Sidewalk Toronto: Rhetoric, Narrative, and Deceit

A Tour Through Some of Sidewalk Labs’ Recent Crisis Communications

This is going to be messy but I’m going fast to point out some things I hope others can help identify as tactics. This is to document the way that Sidewalk Labs is using communications to control and contain the growing wildfire that is their media footprint. This is more of a list than any kind of organized piece because speed — if you see some to add please send me a tweet.

The Sidewalk Labs PR machine is on a full-court press to try and get people talking about lumber, Tax Increment Financing, Light Rapid Transit and the rest of it. That is the number one job for them. Work to normalize their behaviour over the last fifteen months. It gives permission to companies to act like they have acted here. No.

From: Sidewalk Labs CEO responds to criticism around tax and transit plans by Tara Deschamps, Toronto Star

Exhibit A:

DD: “Doctoroff acknowledged the concepts were facing criticism, but said that sort of response is “predictable” for any new ideas. “It isn’t fully baked and people just naturally are afraid of new things,” he said.

The problem some residents have with this project is that the process is anti-democratic. Lacking transparency, that’s not new. Lacking accountability from government, also not new. Is this deflection? Trying to point the finger at a problem that is not the problem at all?

Whatever this thing is called where you try and paint opponents as something they are not (anti-progress/luddites/conservative/boring/stodgy) whatever. This is a smart tactical move because it scares politicians that want to be seen as cool/modern/hip/fun/tech-friendly — whatever.

It’s also an effort to evoke empathy/sympathy for the innovator. Woe is me for trying to do the new and right things and hey eggs breaking/omelette yadda yadda but we’re putting on the brave face and we are going to push through. We know what’s good for you, and one day, you (even you mad ones) you will thank us. *head pat*

He shared a version of this in a McKinsey piece (because of course):

DD: “More importantly, political leaders need the courage to overcome the natural resistance that comes with any changes.”

If this doesn’t speak directly as a dare to a John Tory style mayor I mean I don’t know.

Exhibit B:

DD: “The best thing we can do is sit down with them and explain and we will be thoughtful and patient and listen to people’s concerns and hopefully reach a place where we have a mutually acceptable way of moving forward that doesn’t have to be what we suggested.”

Toronto. You just don’t *understand* what we’re doing, if you did — you’d be with it. So we are going to be nice and patient with you and keep trying to explain it to you until you *get it*. It’s a lot of extra work for us but we’re here for it.

And more dialogue. The man is saying, with a straight face I have to imagine, that while the leaked documents prove that they have been evading and dodging the question about their business plans for who knows how long. And saying all levels of government are into them.

From: Amazon, NYC’s HQ2 breakup could have been avoided: Sidewalk CEO Jon Erlichman and Amber Kanwar, BNN/Bloomberg

DD: “I think that both sides probably could have listened a bit better to each other, and ultimately could have come to what hopefully would have been an amicable solution that didn’t result the way it did,” and

DD: “That interaction — often contentious interaction — with the public and government officials actually makes plans better if you’re prepared to listen,” he said. “We’ve been listening a lot. Some of it has been tough to listen to sometimes, but we’ve never cut and ran.”

There is no greater demonstration of not listening than what Sidewalk Labs has been doing. They were asked countless times, again and again and again, what is the business model for your company? From the very beginning. And they refused to answer. If they would have come out with the plans that were leaked at the beginning the last fifteen months could have been used to talk about them. Instead they did the exact opposite of listen — they turned the volume up on what they wanted to say and how they did that. And that “we’ve never cut and run bit at the end” — go for it! Run! Why the saviour thing — the constant sense of ingratiating sentiment that Toronto should have for being picked for this thing.

Beyond this, there is a community questions doc of hundreds of unanswered questions. For a company with 11 million USD committed to stakeholder engagement they are making an active choice NOT to engage with community, not to answer the questions, not to have the hard conversations. So whatever this thing is here where they say that’s what they do/will do — yeah no.

Dan Doctoroff hasn’t been on a public stage at a public meeting since the first town hall in 2017. He’s been running his VIP closed advisory meetings though.

Moving along, back to this one.

From: Sidewalk Labs CEO responds to criticism around tax and transit plans by Tara Deschamps, Toronto Star

Exhibit C:

DD: “ Sidewalk Labs’s chief executive officer says it’s too “premature” to abandon any ideas it unveiled Thursday for a high-tech Toronto community it hopes to build, despite the concepts being met with fierce criticism.”

You, Dan Doctoroff, are not in charge of when the people of this city decide they have had enough. It’s not up to you to call public sentiment premature. Many of us, after 15 months, have seen plenty to know that this is not a good faith dealing.

Exhibit D:

“Daniel Doctoroff indicated his Alphabet-backed company was open to tweaking ideas…”

How else would this work, exactly. You just dictate things?

Exhibit E:

DD: “Doctoroff said. “We have adjusted significantly and we will continue to do that.”

You can’t adjust significantly when no one knows what you are doing. Also, if this is about the data trust, then this is a comedy show and a half. Was their starting position ever really “we’re going to own all of your data?”. This is bananas.

This and the leaked documents are examples of some kind of negotiating tactic where you start with a thing so patently absurd that the negotiation down feels satisfactory because it is no longer the worst possible thing ever thought of. This isn’t comms though, this is something else. Anyways.

Exhibit F:

DD: “Doctoroff said infrastructure Sidewalk is considering funding “would otherwise be infinanceable” and added “if we are prepared to do that when no one else is, we need to get paid back.”

(this reminded me of complexifier). Moving along — by Dan Doctoroff’s pronouncement it is Sidewalk Labs or nothing can happen. This is a powerful move. I mean, it’s not true. But it’s a strong gesture, rhetorically.

Bonus Meta Exhibit:

From: Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs was secretly considering big plans for Toronto neighbourhood, Fatima Syed, National Observer

Ok, so to be fair to Sidewalk Labs, this was never meant to be public, we’re only seeing it because it was leaked. But this is information being used to sell Alphabet on the deal — the good old opinion poll. This has raised interesting ethical questions from me, because while I get the value of printing these poll numbers, they also inadvertently confer some kind of legitimacy on them. From the piece:

Sidewalk Labs put forward two questions to an unstated sample size to gauge public support. The first asked: “As you may have heard Waterfront Toronto, a government agency, has agreed to partner with Sidewalk Labs, an urban innovation company, to create a new district on the Eastern Waterfront. Do you support or oppose this project?”

In April 2018, 52 per cent of those sampled said they supported the project; 33 per cent responded “don’t know;” and, 15 per cent were opposed.

Six months later the numbers had barely moved: 53 per cent supported; 33 per cent said “don’t know;” and 14 per cent opposed.

How in the world would anyone know what this project is about from that question? Can you imagine? Then check out the follow-up:

“This project would create a new mixed-use neighbourhood and a new HQ for Google Canada on Toronto’s Easter Waterfront. The project will combine forward-thinking urban design and new technology that will create a people-centred neighbourhood that would…

A) Improve quality of life and develop innovations to address the challenges facing Toronto.

(68 per cent supported this idea; 11 per cent said “don’t know;” and 21 per cent opposed)

B) Create thousands of new jobs and billions in new economic investment in the city.

(74 per cent supported this; 11 per cent said “don’t know;” 15 per cent opposed)

Improve quality of life? WHAT? They are laying claim to that how? and the way B is taken out of context of all the things that would happen anyway?

I know polling is a special nightmare but the idea that polling is being used when the kind of information that got leaked is what any poll would need to include is …. yeah.

Ok, there is more to the comms stuff to talk about. Like Dan Doctoroff’s pre-emptive Medium post — effort at message control — (which David Murakami Wood did a great little thread on here) as well as the flurry of hires that were announced, including a former Toronto City Councillor (as in, she stopped being a politician last November), the day the news broke but that’s all for another day. A final note, the political rhetoric is also important to watch from the elected officials. As Michèle Champagne pointed out, this language about inevitable privatization is just that — rhetoric, and suggested a read of Volume magazine, City in a Box

More soon! Next up — a quick note on the approvals process and why this project needs to be shut down, not given months upon months to normalize bad behaviour from all parties involved.

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