By Kevin Werner • METROLAND WEST MEDIA GROUP
Stoney Creek councillor Brad Clark is a self-admitted dinosaur when it comes to social media. He doesn’t post tweets or use his Blackberry during committee meetings like his colleagues are usually doing.
Instead, he shuts off his electronic equipment, saying he wants to listen to what is happening during council discussions.
So, he watched in a combination of wonder and shock as controversy took hold of the social media world when the city and its public relations consultant, Dialogue Partners, launched their new project Our Voices, Our Hamilton to the wider community.
The speed of the messaging and the lack of control the city had in monitoring the sometimes offensive posts on Twitter and Facebook raised concerns from politicians that the city should be more responsible when it comes to delving into the social media world.
“This social media thing is fast,” said Clark. “We had no policy in place (during the issue). How quickly should we respond (to posts)? Who monitors it? I’d like to have that discussion about how this corporation should respond. It’s getting crazy.”
The citizen engagement project was launched Jan. 7 by the city and its Ottawa-based public relations partner, and it quickly became mired in a social media storm after an employee of the consulting firm responded, “What is HSR?” to a question posted on Twitter.
The backlash to the company exploded on Twitter and Facebook, with posts that were angry, offensive and derogatory. The website was taken down by Dialogue Partners at the request of the city. City officials said Dialogue Partners was monitoring the social media tools.
But Clark wondered after the episode if the city in the future could face legal action if questionable comments posted by people on one site migrate to the city’s social media sites. He found vulgar comments such as “FO” on some city-sponsored posts, which he found disturbing.
“That is all in the Twitter world,” he said. “It’s bad enough somebody is flipping you off over the phone. I don’t want to be sued.”
“I’m pretty concerned,” said Stoney Creek councillor Maria Pearson, who also is a limited social media user.
“I have my email, that’s it,” she said. “You have no control what is coming or going. (Twitter) takes everything out of context. We really have to understand it. Once you are in there, there should be some guidelines.”
But Ward 3 councillor Bernie Morelli, a social media user, pointed out councillors have to accept a changing media society.
“We are in a new world,” he said.
Mountain councillor Terry Whitehead, who engages residents on Facebook and Twitter, says it would be difficult for the city to stop politicians from talking to residents through this new media. There are guidelines in place under the city’s code of conduct for politicians. He argues the best way to assist councillors and the city is to educate everyone about social media and point out the dos and don’ts.
Although the city last year approved a revised media policy for its employees – but doesn’t cover councillors – Hamilon City manager Chris Murray agreed maybe it’s time to review those policies again in the wake of the public relations disaster.
“I want to go back and have a look at it to see whether or not it goes as far as it should,” he said.