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Opinion: There is a cost to bad optics

Opinion: There is a cost to bad optics

Maybe it’s the COVID pandemic and the resultant shift to remote working that has created the disconnect; but whatever the case, the optics of blocking off warm air vents at the rear of city hall are terrible. The homeless who were trying to get a little relief from the extreme cold have been dispersed. The plywood hoarding that was deemed a fire hazard has been replaced by safer material—and, as is so often the case in Hamilton—engineering consultants have been called in… after the fact to do…we are not sure what.

Questions remain. Was anyone at the political level aware this was going to happen? Who signed off on this public relations disaster?

The city of Hamilton lists roughly 15 persons as communications practitioners. Is their advice sought when potentially explosive actions are being contemplated? Do any of the 15 have experience in crisis communications? Are any of them at the Senior Management table when policies that might get the city into hot water are being developed? Or is their job only to do clean-up after the fact? Are any of them senior enough to be able to put their hand up and oppose something that has dangerous optics?

As was seen with Sewergate, the city is slavish when it comes to accepting legal advice. Lawyers recommended the massive sewage spill be kept from the public and everybody went along with it. How did that work out? The result was a lingering generalized public outrage against council, untold millions of dollars in remedial costs, and the likelihood of a massive fine from the Environment Ministry. And, by the way, none of this solves the problem. Every time we get a big rainstorm, millions of gallons of untreated sewage still end up in the bay. What was the additional peril that legal staff were trying to protect the city from? Anybody three weeks into a first year Public Relations course at Mohawk will tell you that a communications strategy based on nobody finding out is doomed. This is not intended as a knock against the legal profession—they are good at assessing legal risk—but too often seem to have a blind spot when it comes to evaluating the real costs of reputational risk.

Regarding the vent incident, how different would things have looked, if something as simple as posting a list of available shelters and warming centres on the hoarding, and possibly some arrangement to transport individuals to safety had been built into the plan? Which begs another question—was Healthy and Safe Communities aware of any of this? They have staff trained in assisting homeless people.

In a massive decentralized organization, there are bound to be screw ups and communications failures. There should be a review of what happened here. But rather than finger pointing and scapegoating, lets hope this incident leads to a reevaluation of procedures so that reputational risk is added to the lengthy list of “lenses” that are applied to the city’s delivery of policies and services. John Best

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