Brand perception vs reality: PwC, gas bottles, and the importance of ethics

by | Oct 19, 2023

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past couple of months, the fact that PwC has absolutely trashed its own brand won’t be news.

The paragraph above is an exact copy of the opening paragraph of my LinkedIn article of October 14, 2015. I have simply inserted PwC instead of Volkswagen. (Most of you will remember when Volkswagen was caught out cheating on the tests that measure the greenhouse gas emission levels of some vehicles.)

The article continues, “I read and write a lot about Corporate Social Responsibility. The Volkswagen, Enron and Lehman Brothers scandals are now part of corporate folklore. Another decade – another scandal.”

Well, we’re not quite one decade on from 2015, but we have seen more than our fair share of corporate (and government) scandals. It’s not just another decade, another scandal, but same decade, plenty more scandals!  Here’s a short list to begin with:

  • Robodebt
  • Sports rorts scandal
  • Victorian Government Hotel Quarantine Inquiry
  • Banking Royal Commission
  • AMP’s financial services misconduct
  • Rio Tinto’s Indigenous cultural heritage destruction
  • Commonwealth Bank of Australia’s money-laundering scandal

But it’s not just international corporate giants and governments that are vulnerable – they just get the attention of the international media.

Every single one of us who owns a business – large or small – is just as vulnerable.

The gas bottle incident

In that article, I recounted the story of my visit to a gas supplier to collect some LPG gas bottles. I hadn’t been there before, so I had approached the building cautiously, looking for the correct entrance amongst a maze of ‘Safety’, ‘Caution’, ‘One Way’, ‘No Entry’, ‘Exit Only’ etc. signs. In the end, I just parked outside!

What I deduced from all these signs was:

  • This was a high-danger workplace.
  • I was not to smoke or use a mobile phone anywhere on the site.

As I walked to the office entrance, a young male employee exited from the Office door. He squatted down in the visitors’ car park, lit up a cigarette and started texting on his mobile phone.

Inside, once a customer service person appeared, I asked if she was aware that someone was outside smoking and using a mobile phone. She replied that, “It’s only in the carpark”.

As I’ve spent a lot of the past 25 years dealing with the safety regulations of large companies, I was a bit surprised.

Didn’t the signs say “No Smoking Permitted Anywhere On This Site”? Given the number of gas bottles that were clearly visible, I thought that this was a perfectly reasonable request.

The message transmitted by all the signs was being completely overridden by the actions of the employee – and, worst of all, it seems that this was an acceptable practice.

The lesson I took away from that visit was that our brand is on show – always. The commitment to safety that was displayed with all the signs was clearly only skin deep. All the safety messages went completely out the door with the employee smoking and texting in the car park.

No, there wasn’t a Royal Commission into the gas bottle incident in 2015, but the parallels with the behaviour of PwC, Volkswagen, Australian Banks etc. are clear whatever size you are.

Live up to your brand.

Do what you say you will do.

Ethics are important.

This post first appeared on on October 11, 2023.