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Business Commentary Companies should be good corporate citizens all the time, not just in crises

People gather around one of the makeshift memorials of candles and flowers at the Republic Square in Paris, Nov. 15, 2015. The urge to be a good corporate citizen in a crisis should define a company’s behaviour all of the time, writes Lucy Marcus.

PIERRE TERDJMAN/NYT

Lucy P. Marcus is CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting.

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 synchronized attacks unfolded, people around the world followed it in real time on 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.

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Governments around the world communicated with their citizens using social media platforms: Britain's embassy in France tweeted information for travellers. The U.S. embassy 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 providing free services, 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 that fact.

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 man-made disasters, more diligently than ever before. They have a responsibility to ensure 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 this 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 tech companies. There are also the ones we depend on to make safe and reliable cars, to generate our energy and to 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 vital services, 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 these companies deserve their confidence.

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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 maximizing 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 a lot of good and be responsible corporate citizens. But there is an almost a Jekyll-and-Hyde quality to them: The companies that make our low-cost clothes may produce them in dangerous sweatshops. And the people whom 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 businesses – 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.

Project Syndicate

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