Lindsay Bell

Five Simple Steps to a Classic PR Disaster

By: Lindsay Bell | January 16, 2013 | 
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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.

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