Dialogue Partners exec says sorry, faces tough questions at Hamilton City Hall

Stephani Roy McCallum, managing director of Dialogue Partners Inc., visited council chambers Monday to answer questions — and offer a mea culpa — about the rollout of the Our Voice, Our Hamilton campaign

An executive with the Ottawa firm at the centre of the controversy surrounding a city-funded public consultation project was in council chambers on Monday to answer questions — and offer a mea culpa — about the rollout of the campaign.

"I would very much like to apologize for our mistakes and missteps along the way," said Stephani Roy McCallum, managing director of Dialogue Partners Inc., the company hired last spring to take on the city's Our Voice, Our Hamilton project. 

Stephani Roy McCallum, managing director of Dialogue Partners Inc., addresses the City of Hamilton's General Issues Committee on Jan. 14, 2013. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

"Whatever you do decide," she told council's general issues committee, "we are humbled by the voices we've heard in the last seven days."

Dialogue Partners garnered sharp criticism starting Jan. 7, when the firm launched a website and social media components of the Our Voice, Our Hamilton campaign.

The city is paying the company $376,000 for the effort, which is designed to engage Hamilton residents and get their feedback about the future of the municipal public services.

Posting to the @ourhamilton Twitter page, an employee of the firm tweeted "what is HSR?" in response to a question about the Hamilton Street Railway, the city's transit system. Dialogue Partners' post inspired outrage among some Twitter users in Hamilton, who accused the firm of being out of touch with the city's residents.

The furor escalated after it was revealed the Pinterest board the company had created for the campaign featured a photo from Hamilton, Ohio, not Hamilton, Ont. And further investigation revealed malicious code had been placed on the new website, which the company said was the work of a hacker.

In response to the cyber attack along with the growing outrage surrounding the project, Dialogue Partners pulled down the website on Wednesday after it attracted what the city said was "offensive and inaccurate content."

The firm then went into a period of media silence until Sunday, when it again apologized for the events of the preceding days.

'We're actually at the point of trust being an issue': Merulla 

During her deputation, Roy McCallum told councillors her group is still investigating who posted the photo to Pinterest, a social media site that allows people to post pictures and discuss them with other users.

She also reiterated a point that she'd told CBC Hamilton on Tuesday  — that the Dialogue Partners employee who made the HSR tweet on Twitter did so knowing what the acronym meant, but asked the question for the sake of clarity.

Sometimes bracing the podium, Roy McCallum faced several long, prosecutorial questions about the competency of her company and about whether Dialogue Partners, as an out-of-town firm, should have been awarded the contract.

However, the communications exec, who stood in front of council for about an hour and a half, defended her company. The outrage against Dialogue Partners, she asserted, was driven by "some very loud voices that have been covered by the media," and whose points of view didn't necessarily reflect those of average Hamiltonians.

Some councillors, including Ward 4's Sam Merulla, alluded to the possibility of the city terminating, or at least modifying, its contract with Dialogue Partners.

"We're actually at the point of trust being an issue," he said.

The suggestion was echoed near the end the interrogation, when Ward 8 councillor Terry Whitehead asked Roy McCallum whether the social media controversy has done "irreparable harm" to the Our Voice, Our Hamilton campaign.

No, Roy McCallum responded, before including a caveat.

"I believe we would need to earn back … the trust of Hamiltonians." That might be hard to do. Hamiltonians on Twitter have been very critical of Dialogue Partners since their response to the question about the HSR. Some of the criticism has expressed frustration. Some has taken a creative form. Here's a collection of images from Hamiltonian Wayne McPhail that made the rounds among those who have been publicly critical of Dialogue Partners over social media.

With files from Adam Carter