Margaret-Mulvihill1The Role of Public Relations in Politics is a monthly column written by WWPR member Margaret Mulvihill, examining the role of PR in politics.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of Washington Women in Public Relations


We welcome a new year in public relations, and in PR’s role in politics. Little has changed for us, and little has changed for our clients, since we ended 2015 in crisis management mode, and now we begin 2016 in a similar vein. There is an abundance of big media events unfolding, as we look to the Iowa caucus, and the caucus in New Hampshire. Presidential politics, along with the attendant PR efforts are always of interest to us, especially in this election year of 2016.

The immigration crisis continues unabated, with much discussion around the plight of the refugees fleeing the various wars in the Middle East. The Affordable Care Act continues to generate lively conversation between opponents and proponents. The global drop in oil prices are concerning, and are generating much media attention. Donald J. Trump’s onward march toward the White House, and the spectacle of Hillary Clinton again being denied the honor of being the first Madam President are hot topics of conversation. The Senator Ted Cruz birther issue – is a Canadian citizen running for President of the United States?

So, given all of these hot button issues, what’s the biggest story in media relations today? It can only be Flint, Michigan. Lead, a known and potent irreversible neurotoxin, poisoned the people of Flint, Michigan.

The world wants to know about Flint, about Governor Rick Snyder. What he knew and when he knew about it. Why he waited until now to declare a State of Emergency. This is the biggest crisis of human suffering in this country in decades, brought to light by Rachel Maddow’s investigative journalism. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s dogged determination to get to the bottom of the symptoms she was seeing in babies and young children was the driving force behind Maddow’s initial involvement. The Mayor of Flint, Karen Weaver, is working hard to keep the focus on mitigating the suffering, and replacing the damaged and worn lead pipes. The number of celebrities joining the people of Flint is growing every day. Today, Russell Simmons brought the number to an even 24, calling the crisis ‘environmental racism’. As the investigation deepens, the rhetoric continues to heat up.

There can be no doubt that Governor Snyder made very bad executive decisions, leading to this great suffering among his constituents. Some of these constituents have died. Some of them are irreversibly brain-damaged from drinking lead-contaminated water. Psychologically, the people of Flint, Michigan, may never recover from Governor Snyder’s actions. It is truly a crisis situation, and likely to get worse as we hear more from the people of Flint.

While it’s not an easy thing to do, and frankly it’s outside the comfort zone for many of us, there are times when we have to put the human face of death and suffering to one side. When we’re hired to tell the story of what happened, and what will be done to remedy it.

In Flint, the Governor has hired a major US crisis management firm to work on damage control, and on mitigating his role in this tragedy.

After hiring a new Chief of Staff, Jerrod Agen, whose wife Bettina is an SVP at national public relations firm Mercury, the Governor then hired Mercury, leaders in the field of crisis management. Following that he hired another communications expert, Bill Nowling. Mercury, Agen, and Nowling have an uphill battle ahead of them, which we will follow with great interest. In communicating with the public about this tragedy, they will have to show sincere concern for the victims, while explaining the Governor’s actions.

Maybe it will be revealed that the Governor swung into action as soon as he was made aware of the lead poisoning problem. Maybe we will find that he actively participated in the cover-up. He may well become Flint’s hero, or he may resign in disgrace. Only time will tell.

Margaret Mulvihill is Director of Communications at Lawson Mulvihill Media Inc., in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter: