Today, global firms abundantly spend money and time to study both present and future risks to their reputations. They are concerned that one day’s headlines – or one hour’s Twitter uproar – may erase a century of trust. Continuous scandals would appear to bear out their anxiety.
Take Volkswagen for example. Their diesel emissions fraud comes to light, and this week the respectable car-manufacturer posts a €1.7 billion quarterly loss: the first in 15 years. After a data hack, shares in the broadband supplier TalkTalk fell by a quarter. From 2010, Deepwater Horizon’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has set BP back approximately $54 billion – including a settlement of $19 billion in July to prevent future US lawsuits.
Nevertheless, with data monsters such as Google, Amazon and Apple, their level of market dominance may have raised them above the point at which a “good name” can impart a competitive advantage upon them, or its compromise can injure them. Apple has recently announced annual profits of $53.4 billion, a record in corporate history. Apple’s revenues rose 28 per cent this year. Sales in China increased twofold over a year. Accusations of illegal sourcing of minerals in Indonesia or sweatshop labour in Apple’s Chinese suppliers’ factories – subjects of rigorous Panorama investigation last December – bounce of the firm like beans blown at an elephant. After a burst of damage control with Apple boss Tim Cook feeling “deeply offended” by the claims of the BBC, the story faded as quickly as last year’s phone. It was discarded by the media with as little regret.
In 2013, Amazon for its part, signed a $600 million contract to provide cloud-computing services to the CIA. Campaigners alerted that this may cause the transfer of consumer data to state agencies to be formalized. The general response? Not concerned. In Europe, Amazon had a fleeting shiver on the naughty step together with Starbucks as its tax-evading residence in Luxembourg came under investigation. “Ethical” users roared in anger and then crept back to their screens in search of a deal.
The tolerance now given to tech companies appears boundless. Their data servers recall everything; their users quickly forget the most serious lapses. Who now bothers to talk about the fact that in 2013 Facebook confessed that it had mistakenly exposed the data of 6 million users – over a whole year?
We can definitely in theory say no to the big brands. To ignore it, though, can often appear to be more trouble than it’s worth.
None of the tech heavyweights has faced an embarrassment to match Volkswagen’s emissions trick, or a Deepwater Horizon moment. We hope they never do, because they have a long way to fall.
So far they look as armour-plated and Teflon coated as ever.
Apple and its body of tech geniuses have lots of cash, as well as faith, stocked in the banks. For as long as we covet their sites and stuff, they will elbow party poopers and dirt diggers.
Sooner or later, huge firms that cheat, misbehave or screw up will pay the price.