A Hamilton firm that bid on the job to get citizen input on city services is staying diplomatic in the face of what experts call a public relations "fiasco" on social media this week.

Liz Nield of Lura Consulting, a Hamilton and Toronto-based company that also bid on the Our Voice, Our Hamilton project, said Ottawa-based Dialogue Partners has done what it can to address a social media misstep this week.

"Beyond apologizing, which they did, I'm not sure what else they could do," she said. "It's hard to say because I've never seen this happen before."

The project is intended to get input from Hamiltonians on city services in light of a $2-billion back log of local infrastructure projects. The resulting feedback could be used in future budget deliberations, Paul Johnson, the city's director of neighbourhood development strategies, told CBC Hamilton when the project launched on Monday.

Dialogue Partners: 'What is HSR?'

But Twitter users fumed when Ottawa based firm Dialogue Partners, through the handle @ourhamilton, asked "what is HSR" to a user mentioning the Hamilton Street Railway, the local public transit system.

Further scrutiny revealed a Pinterest page with a photo of a Hamilton, Ohio courthouse, among other unrelated images. Questions were also raised about links to a payday loan site in the Our Voice, Our Hamilton website code. Residents are using the #tellOHeverything hashtag to discuss and vent.

Dialogue Partners, which has a $376,000 year-long contract that started last April, apologized on Facebook. In the apology, it said others had placed the photos on Pinterest, and the code was the result of a hacking incident.

"We understand some individuals have been offended and we sincerely apologize for that," it said. "Your voice is important — as is the voice of all Hamiltonians — and we want to hear your views about city services."

Coun. Sam Merulla issued a statement late Tuesday night saying he believes in the project, but "we apparently retained an agency that is a stranger of competence and we will be reviewing this issue in due time.

"I would be disillusioned to not pursue this progressive endeavour of engagement of community and implementing input in our service delivery in the future," Merulla wrote, "but I agree we need to assess the continuation of the present course expeditiously."

Merulla also said that protectionism — only hiring Hamilton companies — would put Hamilton businesses at a disadvantage if other cities followed suit. The local business community would not support such a policy, he said in his statement.

Five companies bid

Lura Consulting was one of five bidders on the project. The others were Mass LBP Inc., NCC Workplace Solutions Inc. and Deloitte Inc. Dialogue Partners was the only company to pass the benchmark score, which is the minimum technical score required to be awarded the contract, city public affairs co-ordinator Kelly Anderson said in an email Tuesday.

The city released the names but not the amount each company bid. Nield was mum on that too.

But a company being local is not necessarily required to do a good job, she said. Her firm is currently doing a public input process for the City of London's official plan.

Alex Sevigny, a McMaster University communications expert, said the best thing Dialogue Partners can do now is listen to criticism and move on.

Not a crisis, but a fiasco

"I wouldn't use the word crisis. I'd call it a fiasco," he said.

"They just have to reboot and use engaging, trusted voices."

The incident points to the city's need to focus more attention on social media, he said. It needs recognizable and passionate staff members who regularly engage people online, and Our Voice, Our Hamilton should have rolled out through them. The consulting firm should have been in the background working on the technical aspects.

"Before you can role out a social media campaign, you have to have already established trusted spokespeople," he said. "Then you introduce any such campaigns through those people."

Chris Farias, creative director of kitestring creative branding studio in Hamilton, likes the idea behind Our Voice, Our Hamilton. Its organizers just have to "go back and listen to what people are saying." Hamilton has an unusually passionate and informed social media world, he said.

"Hamilton is an amazing example of an engaged online community," he said. "I've never seen anything like it."

Full statement from Coun. Sam Merulla:

"The purpose of the Our Voice, Our Hamilton project is to engage residents in a multifaceted manner in order to better serve the residents of the City of Hamilton.

The objective was to use public meetings, social media, surveys etc to engage resident and have them  provide input to mould the output of governance and by extension the services the City of Hamilton provides.

The integrity of the City of Hamilton's procurement process is sound and we are consistent in the process to ensure best practices and value for the taxpayer.  Although we strive to retain local bidders we cannot, and the local business community does not support, protectionism in our procurement process. This is the case, due to the catastrophic impact protectionist procurement policies would impose on the Hamilton business community, if other municipalities in the GTA and the Golden Horseshoe would legislate accordingly.

In conclusion, the purpose is merited, the integrity of the process is sound and the objective is progressive. The problem is that we apparently retained an agency that is a stranger of competence and we will be reviewing this issue in due time. I would be disillusioned to not pursue this progressive endeavour of engagement of community and implementing input in our service delivery in the future but I agree we need to assess the continuation of the present course expeditiously."