Ter­ror­ism and trust

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

As the world comes to terms with the wider im­pli­ca­tions and con­se­quences of the ter­ror­ist atroc­ity in Paris, an im­por­tant story risks be­ing lost in the wel­ter of cov­er­age and anal­y­sis: The in­creas­ingly vi­tal role that pri­vate com­pa­nies play in plan­ning for and re­spond­ing to emer­gen­cies. And there’s more to the story than that.

As the wave of syn­chro­nised at­tacks un­folded, peo­ple around the world fol­lowed it in real time via Twit­ter, and Parisians reached out to those who found them­selves stranded by post­ing of­fers of safe havens with the hash­tags #Por­te­Ou­verte and #Open­Door. Those who wanted to be as­sured of the safety of fam­ily and friends looked to Face­book’s new Safety Check fea­ture. Google an­nounced that calls to France were free of charge via Google Hang­outs.

Gov­ern­ments around the world com­mu­ni­cated with their cit­i­zens us­ing so­cial-me­dia plat­forms: the United King­dom’s em­bassy in France tweeted in­for­ma­tion for trav­ellers, and the United States’ em­bassy there pro­vided up­dates via Face­book.

But it wasn’t just tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies that stepped up. Ride-shar­ing com­pa­nies get a lot of press nowa­days, but when peo­ple needed to make their way safely out of ar­eas where at­tacks were tak­ing place, it was Paris taxi driv­ers who re­sponded to the emer­gency by making their ser­vices avail­able for free, sup­ple­ment­ing pub­lic trans­porta­tion.

More and more in our daily lives – com­mu­ni­ca­tions, trans­porta­tion, health care, en­ergy, and much else – de­pends on ser­vices pro­vided by the pri­vate, rather than the pub­lic, sec­tor. Th­ese com­pa­nies have be­come a part of the fab­ric of our so­ci­eties. Emer­gen­cies merely call at­ten­tion to it.

But with great power comes greater re­spon­si­bil­ity, and com­pa­nies con­tinue to find it dif­fi­cult to grap­ple with this. They have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to pre­pare for crises, in­clud­ing nat­u­ral and man­made dis­as­ters, more dili­gently than ever be­fore. They have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to en­sure that they are part of so­lu­tions to broader na­tional and in­ter­na­tional chal­lenges. They have a re­spon­si­bil­ity, in short, to ful­fill the obli­ga­tions that arise from our de­pen­dence on them and from the trust we place in them, im­plic­itly or ex­plic­itly.

The chal­lenge is that the ex­tent of com­pa­nies’ re­spon­si­bil­ity has be­come clear at a time of grow­ing dis­trust to­ward the pri­vate sec­tor. There are strong con­cerns about the amount of per­sonal data we give to Face­book, Google, and other com­pa­nies, en­abling them to know too much about where we go, what we do, and whom we talk to. And it isn’t just tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies. There are also the com­pa­nies we de­pend on to make safe and re­li­able cars, gen­er­ate our en­ergy, and mine the raw ma­te­ri­als to pro­duce the things we use ev­ery day.

Ac­cord­ing to un­pub­lished Ip­sos MORI re­search that was made avail­able to me re­cently, when it comes to judg­ing a com­pany, hon­esty and in­tegrity are more im­por­tant than ever. Con­sumer con­fi­dence is be­ing steadily eroded by a num­ber of fac­tors that lead peo­ple to ques­tion the ex­tent to which they are val­ued. So, even as we need com­pa­nies to pro­vide more and more vi­tal ser­vices, from trans­porta­tion to health care to evac­u­a­tion plans, we trust them less and less.

That is hardly an over­re­ac­tion to a few rare cases. On the con­trary, peo­ple are jus­ti­fi­ably shocked at the steady stream of sto­ries call­ing into ques­tion whether the com­pa­nies that pro­vide so many es­sen­tial ser­vices in coun­tries around the world de­serve their con­fi­dence.

Most dis­turb­ing is the ex­tent to which com­pa­nies, so of­ten stal­wart de­fend­ers of the rule of law when it comes to their own rights, de­lib­er­ately flout the law – heed­less of the con­se­quences – when it comes to max­imis­ing prof­its. The case of Volk­swa­gen con­tin­ues to beg­gar be­lief. How could a ma­jor multi­na­tional com­pany in­cor­po­rate crim­i­nal be­hav­iour into its busi­ness strat­egy? The re­cent in­ves­ti­ga­tions into whether Exxon Mo­bil de­lib­er­ately cov­ered up that it knew more about the risks of cli­mate change are sim­i­larly damn­ing.

As the re­sponses to the ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Paris demon­strated, com­pa­nies can do so much good and be re­spon­si­ble cor­po­rate cit­i­zens. But there is an al­most Jekyll and Hyde qual­ity to them: The com­pa­nies that make our low-cost clothes may pro­duce them in dan­ger­ous sweat­shops. And the peo­ple com­pa­nies helped so ca­pa­bly and gen­er­ously dur­ing the emer­gency in Paris are the same peo­ple they be­tray and con­ceal in­for­ma­tion from at other times.

Of course, the at­tacks in Paris should be viewed, above all, in terms of geopol­i­tics and se­cu­rity. But there is a les­son for busi­ness – and the rest of us – as well. We will all be bet­ter off when com­pa­nies’ im­pulse to do the right in the worst of times de­fines how they be­have all the time.

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