Does Your Outrage Feel Managed Yet?

A real apology explicitly acknowledges the nature and severity of the error, expresses real regret for causing harm, asks for forgiveness, and offers to make amends. The Dialogue Partners statement fails on all counts.

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 09, 2013

After the PR fiasco that accompanied the launch of "Our Voice, Our Hamilton", the public engagement consulting firm running the project issued a statement on their Facebook page that looked superficially like an apology.

Now, I've been married for 17 years, and in that time I've learned a few things about how to apologize for screwing up, all of which add up to: own the screwup. If your response does not own the screwup, it amounts to a non-apology apology.

A real apology explicitly acknowledges the nature and severity of the error, expresses real regret for causing harm, asks for forgiveness, and offers to make amends. The Dialogue Partners statement fails on all counts, instead resorting to a number of common dodges used to avoid issuing a real apology.

Sorry You Were Offended

A real apology takes ownership of the offense. Saying I'm sorry you were offended is not an apology. It pushes responsibility out to the people who were offended instead of taking responsibility for having caused the offence.

When Dialogue Partners wrote, "We understand some individuals have been offended and we sincerely apologize for that," this is what they were doing. Instead, they should have written, "We understand we screwed up and we sincerely apologize for that."

Mistakes Were Made

A real apology takes personal responsibility for having caused the error. The Dialogue Partners letter implies, without coming right out and saying it, that the photographs from Hamilton Ohio and Hamilton Washington could have been done by someone else. "One of the trade-offs with using Pinterest is that it is open for anyone to post anything."

Of course, the pictures were posted by an account connected to Dialogue Partners, so it is disingenuous and frankly insulting to imply, however obliquely, that someone else might have posted them.

Instead, they should have come out and admitted it: "We obviously have a lot to learn about Hamilton, Ontario, as opposed to other cities also called Hamilton, and we apologize for not being ready when the campaign launched."

Change the Channel

Less than half-way through their letter, Dialogue Partners wrote that they "hope you will also start sharing comments on City services that can be improved, changed, enhanced or that make a difference to you."

This suggests that the furor over how the initiative rolled out is a distraction from the real objective, and that focusing on it keeps us from carrying out the mandate of a service review. The real distraction is not the furor over the rollout but the rollout itself.

Instead, Dialogue Partners should have written, "Our goal is to help you share your comments on on City services that can be improved, changed, enhanced or that make a difference to you. We're sorry that the way we launched the project is getting in the way of that important goal."

Other Comments

Other comments in the media by representatives of Dialogue Partners are even worse. Earlier yesterday afternoon, Ian K. McCallum of Dialogue Partners posted several defensive comments in his Twitter stream (all quotations quoted as written).

According to an article on CBC Hamilton, DP managing director Stephani Roy McCallum "played down the Twitter reaction to the project, adding that the social media comments don't represent the views of many Hamiltonians."

McCallum is also quoted in an article in the Spectator diminishing the significance of the Twitter backlash.

"We're pleased that the Twitter community in Hamilton is passionate and engaged and clearly responsive, but we know there are other people in the community that we need to engage with," she said. "To the couple hundred people on Twitter, we've got a better sense of how we engage."

She also tried to deny that the company didn't know what "HSR" stands for.

"In the course of asking questions on Twitter and promoting the conversation online, we asked for clarification - not because we didn't know what transit was, because we don't want to make assumptions with what people were telling us," she said. "On Twitter, people shorten all sorts of things, so we did just want to clarify."

Please note that the original comment was explicitly in the context of valued City services.

What's the Big Deal?

All of this might seem like mere nitpicking, except that this company is being paid $376,000 of Hamiltonians' money to lead a program of citizen engagement on a vitally important discussion about what services Hamiltonians value.

More important, the company's contract includes training 25 City staffers on how to undertake public engagement as part of the "legacy items" that will continue after the contract is over.

It's not too much for us to expect that the company that does this should be good at communicating.

The Dialogue Partners web page advertising their "Civic Engagement Services includes the claim, "We can show you how to better manage emotion and public outrage to make your community engagement and stakeholder engagement programs more meaningful."

I don't know about anyone else, but so far I don't feel that my outrage is being managed that well. For the $376,000 cost of this project, Hamiltonians deserve better.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By JoeyColeman (registered) - website | Posted January 09, 2013 at 07:28:23

You love Internet Explorer 7?

Do you want EASY MONEY?

The City of Hamilton a consulting jig for you:

It's time for City Hall to stop wasting money like this $376,000. We have ZERO staff dedicated to online communication or online engagement.

Geez, $376,000 could have hired an entry level web communications staffer and paid the cost of the position for the next 10 years.

I'm sure we'll waste just as much on the new "web consultant" who will encourage us to purchase whatever crappy CMS their firm is peddling.

Comment edited by JoeyColeman on 2013-01-09 07:49:43

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By JoeyColeman (registered) - website | Posted January 09, 2013 at 07:33:02

For the record, a big part of Dialogue Partners contract is telling the City what services to cut.

I suggest we email our Councillors and suggest they start with a $376,000 cut to the consulting budget.

Then, cut the consulting budget even more.

Comment edited by JoeyColeman on 2013-01-09 08:03:13

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By Hamilton Civic League (anonymous) | Posted January 09, 2013 at 08:54:53

Hamilton Civic League, providing FREE Civic Engagement Services since 2009. Join us to manage your outrage as we work towards Accountability 2014.

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By dsafire (registered) - website | Posted January 09, 2013 at 10:38:51

I will not talk to these people. They have clearly proven themselves incompetents. They are already dismissing the words of the very people they claim to be reaching out to because it doesn't suit them. The Calgary Herald column on Dialog Partners accuses them of constructing questions in such a way as to force false answers.

They cannot restore my trust at this point. Someone explain to me why we should trust these fools to take the opinions of the residents of this city back to Council. Because based on what ive seen so far I firmly believe that information will be faulty and incomplete at least, and the data manipulated at worst.

This is not fun and games people, Council will be using this information for years. We cant afford to let these idiots get it wrong.

Comment edited by dsafire on 2013-01-09 10:39:26

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By Bonnietheb (anonymous) | Posted January 09, 2013 at 10:48:26

"We're pleased that the Twitter community in Hamilton is passionate and engaged and clearly responsive, but we know there are other people in the community that we need to engage with," she said. "To the couple hundred people on Twitter, we've got a better sense of how we engage."

I found out about Our Hamilton on Twitter and I understand it is has a facebook page as well. Other than the online community who else in Hamilton (Ontario)knows about this site and how else is this survey being delivered? If it is not in every mailbox-I mean real actual physical mailbox then the twitter conversation is likely representative of most who has visited the site. How can a campaign exist only online and then dismiss the group it targetted? I expect that this survey will only represent people with computers and the time and desire to participate-the same people who are on this site and on twitter. Many people who really need the City services (as well as those content with the level of service) will not express their opinion nor concern through "Our Hamilton". Bottom line: this apology is not an apology at all, it is an insult to all of us.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 09, 2013 at 11:11:58

Other than the online community who else in Hamilton (Ontario)knows about this site and how else is this survey being delivered?

I haven't seen a Spec in a couple years, but I'm guessing they're still doing those horrendous 'At Your Service' pages that are like reading through morse code.

Or maybe they HSR is going to publish some of those cutting edge PDF documents to help spread the word.

Comment edited by jason on 2013-01-09 11:12:16

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By Simon (registered) - website | Posted January 09, 2013 at 11:18:10 in reply to Comment 84915

I am trying to figure out what exactly I am so pissed about.

Its not really the HSR comments or the photo gaffs - but I think it all ties into the bigger picture of what has been going on in Hamilton over the last while.

I know I have a lot of left over stadium rage - but this is different - yet the same.

It seems like every time we think we are getting something that should be fantastic (ummm PanAm Games, LRT, McMaster downtown campus, bike lanes, one way street conversions, Gore Park redevelopment, a new school board headquarters.....) - it turns out to be a pile of shit.

Which is bad - but when the shit costs its weight in gold - I think that is why I am so fucking pissed off.

I am trying hard not to think about this personally - because it always comes across as whining - which really it is, but...

I wear two hats - I am a professional engineer and a professional photographer.

As an engineer, I am trying to figure out what exactly Dialogue Partners could possibly be doing in 3 months to bill 400k?

I mean do the math - in 3 months there are about 60, 8 hour working days - so they are billing over 6 grand per day!

I'd say the average bill out rate for engineers is around $100 / h so assuming they bill out the same -

Dialogue Partners would have to have nearly 8 full time professionals billing $100/h every working day for 3 months to make up their contract fee

(I am simplifying of course - there are also expenses, like Toronto hotels and flights between Toronto and Ottawa and limousines for field trips to Hamilton, Wordpress templates, SurveyMonkey and MailChimp subscriptions, Facebook ads, Google adwords, Flickr and Google Images "stock photography" procurement...).

Do we honestly think we are being provided with the work of 8 full time professionals?

So really - what is the $400k for?

As a creative professional - I get so fucking pissed off when I see clients accept half assed deliverables. Its like they don't even know what quality work is supposed to look like.

And they certainly don't know how to ask for it.

The last RFQ I bid with the City of Hamilton had the most vague terms of reference I've ever seen.

I mean - we have some fantastic photographers and film makers in Hamilton - at least put some lipstick on your pig of a website.

Hell - as much as I hate microstock - $100 of istockphoto would have been enough to launch the damn site

Oh and as for the website - I have launched two Wordpress sites in the last year ( and with two more in the wings), along with social media campaigns and email mailing services. They're not great - I am flying by the seat of my pants and learn as I go - but really - ANYONE could produce what Dialogue Partners has delivered.

I've said before that I don't begrudge Dialogue Partners their fees. They won the contract and if they are billing $10,000 /h and the City is accepting the deliverables they are providing - good for Dialogue Partners.

No - the City hired Dialogue Partners - the City is responsible to manage their contract.

For once - could we just do something right? Could we just get something fantastic. Is it too much to ask to receive value for our money?

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By ntomkin (registered) | Posted January 09, 2013 at 11:34:32 in reply to Comment 84915

Here's a scary post from their website:

The whole post is gold, but this stood out for me:

1 – Caring. This is that participants feel cared for, and that their views, interests and values are important. This also means being able to demonstrate compassion, empathy and respect for the situation, experiences and feelings of all participants.

2 – Commitment. Is that promises made are kept, that the voices are valued and that the input will be documented and reflected back to decision makers.

3 – Capability. Is about providing the information, processes and support to participants that they need in order to participate in the conversations. This also means the ability to work through the complexities and challenges in order to understand deeply the issues.


It almost feels like we paid $376,000 to be trolled.

Comment edited by ntomkin on 2013-01-09 11:34:43

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By Gabriel (anonymous) | Posted January 09, 2013 at 11:57:52 in reply to Comment 84951

The contract is ongoing since April 2012, which has given them eight months lead time.

even more mind boggling....

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By lakeside (registered) | Posted January 09, 2013 at 13:53:41

Conveniently, in the Spectator today is a story demonstrating another kind of apology.

Chris Spence, who is the Director of Education at the Toronto District School Board has apologized for including unattributed text written by others in an article he wrote for the Toronto Star. It's worth a read as an example of how to really apologize. He really owns it in the telephone interview that is covered by the piece.

What at difference of approach compared to the reaction of this firm.

Comment edited by lakeside on 2013-01-09 13:59:00

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By SCRAP (anonymous) | Posted January 09, 2013 at 15:24:37

This fiasco, has made me very upset for a number of reasons, the first being that as an activiswt on pvoerty issues, it took so many across the province, just to get one time funding for the CSUMB, which only covers 2/3's of the original amount, meaning that many will be left with no options to obtain housing. We ahve no money for the poor, yet it appears we have lots of mney to blow on projects like this, which could of been done for almost next to nothing, never the fact, that people in our community could of use that money and have access to work.

I am not a web expert but I do know that there are many in the comunity which have that training, one only has to ask for help and it is free! It is not acceptable that we as the people would pay out almost $400,000.00 for this incompetent piece of crapola.

My background is in accounting and for five years I sourced and purchased material, supplies and labour, some of which was for million dollar projects. If I goofed up, it would of been my minimum wage job, but it appears that no one in our great city hall, seems to care about that and as usual, they run for cover and mouth the newspeak, that procurement processes in place are good, yet nobody appears to have even looked at the end product.

Rise up people!

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted January 09, 2013 at 16:05:31

Ryan - a brilliantly written piece. This thing goes from bad to worse. Here's an email I sent to all Councillors earlier this afternoon. Jason Farr, my own Councillor, has sent an email to his colleagues saying that he following up on their behalf. Sam Merulla also responded.


I'm pasting in a shocking statement taken directly from the Our Voice. Our Hamilton. website questionnaire. It has not been altered in any way, whatsoever by me. On that, you have my word of honour.

"Talk to people (Aboriginal, newcomer, low-income) who probably aren’t showing up in large numbers at events."

I hope you are as outraged as am I with the bias and ignorance shown in this statement. It goes well beyond the level of wrong photographs or not knowing what HSR stands for.

May I ask you to do something about this immediately?

This kind of egregious statement in an officially sanctioned questionnaire that purports to be by and for the City of Hamilton is disgraceful. It needs to be removed. The City of Hamilton is already dealing with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Let's not add yet another issue to that file. In fact, I suggest that the site be taken down and fixed. As a taxpayer, I'm happy to support new methods of citizen engagement, but I will not support mediocrity, unprofessionalism, and prejudice.


Comment edited by H+H on 2013-01-09 16:06:20

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By Jim Rudnick (anonymous) | Posted January 09, 2013 at 17:19:59

By my count as of right now...

For getting RID of the Ottawa firm we have Councillors Partridge, Merualla and Whitehead...

Any one else know of any more? And if so, update here pls!!!!

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By highwater (registered) | Posted January 09, 2013 at 18:30:50 in reply to Comment 84994

I believe Morelli was making noises in that direction on twitter.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted January 13, 2013 at 07:46:27 in reply to Comment 84979

That's because he was caught doing something that is if not illegal, at least immoral and disingenuous. If I heard right, he's now lost his job and potentially losing his Ph. D. if found to have plagarized in that too.

He's doing it, if not because he is personally sorry, to try and save damage done to himself and the school board he represents, and has represented (He used to be the Hamilton school board's Director of Ed before going up the road to Toronto). A PR firm saying 'I'm sorry you are upset' isn't the same for having a poorly laid out and executed online presence.

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