SULLIVAN: CN Seawalk squabble goes to PR Hall of Shame

What is it with railways? Is there something about running an iron road that requires an iron head?

Admittedly, the sample is relatively small here in Canada – we have two big national railways, CP and CN, but they both have a tendency to exhibit the sensibilities of an oncoming train.

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CP, for example, tried to bully the City of Vancouver into paying through the nose for the rights to the Arbutus Corridor, a track it had pretty much abandoned for decades, by bulldozing children’s gardens on the six o’clock news.

It was eventually settled equitably, as we all knew it would be, but not before CP was inducted in the Tony Hayward PR Hall of

Shame, named in honour of the BP CEO who responded to the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, the worst man-made disaster in history, by telling the world he’d rather get back to his sailboat.

You can’t buy that kind of universal condemnation.

The PR Hall of Shame doesn’t exist, except in my head. But it should. There never seems to be a shortage of wilful, truculent, tone deaf corporate boneheads prepared to look common sense in the eye and abandon it altogether.

The latest candidate for the hall? CN Rail. When everybody else saw the Arbutus Corridor as an unmitigated PR disaster, CN apparently studied it carefully and adopted it as a communications strategy.

As reported in the North Shore News, Feb. 17, CN filed a lawsuit in BC Supreme Court designed to stop everyone from trespassing … on the Seawalk.

Yes, that Seawalk, the one that runs along the ocean between 19th and 24th in West Van, the one that attracts thousands on any given sunny Sunday.

I’m struck by the similarities between this one and the Arbutus Corridor:

A profound ignorance of the concept of “public licence”: With no attempt to make its case in the court of public opinion, CN goes to court to get an injunction to prevent the public from trespassing on the Seawalk. Presumably a large wall topped with barbed wire barring access is about to follow.

Lack of self-awareness: Don’t these guys (and you can bet they are guys) have any idea how people already see their noisy, dangerous, air-polluting long lines of railcars full of God knows what? And they want to make it worse?

And why do I feel it’s even worse – more than a mere iron-clad lack of perspective? There’s a suspicion that these guys actually like playing hardball.

The City of Vancouver, after all, did eventually cough up $55 million for the Arbutus Corridor (admittedly, a bargain for all that west side real estate), which just encourages these guys to roll out the heavy artillery. No pink shirts on this crowd.

Breathtaking greed: both CP and CN tried to hold up Vancouver and West Van for multimillion-dollar payments, presumably to address all those years when these deadbeat municipalities got to use their rights-of-way for free.

Shocking lack of empathy: Haven’t these guys (who else can they be?) ever gone for a stroll on the Arbutus Corridor or the spectacular Seawalk, where maybe you can’t see all the way to Alaska, but it sure feels like it? Felt the sun in their faces? Held hands with their sweethearts?

OK, what was I thinking?

Oddly enough, CN isn’t the only West Van candidate for the Tony Hayward PR Hall of Shame. Park Royal just about earned a lifetime membership about a year ago when it tried to evict the folks who had been peacefully playing chess in the mall for 50 years, ordering them to stop taking up valuable food court space or they will have to “reach out to the West Vancouver Police Department.”

Mall brass eventually came to its senses, but not before Park Royal was almost subject to a Holy War when West Van Presbyterian Church announced it was planning a sit-in at the mall in solidarity with the chess players.

And now CN stands at the threshold, ready to fall over on its face.

The problem is, corporate PR blunders such as these make it hard for everyone to do business. Why would anyone trust a railroad that decides one day to kick everyone off the Seawalk? And that’s a problem if they want concessions from municipalities … and they always want concessions from municipalities.

I’m sure this one will end, as did all the others, with a compromise and it will be safe, at least for a while, to go for a walk by the ocean.

But for CN, the damage is already done. There’s trouble on down the line and you can’t just slam the engine into reverse.

Journalist and communications consultant Paul Sullivan has been a North Vancouver resident since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of Madonna. p.sullivan@breakthroughpr.com

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