When Municipal Decisions Cause Major Public Backlash – A City of Vaughan Case Study
The City of Vaughan recently faced significant backlash over their decisions to abruptly pull an event permit and instead of being praised for putting the safety of residents first, were criticized and accused of racism.
Carnival Kingdom was to take place at the Improve Canada outdoor entertainment complex on Keele St., near Highway 407. It was the first time SOS Fest attempted to host the event, which had been running for seven years, in Vaughan. Tickets ranged from $35 to $95, and about 5,000 had been sold. Machel Montano was one of the acts scheduled to perform.
The initial notice posted on social media was short and lacking context. The response quickly grew hostile and the hashtag #justiceforsos started trending. Some of the City’s Councillor went to the media to defend their selves against the decision. Two subsequent updates were made on social media but the messaging did little to calm the barrage of accusations down.
After reviewing the communications surrounding the event, and the reputation management/repair actions the City will need to take- I’d like to share with you some tips on how a municipality should deal with issues such as this, in order to avoid misunderstandings, accusations, and reputation damage.
- Transparency is Key
When issuing a statement – it’s better to give as much of the information as possible, rather than vaguely saying you are doing it for the safety of residents. Be specific about what the reasons were behind the decision – otherwise, you leave room for interpretation which leads to misunderstandings and assumptions.
Racism quickly became the theme for Vaughan, and when you throw the fact the majority are youth into the mix, it escalated much quicker than anticipated.
2. Use Honesty and Openness
The statement that was issued by Vaughan seemed heavy handed and almost defensive. Rather than approaching it from a place of fear of retribution (from “the public”) try to be more clear and honest.
3. Provide More Information
There were no link backs to any additional information for any of the notices, and no information available on their website. Consider issuing a news release/backgrounder or supplementary statements including timelines, permitting information (process, etc), bylaw enforcement rules, etc.
Additionally, Council was claiming that they had no say in the matter, yet they were the ones who forwarded the complaints, and then the City said the decision had nothing to do with their Council. Ensure you’re all on the same page, and kept up-to-date and informed with what’s going on internally as well.
4. Education & Key Messaging
Hold a news conference (if it’s a hot-button subject). The mayor and other spokespeople will want to do their research on whatever people are angry about (in this case racism) and be sure to create key messages that are inclusive, respectful and non-defensive. **Here’s the key though- they should mean what they are saying and refrain from being defensive. Media Relations Training comes in handy for this.
While the decision for the City of Vaughan may in no way have been a racially charged decision, it became one so it’s important that respect for everyone is of utmost importance – otherwise, you’ll be dealing with a much bigger issue that may last weeks or longer.
Nowhere in any of the initial statements was there an apology to the people who had been inconvenienced. Truly, there were thousands of people who were planning to the attend the event (and spend money in the city), not to mention the businesses that were affected by the abrupt decision.
Hopefully some of this will help you get through this storm a little more smoothly. It is not my recommendation to remain silent however.
If you’d like more information or suggestions on how to handle difficult decisions and issues, feel free to send me a message or comment on this post and I’ll be happy to respond.
President & CEO