It all started with a tweet, so it makes sense that in the wake of the cancelled contract with Dialogue Partners, the city is ready to talk about creating a social media strategy.
The Ottawa firm was hired to help the city run a public consultation project — called Our Voice, Our Hamilton — but drew fire earlier this month, largely from the Hamilton social media community.
'As we go forward, in terms of learning from our lessons, we do want to sit down with people from this community who are intimately familiar with social media and get their advice.'—Chris Murray, Hamilton city manager
Dialogue Partners asked for clarification on the meaning of HSR (the acronym for Hamilton Street Railway) through the @ourhamilton Twitter account. It also had photos of other communities named Hamilton on the project's Pinterest page and malicious code on its website.
Earlier this week, the city announced it and Dialogue Partners had ended their contract and made the mutual decision to part ways. But the question remains: would a better understanding of social media have helped council better understand —perhaps even avoid — the backlash that lead to the contract ending?
City manager Chris Murray was firm in his belief that ignorance of the ways of social media is not an endemic problem for city staff, but he was open to getting help from the local social media community to improve Hamilton's social media operations.
"As we go forward, in terms of learning from our lessons, we do want to sit down with people from this community who are intimately familiar with social media and get their advice," he said.
Local marketing firm Kitestring has kept a distance from the ongoing debate, despite its active online presence. Now that the city has expressed a desire to reach out for help, the company's ears have pricked, according to Meg Coppolino, a brand strategist with the firm.
"We're more than open to working with the city, but there are lots of factors to consider like where do they want to go from here?" Coppolino said, adding it's time for the city to step up to the social media plate.
"They have to be on the forefront and engage with their citizens. It [social media] is only going to become more and more prominent; they're going to have to deal with it eventually and I think that's where the city is at now."
Creating a social media plan is an idea that was first tossed out after the initial backlash from the Dialogue Partners tweet. Stoney Creek councillor Brad Clark — who does not use Twitter — called for an improved, comprehensive social media strategy for city staff and councillors in order avoid similar situations in the future. He told CBC the lack of control and immediacy of social media platforms concerns him.
"On social media sites, I don't see a buffer,” he said. “It's great for saying 'Oh, I went to the concert tonight,' but that's about it.”
The city manager hasn't announced any solid plans yet; Murray said they need to take the time to define how they want to proceed with the Our Voice, Our Hamilton project before deciding the best course of action.
But McMaster University communications specialist Alex Sévigny said there's really only one option at this point.
"They need to start speaking to that virtual constituency and welcoming more people into that virtual ward," he said.
"I like to think of it as recognizing and serving a new constituency. It's an expanded city."McMaster communication prof Alex Sévigny says city officials should do more to engage citizens online. (Supplied)
But he warned it's not as simple as signing up for a Twitter account — only nine of the city's 15 councillors currently have one —and snapping shots of your morning meals. In order to engage in a meaningful way, they city needs to reach out to experts and gain a better understanding of the platforms themselves, Sévigny said
"I don't blame councillors for being skeptical and cautious. They're civic servants and they have to make sure they're representing the public interest," he said.
He added that social media and mobile communication, "aren't another commodity or industry or sector. They're actually a place where people are living virtually and forming a community."
If they can find a way to recognize and engage with that community, Sévigny said it could be an opportunity for the city to lead and become innovators in social media in the public interest.
Whether the city is up for the challenge is yet to be seen.