Revolutionary Measures

Google, tax and PR – do no evil?

On the PR side it has been a busy couple of weeks for Google. Firstly, it casually announced at Davos that it had agreed to pay £130m for ten years of UK corporate taxes, although obviously without any admission of guilt. Cue a storm of protest that this was nowhere near enough for a business that reputedly made £7.2 billion of profits over that period, essentially meaning it paid 3% corporation tax. Much of the vitriol came from other media companies, particularly newspapers, that have seen their own advertising revenues decimated by the search advertising giant.

Google Quick Search Box

Then earlier this week Alphabet, Google’s holding company, became the world’s most valuable company by market capitalisation, helped by strong financial results and worries about previous number one Apple’s future growth prospects.

Given the closeness of these two events, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that ethically debatable behaviour leads directly to outstanding corporate success. But has it actually made any difference to Google’s reputation in the UK? I’d argue that overall it hasn’t affected its business in any way, for three main reasons:

1.The public doesn’t buy from Google
For the majority of people Google is a utility – providing them with the ability to browse or search the internet, watch videos, manage emails and documents or run their mobile phones, without charging them a penny directly. What people don’t understand is that the price of this free stuff is that they become the product – Google has built its very lucrative business on selling this data on our activities and preferences to advertisers. In contrast Starbucks, another perceived tax avoider, sells physical products direct to the public, giving consumers a vested interest in seeing the right levels of tax paid out.

2.Google does no evil
It will probably surprise a lot of people that Google is as enormous as it actually is. From its beginnings it has cultivated a laid-back, anti-establishment brand, epitomised by its corporate slogan “Do no evil” and heavy investment in moonshot projects such as self-driving cars and research into cures for cancer. Despite its growth, it is still seen as a Silicon Valley upstart successfully battling the likes of Microsoft (search, browsers, productivity applications, operating systems) and Apple (with Android).

3.Is there an alternative?
Obviously you can use different search/email/operating system providers, including those that make it clear that they won’t either track your online behaviour or use it to target adverts based on your browsing. But how many people actually make the effort to go out and switch, particularly when Google makes it so easy to just carry on using its services. The figures speak for themselves – it has nearly 86% of the UK search market, which hasn’t changed much since the first mention of its tax affairs.

So, while as a PR person I agree that it has handled the whole tax situation badly by trying to claim that it is doing the right thing when its activities are ethically dubious at best, I don’t think it will have a major impact on the corporate brand. This is echoed by an (admittedly small) poll in PR Week, where 51% of PR professionals said it would leave its reputation unchanged – and 11% thought the tax settlement would improve the brand.

However, where it may cause issues, is by attracting further attention from regulators at the European Union, which have previously shown that they have more teeth when dealing with tech giants than national governments. Time will tell, but with the media already setting its sights on Facebook for potential even larger tax avoidance, I think Google will feel that the £130 million it spent is worth every penny.

February 3, 2016 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Algorithms versus spontaneity – striking the happy medium

There’s been a number of recent pieces about the rise of self-learning technology that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to carry out tasks that would previously have been too complex for a machine. From stock trading to automated translations and even playing Frogger, computers will increasingly take on roles that used to rely on people’s skills.

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Netflix used an algorithm to analyse the most watched content on its service, and found that it included three key ingredients – Kevin Spacey, director David Fincher and BBC political dramas. So when it commissioned original content, it began with House of Cards, a remake of a BBC drama, starring Spacey and directed by (you’ve guessed it) Fincher.

This rise of artificial intelligence is worrying a lot of people – and not just Luddites. The likes of Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk have all described it as a threat to the existence of humanity. They worry that we’ll see the development of autonomous machines with brains many thousands of times larger than our own, and whose interests (and logic) may not square with our own. Essentially the concern is that we’re building a future generation of Terminators without realising it.

They are right to be wary, but a couple of recent stories made me think that human beings actually have several big advantages – we’re not logical, we don’t follow the facts and we don’t give up. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for uncovering the fact that the human mind is made up of two systems, one intuitive and one rational. The emotional, intuitive brain is the default for decision making – without people realising it. So in many ways AI-powered computers do the things we don’t want to do, leaving us free to be more creative (or lazy, dependent on your point of view).

Going back to the advantages that humans have over systems, the first example I’d pick is the UK general election. All the polls predicted a close contest, and an inevitable hung parliament – but voters didn’t behave logically or according to the research and the Tories trounced the opposition. While you might disagree with the result, it shows that you can’t predict the future with the clarity that some expect.

Humans also have an in-built ability to try and game a system and find ways round it, often with unintended consequences. This has been dubbed the Cobra effect after events in colonial India. Alarmed by the number of cobras on the loose, the authorities in Delhi offered a bounty for every dead cobra handed in. People began to play the system, breeding snakes specifically to kill and claim their reward. When the authorities cottoned on and abandoned the programme, the breeders released the now worthless snakes, dramatically increasing the wild cobra population. You can see the same attempt to rig the system in the case of Navinder Singh Sarao, the day trader who is accused of causing the 2010 ‘flash crash’ by spoofing – sending sell orders that he intended to cancel but that tricked trading computers into thinking the market was moving downwards. Despite their intelligence, trading systems cannot spot this sort of behaviour – until it is obviously too late.

The final example is when humans simply ignore the odds and upset the form book. Take Leicester City. Rock bottom of the English Premiership, the Foxes looked odds-on to be relegated. Yet the players believed otherwise, kept confident and continued to plug away. The tide now looks as if it has turned, and the team is just a couple of points away from safety. A robot would have long since given up……..

So artificial intelligence isn’t everything. Giving computers the ability to learn and process huge amounts of data in fractions of a second does threaten the jobs of workers in the knowledge economy. However it also frees up humans to do what they do best – be bloody minded and subversive, think their way around problems, and use their intuition rather than the rational side of their brain. And of course, computers still do have an off switch………….

May 13, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The PR war for AstraZeneca

Ultimately the fate of Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, under siege from US giant Pfizer, will be decided by its shareholders. But that hasn’t stopped the potential takeover from becoming a political football, with MPs, ministers, businesspeople and scientists all providing their views.

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Some of them are justified in sharing their opinion – the MP for Cambridge Julian Huppert wants assurances to protect the high value jobs coming to the city from AstraZeneca’s proposed new research campus. University of Cambridge Chancellor, Lord Sainsbury, is concerned about the impact of a takeover on scientific research in the area and beyond.

Others however have fewer grounds for comment, but with a general election next year (and a European poll looming), it is a chance for the main political parties to try and differentiate themselves. It is a delicate balancing act, particularly for the Conservatives. On the one hand, they want to demonstrate their free trade credentials, but on the other they champion investment in scientific research as critical to moving the UK away from being a services-based economy. In many ways it is easier for Labour, as they are able to call for decisive action to stop the takeover, without having to actually implement anything.

Pfizer under attack
On the PR front, Pfizer is facing an onslaught from multiple sides:

  • The positive tax implications of buying AstraZeneca and moving its headquarters to the UK have been highlighted as a major attraction of the deal, rather than a desire to invest in research.
  • It is also hamstrung by previous behaviour – it shut its research centre in Kent (where Viagra was developed), leading to 1,500 job cuts and has slashed staff numbers following other takeovers. Indeed, the ex-CEO of AstraZeneca has said he has concerns that “they will act like a praying mantis and suck the lifeblood out of their prey.
  • A pledge to keep 20% of R&D jobs in the UK in the event of a takeover has led to worries that posts will be cut in the US.
  • Finally, its first quarter revenue fell by 9%, $730m below analyst expectations, as patent protection runs out on key drugs.

The reason for much of this ire is actually retrospective. MPs and the general public are still smarting after the hostile takeover of Cadbury by Kraft, and in particular the broken promises on factory closures given to parliamentary committees by CEO Irene Rosenfeld. There’s a public determination not to be made a fool of again driving a lot of political behaviour.

The Pfizer PR strategy
This means that Pfizer is being cautious and taking the time to get its message across, with CEO Ian Read making trips to the UK (note how his Scottish background is being played up), intense lobbying of the government and assurances being given about jobs in the short-term.

However with less than three weeks until the bid deadline of 26 May, expect the tactics to evolve, depending on what will sway stakeholders. In a way AstraZeneca wants Pfizer to turn nasty, so it can claim protection from the Big Bad American, but I think that its opponent’s PR strategy is too clever to fall for that. It will just chip away, giving what appear to be increasingly concrete reassurances in public on jobs, while lobbying investors and politicians behind the scenes, potentially raising its bid without going overboard.

Will it be enough? Time (and PR) will tell, but I fear that the combination of Pfizer’s stealth approach and the short-term focus of many investors, will take the prize.

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May 7, 2014 Posted by | Cambridge, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment