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Our Hamilton public engagement campaign turns PR disaster

19 January 2013 No Comment

“We specialize in civic engagement situations of high emotion, conflict or controversy.” This claim made Dialogue Partners website was shown to be 100% true last week. The Ottawa-based public engagement consulting firm behind the disastrous ‘Our Voice, Our Hamilton’ campaign certainly learned a lot about high emotion, conflict and controversy within a few hours of its launch.

The goal of the campaign was to gauge the public opinion about Hamilton’s public services and spending priorities but the campaign website and associated social media content was full of basic factual errors that showed the firm running it had little real knowledge of Hamilton, Canada’s ninth-largest city.

Photo: tourismhamilton.com

On Monday, Day One of the $376,000 campaign, Dialogue Partners tweeted, “What is ‘HSR’?” in response to a Twitter comment, which, given that this refers to Hamilton’s transit system, displayed a lack knowledge of a basic fact of the city’s everyday life. In addition, the campaign’s Pinterest page boasted a picture of a courthouse in Hamilton, Ohio and one of a T-shirt slogan: ‘Hamilton pop. 354’, which actually refers to Hamilton, Washington.

High emotion
One angry Hamilton resident even launched an online petition to get Dialogue Partners to pay its fees back to the city. On change.org Dawn Mcilmoyle wrote: “Dialog (sic) Partners has acted with gross incompetence in initiating it’s (sic) contact with the people of the city of Hamilton through social media via Facebook, Twitter and the blog it has put forward as the main website for contact. In less than 24 hours the company has insulted us by talking down to respondents on Twitter, displaying a complete ignorance of the city it claims to be attempting to start a dialogue with, automating the majority of it’s (sic) Facebook presence, using a low-cost blogging platform with a $50 template, which is using a number of photographs of other cities named ‘Hamilton’ or of Ottawa, the city Dialogue Partners is based in. and (sic) then blamed the use of those photos on ‘hackers’ that seem to have attacked the site almost immediately it went live…”

By Wednesday the City of Hamilton released a statement saying it had ordered Dialogue Partners to temporarily take down the website it had set up “due to some offensive and inaccurate content.” It was also revealed that Dialogue Partners was the only company that had tendered for the project.  Some city councillors were calling for Dialogue Partners to be fired and voiced their opinions on Twitter:






The campaign quickly drew the attention of Hamilton residents who voiced their ire in social media with hundreds of Twitter mentions, and coverage on blogs as well as in the mainstream media.

According to the National Post, Dialogue Partners posted an apology on its Facebook page Tuesday afternoon, but as of the time of writing on Sunday morning there is no apology evident on the page.

Lessons learned

It’s difficult to understand how a project like this could have gone so wrong from the start. Normally, the content and strategy development for a public engagement campaign is a complex process and such campaigns are the result of very close collaboration between a client and its agency. This usually includes many opportunities for the client to see and approve all content before it goes live. Indeed, often content and messaging is focus-group tested as part of the strategy development, something that might have saved the Our Hamilton campaign from such embarrassing mistakes.

UPDATE: Here’s what Dialogue Partners has to say about the campaign.

This article was originally posted on the Thornley Fallis Communications blog.

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