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PR company under city microscope

 By Kevin Werner, News Staff

 Dialogue Partners would like to continue working with the city of Hamiltonto talk to residents about their views on city services.

But councillors wondered whether residents would want to talk to the public relations firm after a week-long series of controversies that scuttled the launch of the Our Voice Our Hamilton citizen engagement project.

“I acknowledge and apologize for our mistakes and missteps,” said Stephani Roy McCallum, managing director for the Ottawa-based Dialogue Partners. “We should not have asked ‘What is HSR? We are humbled by the voices we have received in the last seven days.”

The citizen engagement project, a 15-month-long attempt to talk to residents using social media, about how city services should fulfill their needs, had its public kickoff Jan. 7. But the project was quickly overshadowed by a series of fumbles.

The campaign offered up a Facebook page, a website, and a Twitter feed to encourage interactive conversations with residents about their use of city services.

“We heard from residents that this is a passion and interest,” said McCallum.

 Late Jan. 7 during a conversation on Twitter, one of Dialogue Partner’s nine-full-time employees tweeted “What is HSR?” to a question that was posted. McCallum said the employee actually did know what HSR stood for, but “she was attempting to facilitate the conversation.

“Twitter and Facebook,” she told politicians “are not tools for a conversation on meaningful issues.”

Dialogue Partners won the city’s bid to oversee the engagement project, plus train about 25 city staff on public interaction for about $376,000. The company began its work last April, with the expectation the project would begin September 2012 to talk about infrastructure problems. But city officials delayed the launch to January, 2013, to include all city services.

The resulting “What is HSR?” comment, though, consumed the rest of the postings that evening, leading to criticism that Dialogue Partners didn’t know anything about Hamilton. That view was reinforced a day later when photos of other Hamilton municipalities, such as in Hamilton, Ohio, were posted on Pinterest.

Further complicating the issue was negative stories from the local media about the mistakes, and a virus that was inserted within the Our Voice Our Hamilton website, said McCallum. She suggested that some social media users were trying to sabotage the company’s engagement process.

She said a small group of people “bullied” other Twitter users who offered support for the company.

“Some of the loud voices drowned out the other views,” she said.

The situation continued to go downhill when on Jan. 9, Dialogue Partners agreed to a suggestion from City Manager Chris Murray to take down the website for “offensive and inaccurate comments” and to not respond to media requests. It was a decision, said McCallum that she didn’t agree.

McCallum, who has also facilitated citizen engagement processes inCalgary, and Edmonton, over such issues as nuclear waste, health care and colonialism, told councillors the best approach was to “step into the conversation 150 per cent” rather than keep silent.

“We offered that to the city,” said McCallum, adding she did “respected” the city’s decision not to respond to media inquiries.”

Murraysaid he made the decision to take down the website, cancel the Jan. 13 public meeting on the project on the Mountain, and requested the company remain silent.

“I had some serious concerns of the website,” he said. “I didn’t want to allow the issue to perpetuate.”

 Dialogue Partners’ silence was broken Jan. 10 when McCallum issued a lengthy apology and explanation on what occurred. McCallum continued her apology when she appeared before councillors Jan. 14.

McCallum endured a long and intense question period from politicians, who repeatedly asked who posted the wrong photos on the website, and Pinterest board.

“I do not know,” said McCallum.

Ward 4 councillor Sam Merulla, who during the controversy said the company has lost its creditably with residents, continued to push for the city to break the contract with Dialogue Partners.
“Trust has played a critical role,” he said. “People no longer want to engage (with the company) in the process.”

In answer to a question from Mountain councillor Tom Jackson, McCallum said she would be willing to look at a new contract with the city.

“I’m always open to a conversation,” she said.

Still, after a long in-camera meeting, councillors will wait until the Jan. 23 council meeting before deciding if they should end Dialogue Partner’s contract. City staff is expected to provide a recommendation to politicians for review.

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