By Kevin Werner
METROLAND MEDIA GROUP
The City of Hamilton and the Ottawa-based public relations firm Dialogue Partners have parted ways and staff chocked it up to a “harsh” learning experience.
City manager Chris Murray said during a special council meeting Feb. 4, staff will continue with its citizen engagement process, including examining possible relationships with local firms, to re-launch the program within the existing budget of $134,000. Murray said staff will present councillors with alternative options on how to engage the public within a few weeks.
Dialogue Partners will end up walking away with $242,000 from the original $376,000 contract cost. “It’s an absolute shame the way it happened,” said Murray. “It certainly snowballed. It’s good we take the risk. Sometimes we are on the wrong end of it.”
The city hired Dialogue Partners after the company won a $376,000 bid to provide some training to about 25 staff, and conduct a 15-month citizen engagement process with residents on their opinion about city services. The program, Our Voice, Our Hamilton, was launched Jan. 7, and it included a series of public meetings, an online survey, a web site, and a social media presence.
But later that evening, during a conversation on Twitter, one of the company’s employees tweeted “What is HSR?” in response to a citizen’s question about Hamilton’s public transit system, the Hamilton Street Railway.
The question set off a firestorm of controversy over the social media landscape. Soon after, there were mistakes found within the Our Voice, Our Hamilton web site, which featured photos of another city named Hamilton. Dialogue Partners alleged the web site was hacked and that individuals were posting offensive comments about the company.
Two days later, the company, at the request of the city, shut down the site.
Paul Johnson, director of neighbourhood development, said there was an alarm raised about a breach in the web site, which was operated by Dialogue Partners.
“We don’t know where (the alarm) came from,” he said. “Something did happen at the site.”
He said there has been no further investigation as to the cause of the alarm.
The engagement process was the first time Hamilton staff specially targeted social media environment to reach out to the public. Even with this drawback, Murray urged councillors not to be shy when reaching out to people.
“We did get value (from the contract),” he said. “Never underestimate using social media. “It’s a harsh learning experience, but a good one.”
Most councillors regretted how the entire scenario played out. Some politicians were still questioning how a number of the incorrect photos made its way onto the web site and other social media sites.
“I feel bad for Dialogue Partners,” said Ancaster councillor Lloyd Ferguson. “The criticism was unreasonable.”
Mountain councillor Scott Duvall said even when he asked how some of the mistakes were made he didn’t feel the company representative provided an adequate answer.
“It goes to the credibility,” he said. “This is the best way to go.”
Added Stoney Creek councillor Brad Clark: “It’s an unfortunate ending. Let’s get going.”