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The Panama Papers And Our Industry’s Ethical Compass

7 questions we need to ask ourselves.
A marquee of the Arango Orillac Building lists the Mossack Fonseca law firm, in Panama City, Monday, April 4, 2016. Panama's president says his government will cooperate "vigorously" with any judicial investigation arising from the leak of a vast trove of information on the offshore financial dealings of the world's rich and famous. An international coalition of media outlets Sunday published investigations it said stemmed from the leak of 115 million records kept by the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca on behalf of clients. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco

 

Editor’s Note: If you haven’t been following the news, the release of a trove of documents related to the financial maneuvers of many international organizations and individuals called the Panama Papers is a big deal, and one that raises many ethical questions for those involved, and the global financial system. In this post my good friend Brian Singh acts as the conscience of MR and dissects some of the issues relevant to us, and asks some hard questions that many of us, myself included, would have been happy to blissfully ignore.

In my supplier days as CEO of Rockhopper Research, we primarily served the financial services industry and I remember well the turmoil of The Collapse (and it’s devastating impact to my company, partners, employees, clients, vendors, and family) while asking whether we had played some role, no matter how small, in propagating a system doomed to fail.

I’m still not sure of the answers to that question, but with the release of the Panama Papers, it raises similar issues for the industry today. Brian details a few below, I encourage everyone who reads this to ponder them in the coming days. I believe the MR industry is a massive force for good, and is filled with some of the smartest, most compassionate, and ethical people I have ever had the privilege to know. Perhaps this is our time to lead by showing other industries how leading with ethics can change the world or the better.

 

By Brian Singh

This week saw the release of the Panama Papers by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). You can read all about them here (https://panamapapers.icij.org/). While it appears that there are no immediate implications for the marketing research and insight industry, it has raised concerns about a number of client/supplier relationships in our sector.

If you have not heard of this by now, the Panama Papers document the dealings of offshore banking and shell corporations undertaken by Mossack Fonseca. While there are many legitimate reasons for offshore banking, a representative of the firm stated that “ninety-five percent of our work coincidentally consists in selling vehicles to avoid taxes.” (Source: http://www.theguardian.com/news/2016/apr/03/the-panama-papers-how-the-worlds-rich-and-famous-hide-their-money-offshore)

Like many readers of this blog, I grew up in a country that is different from where I currently reside. Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) in fact – a small oil and gas rich nation off the coast of Venezuela. Growing up there, it was common knowledge in the 1970s and 1980s that billions of dollars of royalties were being syphoned off to offshore entities; and not to the benefit of infrastructure and programs for the population. No doubt, readers who reside in countries where corruption is a problem can relate.

So what is the concern here?

Reviewing the data on the ICIJ website, there are many banks that have been flagged at requesting offshore companies for clients. HSBC and its affiliates created more than 2,300 alone. Further, there are accounting and law firms that also supported these transactions.

Here’s the thing: There are marketing research firms that have worked on accounts for some of these banks and firms to help them build their brand, and improve and grow their products and services.

This does present a dilemma.

While there is little wrong in seeking work from a company and doing the best possible job to help fulfill their business objectives, are we equally comfortable working for that same company that undertakes such problematic behavior? And how about working with executives at brands who redirect funds through such vehicles to avoid taxes?

I would point out, among fellow researchers in North America and Europe, we do not have to look far to find a colleague that worked for WorldCom, Enron, Lehman Brothers, Arthur Andersen, Bear Stearns or Royal Bank of Scotland over the last 15 years. While few if any of these colleagues did any wrong, they quickly found out what being attached to such entities meant for their bottom line – loss of revenue, layoffs and, in some cases, loss of a business. Sure, we all have hit the odd client who has hit a rough patch, but the loss of such business is based on deception. (And we question: Were we aware of the deception?) Further, we have witnessed many discussions of major companies using similar loopholes to avoid taxes and protect assets – for example, the case of Google, Amazon and Starbucks in the UK (Source: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-20305250).

While there are marketing research firms out there doing good work for companies connected to the Panama Papers and other firms suspected of tax avoidance schemes, the onus is now on these MR firms to assess their risk exposure at this point – may it be financial or reputational. And some assessments may create unintended consequences for our industry – for example, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 created a host of problems for our industry post the dot.com crash in 2000/2001.

Another crisis like this does lead to us to ask some harder questions for our industry, especially when working with banks, accounting and law firms, and large brands who do work in multiple countries.

  1. Are we working for clients who are ethical in all lines of business?
  2. Are clients, if they are a publicly traded company, transparent in their financial returns?
  3. Are we aware of such clients paying their fair share of taxes? (Is it commensurate with local earnings?)
  4. In light of such revelations, are clients forthcoming in potential problems or risks related to offshore banking?
  5. Is there a legal or liability exposure? Would this void insurance policies by working with such an entity?
  6. Is any work that we undertake contribute in any way to reinforcing potentially problematic behavior?
  7. Do the ethical stances demonstrated by such entities align with those of your firm?

For a number of readers, the questions for all this are: Does this matter? Is this really a concern? Money is money, right?

The short answer is: Yes, it does matter. And yes, it is a concern.

While it may appear to some that this is a holier-than-thou position, and many may say that if we don’t do this work someone else would, it remains a matter of choice. Like it or not, we do bring the values of our organizations to the table in our work, and there is a broad zone of moral relativism. As we all scan a potential hire’s social media presence, we too should scan a corporation’s compliance with regulations and the law. We all have zones of comfort related to the business we do – there are many I know, for personal and philosophical reasons, who do not work in the areas of tobacco, guns and ammunition and gaming/gambling. Some are also comfortable to parse the distinction between the accounting and marketing functions, and feel comfortable working with organizations fined in contravention of regulations. (Sometimes, it is about working on a great product or service, right?). However, we all have a role, knowing what we know and do and if we have such knowledge, to address such problems that restrict and inhibit what progresses our society. Else, we become complicit with such behaviors. And their repercussions.

In our work as we strive to document and be transparent in doing the right thing. Equally, we need to be vigilant in seeking that of our clients. Collaborative relationships are about collective risk analysis and management. Questioning the compliance and integrity of clients may actually lead to better research and business outcomes.

Our clients ask that we be truthful in our tasks. It is not a tall order that we ask that same of them.

 

Thanks to Jonathan Kohl, Kohl Concepts Inc, for his feedback on this post.

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2 Responses to “The Panama Papers And Our Industry’s Ethical Compass”

  1. Nick Tortorello says:

    April 8th, 2016 at 1:25 pm

    I think you meant to write that Brian is the “conscience” and not conscious for the MR industry. Brian’s point about the lack of values and ethics of some of our clients is a good issue to raise. However, it is not a new issue, it has been around since the beginning of polling. I have been in the industry for nearly 50 years and I have had to wrestle with whether to work for tobacco companies, auto companies which have unsafe cars, pharmaceutical drugs that may cause early mortality, and financial firms who will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for survey results and numbers they want, etc. I think both MR companies and individuals have to decide for themselves whether to work for these kinds of firms or on very controversial issues. For myself, I made a decision a long time ago to only work for companies who want to know the truth, welcome objective questions and give me the ultimate control to design the questionnaire, develop the sample, and to write the analysis without censorship or pressure to express a particular point of view. Your reputation and mage for honesty is all a researcher has, lose it and you have lost your credibility and do more harm than good to society and the world.

  2. Brian F. Singh says:

    April 8th, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    Thanks, Nick. Excellent points. too work on the same principles. And yes, nothing new. Still a matter of choice. But another potential pivot point for us. I do think that many ignore such questions at this point. And in true consulting – getting into corporate culture, operations and business planning, for example – our antennas need to be up more than ever and ask these difficult questions. Reality remains, the more open and frank an organization is, the lesser chance of some of these problematic behaviours.

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