I’ve spent the better part of my career communicating about road and sewer construction. Glamorous, I know, but it’s important to educate residents about publicly funded projects.
In the late 1990s, the media informed residents about municipal issues. People listened because they had to, especially if it impacted their bills, taxes or front yard. While the traditional media continues to play an important role in briefing the public about potential impacts, social media is shifting the conversation and motivating people to take action.
Nowhere is this more evident than the unfolding drama in Flint, Michigan. If you’re not familiar with the issue, Flint residents must buy bottled water because the public system has dangerous levels of lead, copper and bacteria. Lester Holt’s NBC Nightly News segment about the drinking water in Flint struck a chord on Jan. 6, and it quickly went viral.
The “gotcha moment” in the story?
When Flint switched from Detroit’s water source to the Flint River, the dangerous toxins could have been treated by adding phosphates to the water for about $100 a day. Anyone who buys bottled water knows that residents are cumulatively footing a bill much larger than $100 a day.
Holt’s story got the nation’s attention. All major news services and publications are covering the issue, and officials on the federal level – and even President Obama – are heading to Michigan to get involved. Celebrities are donating cases of bottled water by the thousands. While building better water treatment facilities isn’t exciting, pictures of young children holding signs that read, “Stop poisoning us,” and “We need clean water,” are.
Nationwide, engineers and elected officials have warned residents that they need to invest in infrastructure for decades. But nothing has had the impact of the Flint case.
When I shared the Flint story on Facebook, several people asked if I had clients in Michigan.
I, like many of the 5 million people who’ve shared the story, recognized that this could have happened anywhere.
Thirty years ago is when action needed to be taken, but it’s not too late. And – thanks to NBC Nightly News, the adorable children in Flint and social media’s sharing power – perhaps residents, not elected officials, will be the driving force.