Terrorism and trust
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.