Walmart Rescued Flint Michigan…No One Noticed

We often find heroes in places that begin with the letter “C”: the classroom, the combat zone and the command center. As drones do most of the combat fighting, we find analogs to the battlefield in football and basketball. Similarly, the command center has shifted from four-star generals to the men and women who run businesses. But very few of them are thought of as heroes.

This explains why the heroic rescue of Flint, Michigan, by the business community vanished as quickly as Flint’s murky water down the tap.

The backstory is that Flint, Michigan, is one of many forgotten places on the American landscape whose demographics are labor union controlled, with a large minority community (53 percent are African American) that is poor and undereducated and where nearly 10 percent are children under the age of five. The media doesn’t write about these places, preferring to refer to them as “flyover” country suitable for SNL routines. Until something terrible happens, as it did in 2014.

Then-Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager to oversee spending after the local officials botched things up. By April, the manager found a way to save money by switching the city’s water to the Flint River from Detroit’s Lake Huron

Detroit’s Lake Huron. Most people were led to believe the water quality was the problem. The actual problem was that Detroit had added filtration and an anti-corrosive agent: Flint had not. Without it, the Flint water was so corrosive that GM complained it was “rusting its parts.”

The problem with contaminated water in the case of young children is that it enters a child’s nervous system where it can cause lifelong neurological diseases that lead to hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder, learning and memory difficulties.

Given the politics, the argument lasted a year before a solution was found (to reconnect to Detroit water). In the interim, the burning question was what were the children supposed to drink?

By 2015, during the period in which Flint water was toxic, Walmart rallied its forces and “donated 14 trucks of water— or 504,000 bottles—and 1,792 water filters,” said Beth Harris, store manager at Walmart, “The water crisis is personal to us here in Flint. Those affected include our own associates, customers and their families.”

Walmart was not the only member of the business community to come to the aid of Flint’s suffering population. Coca-Cola donated nearly 80,000 bottles of Dasani, Nestlé sent five truckloads of water—or more than 190,000 bottles—and PepsiCo donated almost 95,000 bottles of water.

With the help of these businesses, Flint Michigan, children were drinking clean water: “We are grateful for Walmart and their suppliers’ support during this crisis,” said Bilal Tawwab, former superintendent of Flint Community Schools. “With their generous support, District students will have access to clean drinking water.”

It is neither the first nor the last time Walmart has come to the rescue of a community: “Over the past 10 years, Walmart and the Walmart Foundation have provided more than $50 million in response to events such as typhoons in Mexico and the Philippines, tsunamis in Asia, floods in the UK and Canada, tornadoes in the U.S., Africa’s Ebola epidemic and many other tragedies.”

When business fails, it is scandalized. When it rescues, the quiet is deafening. Part of the answer is business needs to tell a better story. If you have just saved a city from a health epidemic, as Walmart did, you owe it to your company and your teams to find a way to make the story go “mega-viral.”

Note to self: Next time, invite Beyoncé and Bono to a “Flint Water Aid Concert” produced by Walmart. Then make the politicians, the media and the bureaucrats who shared responsibility buy a bottle of contaminated Flint water as a souvenir. Cheers.

Read more: The Media, Greedy Lawyers And A Lesson In Brand Assassination

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham is Chief Executive magazine's editor-at-large and a professor of leadership at Arizona State University/Thunderbird School of Global Management, where he has also endowed the Cunningham Global Fellowship for next-generation leaders. He also is the founder of Thunderbird Opinions poll of business trends. He was previously publisher of Forbes Magazine and CEO of Zip2 (founded by Elon Musk). Watch his YouTube interviews at Iconic Voices and connect on Twitter @CunninghamJeff and LinkedIn.