Thu, Jul 05, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Battling bigotry a new challenge for top Indian companies

By Jeanette Rodrigues, Bhuma Shrivastava and Ronojoy Mazumdar  /  Bloomberg

A wave of religious intolerance as India heads toward elections is emerging as a new risk for its biggest companies.

Over the past weeks, a telecom giant, the Indian lender led by Asia’s richest banker and the local rival of Uber Technologies have been roiled by controversies linked to comments on Facebook and Twitter involving a minority community in the Hindu-dominated nation.

All these started as social media posts, then gained a life of their own as people backed or vilified the comments, eventually forcing the companies to react to contain any damage.

Tensions on social media are mounting as the world’s largest democracy approaches elections early next year that are to pit the Hindu nationalist beliefs of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party against the main opposition, which often spotlights secularism and rising religious intolerance.

Risk consultancy Kroll said it is seeing an “exponential increase” in questions from corporate clients on how to manage the fallout from incidents on social media.

“It doesn’t just carry reputational and business risk — it can snowball into business continuity risks that can spread faster than a forest fire,” said Tarun Bhatia, a Mumbai-based managing director at Kroll. “Companies can’t choose their customers or control what they say, so it comes down to how companies manage these incidents, how quickly they react.”

Bharti Airtel, India’s biggest telecom thanks to its 304 million subscribers, was tested on that.

This is how it began: At about noon on June 18, Twitter user Pooja Singh complained about an Airtel customer service representative. An Airtel employee replied, promising to get back with more information, and signed off as “Shoaib.”

This is a recognizable Muslim name in a nation riven by passionate teams of social media trolls, akin to the US experience in which political discourse often degenerates into hate-filled accusations.

“Dear Shohaib, as you’re a Muslim and I have no faith in your working ethics ... requesting you to assign a Hindu representative for my request. Thanks,” Singh responded.

Soon after, another Airtel rep named Gaganjot — a clearly non-Muslim name — promised to resolve Singh’s concern.

On the morning of June 20, Airtel published a statement on Twitter rejecting accusations that it gave in to Singh’s alleged discriminatory demand, something that had already attracted severe criticism of the carrier and threats to discontinue its services, including from opposition lawmakers.

The statement said that Shoaib and Gaganjot were just following established workflow processes that “got read as ‘bowing down to bigotry.’”

“Airtel has been resolute for 23 years” and “our training manuals will never carry instructions to pause and check one’s identity before serving a query,” the statement read.

The company did not reply to an e-mail seeking further comment.

The reputational risks to companies of an increasingly polarized political and social discourse online are relatively new in India, Kroll said.

Loss of reputation or brand value was not a key concern for Indian firms surveyed for the Allianz Risk Barometer 2018, even while it was among the top 10 for companies in the rest of the Asia-Pacific region and in the US.

Almost a quarter of a company’s value is estimated to lie in its brand, the report said.

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