Lindsay Bell

Five Simple Steps to a Classic PR Disaster

By: Lindsay Bell | January 16, 2013 | 

Today’s guest post is by Lindsay Bell

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 just more than 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, and is populated by proud and feisty folk who don’t take kindly to smack talk about their little piece of Ontario.

Trust me.

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 #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 #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, yes? But then 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, OH and Hamilton, WA. **Not to mention a photo of a lovely bike path. A bike path in Ottawa. And on Twitter, they made the rather unfortunate error of asking one citizen what an acronym he used stood for. The acronym was for the Hamilton public transit system.

Their own website says this, “We help organizations manage public outrage, improve public participation, and foster community engagement on sensitive issues.”

Cue Step #3.

Step #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!” And Twitter was on fire:









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 #4 – Use Other Media to Make Light of Said PR Disaster

Hamilton’s no cowtown. 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’ed those few outraged social media types. And instead of apologizing for the blunders that were made, she set about spinning them (for shame!).

One local councillor 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 #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, it was a, “We’re really sorry you caught us.”

They described their contract, and talked a bit about their firm. They told the community that someone attempted to hack their website (see apology letter link below), and implied that the incorrect Pinterest pictures were posted by other people.

They apologized for the way the conversation flowed on Twitter (which was odd, as it was the irate citizens themselves driving that conversation). And to end, they did admit that the first 24 hours of their campaign wasn’t what they had hoped it would be.

Ain’t that the truth.

So there you have it. Five easy steps to a pretty good PR disaster. There’s now chatter the City *might break their contract with Dialogue, which will be a huge waste of taxpayers dollars. And something that probably doesn’t need to happen, if only they had arrived in Hammertown better prepared – and had dealt with the ensuing outrage when they didn’t – with a little more grace and aplomb.

Now do me a favor, ok? Keep writing those PR/Marketing/Social Media 101 posts. Because there are a lot of people out there who still need them.

*NOTE: As of January 15th, Hamilton councillors gave city staff just over a week to continue negotiations with Dialogue Partners, who have released an apology letter to the citizens of Hamilton. Barn door/horse comes to mind.

**UPDATE: It’s been brought to my attention that the media reports around the picture of the bike path were incorrect. The image is in fact a bike path that is located in Hamilton.

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. 

About Lindsay Bell

Lindsay Bell is the content director at V3 Marketing, 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, two annoying cats, and Hank Dawge, a Vizsla/Foxhound/moose hybrid. Ok, maybe not moose.

  • coffeewithjulie

    Oh, how did I miss this one? Oh well, I enjoyed your summary much more than living through it live I think!

    • belllindsay

      @coffeewithjulie Ha! Thanks Julie. Many lessons to be learned with this cock-up!

  • Wow. Sounds like something out of a script from Parks & Recreation….

    • belllindsay

      @KenMueller What’s the classic line Ken? You can’t make this stuff up! But replace “stuff” with a swear. 😉

  • Please tell me they were fired and refunded Hamilton the money.  That’s just like all PR disasters – lacking any common sense. WOW.

    • belllindsay

      @AmyMccTobin Nope, I added an update to the bottom of the post Amy, they have been given another week’s reprieve, so that more conversations around the matter can happen. Which again is just crazy. Either the City of Hamilton should stand up and back them, or stand up and fire them.

      • @belllindsay Wow again. No question, fire them.

  • WOW! What a debacle. People not taking ownership for their actions may be the single most irritating trait anyone can show in my eyes. And I know you know how I feel about tossing snaky tweets out…never, never, NEVER the right move.  If you have to add “just joking” or “ell oh ell” or “winky face” to be sure that everyone will get your “joke”, don’t do it!

    • belllindsay

      @RebeccaTodd Exactly!! Then to back pedal, and (allegedly) put the blame for some of the errors on the general public…??? Wow. Next, they’ll be saying that Anonymous hacked them. 🙂

      • @belllindsay When a business “blames” the customers, I do not trust that they will not blame me in the future. Is it bad that I want to tell her to grow a pair?

        • belllindsay

          @RebeccaTodd I imagine that she is getting ‘direction from above’….but I agree.

  • I feel badly for the people of Hamilton. I’m glad they stood up and unleashed a social media storm on the poorly planned campaign. That is the beauty of this day and age, the lowly masses have a voice…a really loud tweety voice!
    Go Hamilton Go!!! You are my new favorite city in Canada.

    • belllindsay

      @ExtremelyAvg “a really loud tweety voice” HA! Love it!! As I mentioned, Hamilton has a *very* active and vocal social media community. It truly was embarrassing.

      • @belllindsay  @ExtremelyAvg I am SO stealing “really loud tweety voice”!

        • @allenmireles  @belllindsay Nothing would make me happier than to have someone take joy in using one of my phrases.

  • Hammer down in Hammertown; classic.
    Even better, they could have used a US firm, huh?
    And I thought the Canucks were easy going; start messing w/ their tax dollars and it’s like poking a hornets nest, si?

    • belllindsay

      @bdorman264 You don’t mess with the Hammer. But seriously, what a mess. And what was the company thinking being so (apparently) unprepared!? Many, many lessons learned with this one.

  • Wow, they must have read the book Instagram published about PR… but instead of backing down, they just threw some fuel on the fire.  What.A.Mess.
    In other enws, I’m also excited that you used the term escarpment, I’m a closet geological slappy so that got me pretty pumped up.  I’m going to go read about glaciers some more 🙂

    • belllindsay

      @TonyBennett Mess might be an understatement. I’ve already heard from a couple of hamilton peeps who are beyond PO’ed. Good for them.
      I’m a total science geek. I watch docs about how the earth was formed and other such geekery. I love the Niagara Escarpment. 😉

      • @belllindsay  @TonyBennett I didn’t know that word. I looked it up and feel all warm and fuzzy about the new word added to my vocabulary.

        • belllindsay

          @ExtremelyAvg  @TonyBennett YAY! I love words so much.

  • Oh my goodness, @belllindsay  How ever did I miss this? Oh, right. I know. I had my head down and was working, yeah, that’s it! I love the way you break this down and make it simple for anyone to relate to. Anyone. Funny how common sense so often plays no part in this stuff!

    • belllindsay

      @allenmireles I know!! You don’t have to be some kind of PR guru to figure out these steps. It’s how one functions in life! Or, you would hope. 😉

  • You know what makes me ANGRY?  That I know so many excellent marketing and pr specialists who struggle to get clients and would LOVE a job like this!!!!!  HOW on earth do these folks land this gig? It CAN’T be on their track record.

    • @AmyMccTobin I suspect there may be an opening to take over the campaign. You should let your friends know about it. That would be awesome if one of them got the gig.

      • belllindsay

        @ExtremelyAvg  @AmyMccTobin Sheeesh. Can we at least keep it in Canada! 😉

  • jasondyk

    This is a great breakdown Lindsay! It’s amazing what could happen if people actually preplanned stuff and took a second to think….”What could possibly go wrong?” I think if they stopped to think about it for a second they likely wouldn’t have gone about it the way they did…or hopefully at least did a little more research 🙂

    • belllindsay

      @jasondyk Yeah, one would think that thinking would be Step 1 in anyone’s plan. LOL!! And thanks so much for tipping me off to this story last week Jason!!

      • jasondyk

        @belllindsay my pleasure! I’ll put it on your tab 🙂

        • belllindsay

          @jasondyk LOL!!

  • Excellent write-up of this sorry situation. Thanks for sharing.

    • belllindsay

      @DonnaPapacosta Thanks Donna. Quite a fiasco, no? Will be interesting to follow and see how it all plays out! 🙂

  • Oh my — definitely a mess. And a wonderful analysis of it here! I appreciate how you bring it all back around with a call to action to keep conversations going about the basics of PR/Marketing/Social Media.  This story indeed serves as a reminder that the ability to point, click and type does not necessarily make a competent practitioner; talent and skill are still required. And it’s very clear when they are missing!

    • belllindsay

      @dwaynealicie Thanks so much Dwayne. I think it behooves those who are at the top (of any field) to continue to share tips and tidbits about how they got there – no matter how basic! There are always new people entering a field, and hey, everyone’s got to learn! But you don’t want to learn from mistakes as egregious as this one was!!  Cheers, LB

  • AlistairJamesMorton

    I think their biggest fault was launching simply as a twitter account.
    Be in the city, be in front of the local cameras, be in the press, tell people what to look for, give them a human face or faces to the campaign. Actually spend a few bucks on a website and brand, test it for user feedback and soft launch it to test out your code so no nasty payday loan hacks get in for launch.
    If you feel you are losing the community, DO NOT STOP TALKING. They turned off the lights about 16 hours after launch to complete radio silence. We didn’t hear anything “engaging” other than oddly worded blog posts ( with commenting turned off ) and a one sided letter to the city and local news.
    This was a completely saveable dropped ball, I annoy half my twitter followers every week, they stick with me because I continue to engage with them.
    Love from Hamilton.

    • belllindsay

      @AlistairJamesMorton Hi Alistair, thanks for dropping by. “I annoy half my twitter followers every week, they stick with me because I continue to engage with them.” – That made me laugh out loud. 🙂 And you’re so right. They dropped a very salvageable ball, kicked it into touch, then set about making rookie mistake after rookie mistake. It really was a textbook example of what not to do. And ‘standing O’ to Hamiltonians for taking them to task on it. Cheers, LB

  • HamOntReporter

    You are wrong Ms.Lindsay… your SPIN sucks!! What happened here is more than an overreach of a small town echo chamber. Here is how this ‘trivialization’ got started by an individual with his explicit public call to “swarm” Dialogue Partners via twitter. There was no thought to the legal consequences of inciting such directed public action. Without allowing Dialogue Partners time to offer an explanation, the inciter acted as the arbiter of DP’s website design, and went on to act as the “Judge, Jury and the Executioner” of whom he considered had grossly wronged the entire city of Hamilton. And the mob, maybe 50 or even less, took the bait and started their one-liner public swarming with sarcastic comments, jabs, juvenile comebacks and re-tweets. Does such a juvenile call to swarm in the most brazen manner, represent the beliefs and aspirations of the rest of 500,000+ Hamiltonians? Even the local press along with the three councillors dived right into it, …read more at: Can a few people define a city’s culture or its future? and

    • @HamOntReporter I am the owner of this blog and one of our policies state we have fair and professional discourse. Your first sentence leads me to believe that is not your intent and, because you are posting without a name and under the auspice of “Hamilton Reporter,” my inclination is to remove your comments. I am leaving this one because it was the most tame of the three, but the other two have been deleted for defamation of character and unfair – and anonymous – mudslinging toward one of our guest authors.

      • @ginidietrich  @HamOntReporter I read your responses in my email delivery of Spin Sucks HamOntReporter and my only answer is: I hope you don’t actually work for Dialogue Partners, but I suspect you do.  The first answer to a PR debacle is to NOT go on the attack.  A sincere apology where appropriate, and an honest and open conversation about what happened is the answer.  You are a) Anonymous, and b) ranting at fever pitch.  A PR professional could really help you know.

  • HamOntReporter

    ginidietrich, AmyMccTobin: My apologies if you feel my comments are a rant. I was just mirroring the title and tone of this blog in my first line. I do not work for DP, nor am I in the PR industry. A simple Google search would have told you who I am — (interestingly those who joined in the lynching also told that DP should have just googled HSR!! and then concluded that DP did not have a clue of what they were doing!! :)…  Don’t you think you have been unfair and defamed character with your story – when it is clear that you have not researched the piece you wrote, but just picked up what you found on the Internet and regurgitated it into 5 points? This is honest question. You’ll appear to be in the PR industry, and are very passionate about deconstructing incidents such as these. If any learning has to occur from this, it is important to sift thru spin and fact. I have presented what are facts. It is up to you to recognize it and verify it for yourselves, or discount it and continue with the expanded lynching. In presenting facts, names have to be named unfortunately. A crime was committed. It was not a “new-media community conversation” that went awry, it was a premeditated act, which cascaded into a national embarassment for all who participated in it, and continue to do so.  — Mahesh P. Butani.

    • belllindsay

      @HamOntReporter Based on your tone, as well as the previous comments you made on this site (which as Gini mentions below, were taken down due to their rather inflammatory content), in the end I was hoping that at best you and I could “agree to disagree” on this whole affair. However, with this last comment I must respond. I will not allow anyone to call into question my character or – more importantly – my journalistic integrity. I have spent the last 20+ years as a researcher, writer, producer and story teller, in various media. I’m quite adept at using Google, and social media, and found you in approximately :45 seconds. As for research, I wrote this story weeks ago, in fact within a day or so of the events in question. I was physically on the Facebook page and read all the comments and their apology – before Dialogue Partners pulled the page down. I also researched the Twitter side of the story, on the various streams and using the various hashtags. *Then* I researched various local news organizations – including the CBC – and their detailed meetings, interviews and reporting.
      You might also have noticed that their are a few updates in my story. This is fairly standard journalistic practice – every so often there are corrections and/or updates to stories – in this case the bike path was wrongly reported by many, many outlets as being in Ottawa.
      I might add, of the hundreds of people who read my story – including many, many Hamiltonians – that was the only correction I received. 
      I am happy to have civilized conversation and healthy debate with anyone – wouldn’t it be a boring world to live in if we all felt the same way about every issue? But I will not tolerate rudeness, highly inappropriate and inflammatory comparisons, nor attacks on my credibility.

      • HamOntReporter

        @belllindsay  Civilized conversations can only happen when one stops being so defensive and moralistic when one is called out for being slanderous and ill-informed. This is where your moral and ethical journalist compass went awry: “The problem started when The City of Hamilton hired a firm based in another city to build and launch the campaign.”  What you are telling your readers is that the “culprit” was the consultant company — even before you have presented a prosecution worthy case. There was no problem well into 60% of the contracted work, up until part of the community engagement piece to be done over social media was initiated. Did you care to find out anything about the work done up this stage,  the relationship between the city and the consultant upto this stage — before you went ahead and slandered the company in Step 1, itself? Your journalistic compass simply broke down, when you deleted my comments by claiming it to be: “rather inflammatory content”. What the normal world considers inflammatory is “public swarming”, and false claims by media experts. Calling out those who spin loose stories in the name journalism or PR insights… stories that destroy reputations of others with no shred of evidence that could be held up in court, is not an attack on your credibility. You simply fell on the your own credibility and trampled all over it when I merely presented the facts. That it hurts you now so much is immaterial. Think about how much hurt your ill-researched article may have caused those you slandered to begin with. By deleting my comment on the “11 MYTH of a poor campaign” – you managed to get rid of the Updates which you ought to have made promptly, when it was brought to your attention. :::::::  For the readers here, again the comment deleted here by the author, can be found under Update, in its entirety at:  Why is it so hard to accept that you made a big mistake, and give an apology that is convincing? I am so, so sorry that “I caught you”.  I hope this is civilized enough a conversation for you. — Mahesh P. Butani

        • HamOntReporter

          @belllindsay  Here is a RE TWEET by the very same man – from two days ago — an elected councillor of the City of Hamilton – who has been one of the central Tweeters to spread the flames of hatred against the consultants – someone to whom research and facts are immaterial to the “game” :
          20 Jan …. Even PR Daily has heard of #HamOnt’s PR campaign gone so, SO wrong! #OurHamilton … [[ “Retweeted by Sam Merulla” ]] What you call a “PR apocalypse” was nothing more than a well orchestrated  public lynching. I hope someday, you do get around to researching this in depth and correcting your story — for it would be a great shame, if any Canadian PR professors or PR agencies were to end up using your article verbatim, as a case study.

        • @HamOntReporter  @belllindsay As a non involved observer here is my question:  Is this blog post not accurate in its dissection of how Dialogue Partners responded to the uproar, orchestrated or not????   <— that is the entire point of dissecting what happened.  As PR and Marketing professionals we learn from these occurrences.  If indeed Dialogue Partners responded with snark, took down their exploding FB page etc., they should be fired for their reaction to the firestorm.  After all, aren’t they PR Professionals themselves??Crises occur regularly; companies/cities/organizations hire outside consultants to guide them through them, not inflame them.

  • HamOntReporter
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