Bad news in a company town

December 10, 2011
It’s the kind of story that seems too far-fetched, too ridiculous to be true. Two top executives from the biggest company in the land get so stinko on an overnight flight to Beijing that the pilot has to make an emergency detour hours out of the way just to have them arrested.

When the story broke last week, media from around the world ran with the story, almost gleefully. Here were two suits from that struggling smartphone giant Research In Motion, flying first class on a business trip for a company that doesn’t need any more bad news – and they go and provide it in spades.

As hundreds of newspapers, websites, blogs and tech industry pundits have already repeated, the RIM execs single-handedly managed to force their packed commercial flight to turn south from Alaska and make an unplanned stop to meet some Mounties in Vancouver. The unpopular pair weren’t just a little buzzed, they were reportedly drunker than skunks, so divinely pickled and throwing punches the airline crew had to physically restrain and handcuff them to seats, according to other passengers.

After spending a night in jail, the RIM execs pleaded guilty to mischief, were ordered to pay restitution to Air Canada of $35,878 each, and barred from having contact with the airline for a year. They rented a car and made a long drive back home.

In the grand scheme of things, this story was little more than a frustrating episode, maybe even an embarrassment, for RIM — a company loaded to the gills with middle managers and with far bigger things to worry about. For most of us, it’s just a laugh about a wild thing that happened on a flight somewhere over Alaska.

But in company towns, the story always plays a little differently. When the local daily newspaper for RIM ran the story on the front page, it kicked up a whole hornet’s nest of anger. But for many, the fury wasn’t directed at the drunk executives, but at the newspaper for running the story and referencing RIM, the Waterloo region’s largest employer.

The response from many readers was as if the story was a personal affront. The local coverage of the same story — matching that offered coast-to-coast by the CBC, CTV and countless other media outlets was suddenly a “cheap shot,” “tabloid-style” journalism and a “low blow.”

Some demanded the paper leave the men’s employer out of the story. The message was clear: RIM is our company, so back off. We only want good RIM stories here, they seemed to be saying.

It’s understandable people are protective of RIM’s name. Waterloo was once a button and spirits town, and black berries were something that once grew in fields. In the last 15 years, the change a single company has brought to the city — through jobs, philanthropy and tech industry spin-offs — is remarkable. Today, RIM is Waterloo in many ways.

Company towns have always provided sticky situations for newspapers. I know all about that having worked for the Telegraph-Journal newspaper in Saint John, the quintessential company town for New Brunswick’s Irving family, which has its hands in everything from energy and paper milling to trucking and hardware stores.

Even here in Guelph, there are people who would rather bad news about Linamar, this town’s biggest employer, stay off the front page. To those people, journalism doesn’t extend to sacred cows.

Big companies in small cities can put enormous pressure on newspapers to offer only pleasant coverage. They employ legions of people whose families and neighbours call editors, write letters and send angry emails. But journalists aren’t trained to be cheerleaders, so that kind of protective thinking runs counter to their instincts.

To RIM’s protectors, here was just another newspaper picking on a home-grown company. As they see, this was just two men who had too much to drink on a plane. End of story.

Of course, RIM itself didn’t see it that way. Once the pair of executives, now sober, found their way back to Waterloo, the BlackBerry maker made it clear their actions on that plane didn’t happen in some separate reality from their jobs.

Naturally, they were fired.


Guelph Mercury. Dec. 10, 2011


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