help with education, health, economic development and infrastructure.
But more than anything else, Mayor Weaver’s top goal is to make sure Flint residents once again have clean water to drink and use for cooking and bathing. And that means replacing the thousands of lead service lines leading to homes so that residents no longer have to fear pipes damaged when a state-appointed emergency manager switched the city’s water source in 2014 to the Flint River without required anti-corrosive chemicals being added, allowing lead to leach into the water supply.
So Mayor Weaver, following the example of the Lansing Board of Water & Light’s lead pipe replacement program and with advice from Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, launched her Fast Start initiative to replace all the lead-tainted service lines in Flint.
Fast Start Program Gets Underway
Mayor Weaver announced the Fast Start program in February and held a news conference when the first pipe was replaced in early March. Since then, lead-tainted service lines have been replaced at 33 homes in Fast Start’s pilot phase. The program will expand to thousands more homes if state and federal lawmakers come through with funding to replace pipes at the thousands of homes covered by the $55 million initiative.
Martin Waymire has helped Mayor Weaver consistently get the word out about why replacing all the lead-tainted service lines in Flint is essential to the public and economic health of her city. While lead levels have dropped six months after the water source was returned to Detroit’s drinking water system, testing shows they remain unacceptably high in many homes. In addition to the alarming public health impact, Flint businesses and residents also remain deeply concerned about their property values and their ability to maintain and grow jobs in a community with lead-tainted water. Only replacing the lead lines will fully restore public health and economic confidence in their community.
Most residents no longer trust either the water or the government officials who consistently assured them that the water was safe. They don’t want more assurances that things are getting better. They want Mayor Weaver’s Fast Start program to get the lead out of Flint.
Working Hard to Be Open, Transparent
To maintain the public’s trust, Mayor Weaver has worked hard to be open and transparent about how the Fast Start program is going and what will come next. Martin Waymire put in place a process to write daily media advisories on which homes were getting their pipes replaced so that residents and the media could track the work, and Kristin Moore, public relations director for the City of Flint, pushed out the advisories and made sure reporters’ questions about the program were answered.
Martin Waymire also has helped with press releases expressing the mayor’s determination to get the Fast Start initiative underway and her insistence that state and federal lawmakers put the money in place to carry it out.
Mayor Weaver personally addresses local media at least once a week to keep reporters updated and informed of new plans, developments and progress being made in her administration. Martin Waymire recommended the weekly briefings, and Mayor Weaver and Kristin Moore quickly adopted them.
Not only do the sessions give reporters the chance to personally ask the mayor about new and ongoing initiatives in Flint, but they also give Mayor Weaver an ongoing forum to communicate her most important message. Residents and business owners can see and hear what the mayor has to say, and the media sessions build on regular town halls that Mayor Weaver holds in an effort to be as transparent as possible with her constituents.
Staying Consistent Despite the Critics
Throughout the disaster, Mayor Weaver’s message has remained the same: the lead-tainted pipes must go if anyone is to ever trust the water again, and the governments that created the problem must fix it.
She has her critics. But consistently telling the world what her constituents are experiencing and what they expect to be done to clean up the public health disaster they had no part in creating has made Mayor Weaver a strong communicator and a trusted leader in Flint and on the national stage.