Allow me to introduce to you the city of Hamilton, Ontario
, and its partner in PR apocalypse, Dialogue Partners
Hamilton started out as bucolic rolling farmland tucked in and around the Niagara Escarpment
, purchased after the War of 1812.
Today it’s a bustling metropolis of a half million residents, give or take a few, and sits on the west end of Lake Ontario, an area know as the Golden Horseshoe
But don’t let all those pretty names fool you—this is a heavily industrialized port city, populated by proud and feisty folk who don’t take kindly to smack talk about their little piece of Ontario.
They don’t call it “The Hammer” for nothing.
And the hammer’s coming down hard at the moment—aimed directly at the local government and the aforementioned Ottawa-based firm, Dialogue Partners.
Without boring you with the politics, the City of Hamilton decided to spend a fair chunk of taxpayer’s money—$376,000—on a campaign called, “Our Voice. Our Hamilton.” It hasn’t gone very well
, to say the least. But it is a valuable learning experience.
I’ve broken the whole thing down, and present you with five steps to a classic PR disaster.
Step No. 1: Flawed pre-planning
The goal was laudable: Engage Hamiltonians in a discussion about the future of municipal services, and other such stuff. You know, stuff like public transit, garbage removal, and snow plowing. Things that really
get a taxpayer’s dander up.
The problem started when the City of Hamilton hired a firm based in another city
to build and launch the campaign.
Step No. 2: Rookie mistakes
Word got out Dialogue Partners is based in Ottawa, which is about a four-hour drive, by car, from Hamilton. That alone doesn’t have to be a problem. Presumably they were the best group for the job, but they started to make mistakes—big ones.
They launched a Hamilton Pinterest page
and filled it with images that, as one poster said “….were downright insulting to this city…” Images allegedly from Hamilton, Ohio, and Hamilton, Wash.
Not to mention a photo of a lovely bike path—in Ottawa.
On Twitter, the firm made the rather unfortunate error of asking one citizen what an acronym she used stood for. The acronym was for the Hamilton public transit system.
The firm’s own website says, “We help organizations manage public outrage, improve public participation, and foster community engagement on sensitive issues.”
Cue Step No. 3.
Step No. 3: Inflame public outrage
To say Hamiltonians were outraged
is an understatement.
Angry Facebook comments flew, “Fix Hamilton by spending our money somewhere else, what is wrong with these people. SHAME on anyone who had a say in this!”
Twitter was on fire with comments. Here’s one exchange between a Hamilton resident—a journalist, no less—and the projects official Twitter feed @OurHamilton:
Snarky @replies were probably the worst thing the company could have done. It’s pretty clear, with a quick glance of the Twitter stream
, people were not in the mood for nudge nudge, wink wink.
Soon the hashtag “#tellOHeverything
” was trending in Canada. Used to poke a sharp stick at the Ottawa-based campaign, it “explained,” with hilarious results, Hamilton sites and landmarks, such as, “Cannon street is best known for firing cars very fast in a single direction.” And “@KingandJames and ‘Cootes’ Paradise is a local wetland, not a poorly-named old folks’ home.”
Then the local media came calling.
Step No. 4: Use other media to make light of said PR disaster
Hamilton’s no cow town. It’s roughly the size of Boston and has a highly engaged social community. In fact, many quality local digital marketers and advertising firms were unhappily scratching their heads, saying they hadn’t even known the original request for tender was on the table. Word was getting around.
By day two, the whole mess had hit the papers and other news sites, and the managing director of Dialogue Partners made what might have been the biggest mistake yet
. She played it down. Poo-poo’d those few outraged social media types. Instead of apologizing for the blunders, she set about spinning them (for shame).
One local councilor even joked that, hey, at least they created awareness, and lots of it, in only 24 hours.
I think that’s about when the #Vote2014 tweets started flying.
Step No. 5: Finally, make a half-hearted apology while shifting the blame
Boom went the dynamite. Hamiltonians were more enraged than ever. And on day three, Dialogue finally posted an apology—a really long apology—on their Facebook page (which has now been taken down).
Except it wasn’t really an apology. It was, in the words of one Facebook fan, a “we’re really sorry you caught us” apology.
Dialogue described its contract, and talked a bit about the firm. It told the community that someone attempted to hack the website (see apology letter link below), and implied that other people posted the incorrect Pinterest pictures.
The firm apologized for the way the conversation flowed on Twitter (which was odd, as it was the irate citizens themselves driving that conversation). And in the end, Dialogue did admit that the first 24 hours of the campaign weren’t what it had hoped it would be.
Ain’t that the truth.
There's been chatter the that city might break its contract with Dialogue, which will be a huge waste of taxpayers dollars. As of January 15th, Hamilton councilors gave city staff little more than a week to continue negotiations
with Dialogue Partners, which released an apology letter
to the citizens of Hamilton.
Editor's note: Dialogue Partners Managing Director Stephani Roy McCallum told PR Daily: “We could have handled it much better. We didn’t.” She pointed to the firm's lengthy blog post, which explains its position at length.
Lindsay Bell is the content director at Arment Dietrich, and works in Toronto. A former TV producer, she’s a strong advocate of three minutes or less of video content. She has a cool kid, a patient husband, and two annoying cats. This story first appeared on the blog Spin Sucks.