By Kevin Werner, News Staff
The Ottawa-based public relations consulting firm hired by Hamilton to conduct community engagement meetings with residents, has apologized for the “mistakes” that were made online after the launch of a project to determine the future of the city’s services.
ButHamiltonresidents responding to the contrite explanation by Dialogue Partners made on Facebook Jan. 8 rejected the apology, and demanded the city dump the company and hire local people.
Many of the Twitter respondents didn’t buy the apology, and continued to criticize the company on Twitter for blaming Hamiltonians after they pointed out the company’s mistakes. Some people even posted a blog from Dialogue Partners that outlined how committed the company is to building trust within a community.
“It must be carefully and respectfully built …” stated the post made Dec. 13, 2012.
Ward 4 councillor Sam Merulla is examining if councillors can somehow cancel the $376,000 contract awarded to Dialogue Partners last April, saying its reputation with the community is gone.
“This is a colossal foul-up,” said Merulla. “Their credibility is shot. Even if they produced the most incredible report, their branding has been tarnished. This should justify termination.”
The company won the bid the city put out last year in a request for proposals process.
On the campaign’s Our Voice Our Hamilton Facebook page, Dialogue Partners offered up a public apology to theHamiltoncommunity after the “Twitter conversation has taken the direction it has. We understand some individuals have been offended and we sincerely apologize for that.”
The problems began late Jan. 7 when the community engagement project was launched. Dialogue Partners and city officials were encouraging an interactive dialogue with residents over social media, including Facebook and Twitter about city services. This engagement with citizens is scheduled to continue until March 2013.
But during a Twitter exchange, a question was asked to Dialogue Partners, which monitors the Twitter and Facebook pages, about the city’s public Hamilton Street Railways (HSR) system. The answer back from Dialogue Partners was “what is HSR?”
The problems mounted when local residents discovered photos for the campaign were taken from other municipalities, including Ottawa to illustrate biking. The opening photo on the campaign’s website has a photo of a group of cyclists taken inOttawa.
Accompanying its apology, Dialogue Partners said on Jan. 8 it was subjected to a hacker attempting to get into the website. The hacker, it said, “was able to inject a malicious code into the website.”
The company stated it wanted to “start fresh,” and assured the public the website has been cleaned, and all of the offending photos from the Pinterest page removed.
“We don’t like to make mistakes and the first 24 hours of this project wasn’t what we hoped,” Dialogue Partners stated.
The public relations company is based in the nation’s capital, and has offices in Toronto, Calgary, and Edmonton. It has conducted community-based engagement projects for the city of Calgary, Edmonton, the Canadian Blood Services, and Environment Canada.
At least one person inCalgarycalled the $800,000 contract the city paid Dialogue Partners to facilitate budget discussions for citizens a waste of money. In an opinion piece, Calgary Herald columnist Licia Corbella criticized the resources spent on producing the 73-page report “that says nothing” and producing “some inane tweets.”
Merulla, who along with councillors Chad Collins, Tom Jackson, and Bernie Morelli have criticized the city’s dependence on hiring outside consultants, said Hamilton officials should have looked to its own staff to conduct the public participation events before looking to an outside contractor.
“This is a noble objective, which I strongly support,” said Merulla. “What I don’t support is a company that is a stranger of competence …”
Paul Johnson, director of Neighbourhood Development Strategies, defended the company’s work, and said the social media uproar is only a small part of the overall community engagement process the city wants to have with its residents.
“We are not pleased that happened,” said Johnson. “(But) they are here to help facilitate the discussion.”
He said Dialogue Partners has also been contracted to train about 25 staff in community outreach techniques.
Public sessions have already been scheduled for Jan. 12 at Sackville Seniors Centre from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and at the YWCA onMacNab StreetJan. 17 from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. In addition, the campaign includes an online game Cityscape, an online survey, and tools the city will provide so people can host their own public information sessions. A report, including recommendations, will be provided to councillors next spring for their review.