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With Flint water crisis center stage, Gov. Snyder hires national PR firm

The Snyder administration is now in over-drive to create both the perception and the reality that the state is engaged in making rapid progress in dealing with the Flint water crisis.

A governor in recovery mode

Snyder has hired Mercury, a nationally prominent public relations firm known for crisis management, for which, ironically, he’s taking a PR hit.

A year ago, Snyder’s post-Detroit bankruptcy stock seemed to be on the rise and he was in the beginning stages of making the case that maybe there should be a Nerd in the White House. But, today, that Nerd “brand” is a national symbol of failure in the public sector.

Placing blame

The Environmental Protection Agency is also trying to get out in front of the crisis after it was revealed that the federal agency sat on information about the lead risk instead of going public when the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality wouldn’t. Heads have since rolled at the DEQ and the EPA.

So, part of the Snyder messaging strategy now: throw the bureaucracy under the bus.

“What is so frustrating and makes you so angry about this situation is you have a handful of quote-unquote ‘experts’ that were career civil service people that made terrible decisions, in my view. And we have to live with the consequences of that. They work for me so I accept that responsibility and we’re going to fix this problem,” Snyder told MSNBC late last week.

The governor finally seemed to show some passion and anger over Flint, but this strategy of taking on the bureaucracy carries its own dangers.

Reputation to govern

As governor, Rick Snyder needs state employees to do their jobs – to help the state catch up in Flint, as well as handle all the other responsibilities of government. Alienating the people who work for him could create an unwilling cadre of employees who might drag their feet and choose to wait out a damaged lame duck governor.

Now, we should note, this discussion about reputation is in no way meant to diminish or trivialize what’s happening in Flint. We’re talking about this because, in politics and governing, reputation is critical.

If Rick Snyder has any hope of accomplishing what needs to be done, he has to regain the public’s trust. In a democracy, public trust is the mandate to govern.

It’s critical for instilling confidence in elected legislators that they’re wise to go along with him. Without it, he’s a target for political opponents who may sincerely disagree with his approach to governing, or just see no future in aligning themselves with an unpopular leader who’s lost his mandate to lead.

Snyder has three years left to salvage his legacy, but to do that, he has to govern right now.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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