Business and Human Rights – On the Radar Screen


Business efforts to promote “sustainability” – or, more precisely, the environmental component of that term – have grown by leaps and bounds in the past two to three years.  By any measure, how companies are responding to environmental challenges has been the dominant CSR issue of the day – with no sign that will change anytime soon. 

The contrast with activity on human rights is substantial. Former senior Shell and UK government official Sir Geoffrey Chandler, who founded Amnesty International’s business leadership group, has publicly lamented the lack of leadership and engagement by businesses and NGOs on the human rights front.

Learning from Sustainability
Why such a difference in focus and activity?  Put simply, more and more business leaders today recognize that being active on sustainability makes good sense from both a financial and a social perspective.  They see a strong CSR program in the green space as a means of achieving strategic advantage. 

Consequently, there has been a rapid growth in companies making commitments to reducing their “carbon footprint,” changing their product and service mix and seeking to gain long-term advantage through recognition as green brands. 

In contrast, the business case has not yet been made clearly enough on human rights, and as a result, corporate engagement there has lagged in comparison. 

To be sure, some companies, such as the 14 members of the Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights (BLIHR), headed by former Irish President and top UN human rights official Mary Robinson, have devoted considerable effort to mapping their human rights challenges, responsibilities and objectives. 

And the roughly 3,000 corporate participants in the UN Global Compact pledge to link policies and practices to several human rights and labor, as well as environmental and anti-corruption principles. 

Even so, human rights issues have barely made a ripple on the corporate radar screen in recent years compared with the race to engage on environmental challenges. But 2008 may well be the year that begins to change, with ramifications for businesses and for the PR and communications consultants who advise them.

What’s New in 2008?
Two events stand out in this regard.  First, and far better known: the Summer Olympics in Beijing.  Major sponsors have received the bulk of the scrutiny to date, but as the Games near, human rights NGOs and the media will also spotlight other companies that do business in China. 

The Olympics provide an ideal opportunity for concerned groups to focus attention on inadequate labor practices, supply chain problems and other areas where businesses can be tied to human rights concerns in China.

The second important 2008 event is far less well known, but its impact ultimately could be greater. By mid-year, Professor John Ruggie of Harvard, the first-ever UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights, is scheduled to issue his final report, culminating nearly three years of research, field hearings and other activities. 

While many major global companies, on their own or through their trade associations, have engaged with Ruggie, most business leaders probably have not even heard of him.  That may start to change with the issuance of his report, which, along with the work of BLIHR and others, may establish a road map for how smart businesses can begin to internalize human rights principles in their activities and operations. 

Will Business Pay Attention?
The report’s impact will depend both on its content and a sound communications strategy that carries the following message to business audiences:

Corporate efforts to advance human rights extend beyond managing risks and meeting standards; these can also help promote new business opportunities.

To be sure, the business case for engagement on human rights is a tougher sell than on green issues.  For most companies, the impact and relevance seem far more remote than on the environment – the risks more distant, the opportunities more speculative.

As 2008 rolls along, there will be more attention to how failures to address human rights concerns are creating new risks to corporate reputation, much like the product safety crises of the past few months. That will be a start in highlighting the issue, but it will not be enough to stimulate heightened interest in human rights among senior executives. 

For maximum impact, Ruggie’s report will need to make a compelling case not just for the costs of inaction, but for the benefits of leadership on human rights.

How Can You Help Make the Business Case?
Which brings us to the important role that PR and communications professionals can play in working with their business clients. 

For some clients, it may be enough simply to spotlight the growing attention to human rights issues likely over the coming months; monitoring and informing them of relevant developments will be enough.  But for others, it will be useful to identify tools that help clients better understand and assess the landscape. 

These may include:


•    Informing on the benefits to reputation gained by those companies already active in this area, such as the members of BLIHR;

•    Benchmarking how the client stands vis-à-vis key peers and competitors with respect to adherence to core human rights principles;

•    Surveying its key supply chain and business partner relationships to identify particular points of human rights vulnerabilities;

•    Assessing potential openings for dialogue with NGOs that are less interested in “naming and shaming” than in working together to advance human rights objectives; and

•    Identifying opportunities for engagement on human rights issues that can both advance brand differentiation and enhance the company’s attractiveness in the eyes of employees as well as job recruits.

The point is not to try to equate human rights with sustainability in the eyes of business executives. 

It is to begin to help spotlight ways in which attention to human rights may provide opportunities for strategic CSR, just like smart businesses began to do on the environmental front a few short years ago.

Eric R. Biel is managing director, corporate responsibility in the Washington, D.C. office of Burson-Marsteller. Business and Human Rights – On the Radar Screen 

By Eric R. Biel


Business efforts to promote “sustainability” – or, more precisely, the environmental component of that term – have grown by leaps and bounds in the past two to three years.  By any measure, how companies are responding to environmental challenges has been the dominant CSR issue of the day – with no sign that will change anytime soon. 

The contrast with activity on human rights is substantial. Former senior Shell and UK government official Sir Geoffrey Chandler, who founded Amnesty International’s business leadership group, has publicly lamented the lack of leadership and engagement by businesses and NGOs on the human rights front.

Learning from Sustainability

Why such a difference in focus and activity?  Put simply, more and more business leaders today recognize that being active on sustainability makes good sense from both a financial and a social perspective.  They see a strong CSR program in the green space as a means of achieving strategic advantage. 

Consequently, there has been a rapid growth in companies making commitments to reducing their “carbon footprint,” changing their product and service mix and seeking to gain long-term advantage through recognition as green brands. 

In contrast, the business case has not yet been made clearly enough on human rights, and as a result, corporate engagement there has lagged in comparison. 

To be sure, some companies, such as the 14 members of the Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights (BLIHR), headed by former Irish President and top UN human rights official Mary Robinson, have devoted considerable effort to mapping their human rights challenges, responsibilities and objectives. 

And the roughly 3,000 corporate participants in the UN Global Compact pledge to link policies and practices to several human rights and labor, as well as environmental and anti-corruption principles. 

Even so, human rights issues have barely made a ripple on the corporate radar screen in recent years compared with the race to engage on environmental challenges. But 2008 may well be the year that begins to change, with ramifications for businesses and for the PR and communications consultants who advise them.

What’s New in 2008?
Two events stand out in this regard.  First, and far better known: the Summer Olympics in Beijing.  Major sponsors have received the bulk of the scrutiny to date, but as the Games near, human rights NGOs and the media will also spotlight other companies that do business in China. 


The Olympics provide an ideal opportunity for concerned groups to focus attention on inadequate labor practices, supply chain problems and other areas where businesses can be tied to human rights concerns in China.

The second important 2008 event is far less well known, but its impact ultimately could be greater. By mid-year, Professor John Ruggie of Harvard, the first-ever UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights, is scheduled to issue his final report, culminating nearly three years of research, field hearings and other activities. 

While many major global companies, on their own or through their trade associations, have engaged with Ruggie, most business leaders probably have not even heard of him.  That may start to change with the issuance of his report, which, along with the work of BLIHR and others, may establish a road map for how smart businesses can begin to internalize human rights principles in their activities and operations. 

Will Business Pay Attention?

The report’s impact will depend both on its content and a sound communications strategy that carries the following message to business audiences:

Corporate efforts to advance human rights extend beyond managing risks and meeting standards; these can also help promote new business opportunities.

To be sure, the business case for engagement on human rights is a tougher sell than on green issues.  For most companies, the impact and relevance seem far more remote than on the environment – the risks more distant, the opportunities more speculative.

As 2008 rolls along, there will be more attention to how failures to address human rights concerns are creating new risks to corporate reputation, much like the product safety crises of the past few months. That will be a start in highlighting the issue, but it will not be enough to stimulate heightened interest in human rights among senior executives. 

For maximum impact, Ruggie’s report will need to make a compelling case not just for the costs of inaction, but for the benefits of leadership on human rights.

How Can You Help Make the Business Case?

Which brings us to the important role that PR and communications professionals can play in working with their business clients. 

For some clients, it may be enough simply to spotlight the growing attention to human rights issues likely over the coming months; monitoring and informing them of relevant developments will be enough.  But for others, it will be useful to identify tools that help clients better understand and assess the landscape. 

These may include:


•    Informing on the benefits to reputation gained by those companies already active in this area, such as the members of BLIHR;

•    Benchmarking how the client stands vis-à-vis key peers and competitors with respect to adherence to core human rights principles;

•    Surveying its key supply chain and business partner relationships to identify particular points of human rights vulnerabilities;

•    Assessing potential openings for dialogue with NGOs that are less interested in “naming and shaming” than in working together to advance human rights objectives; and

•    Identifying opportunities for engagement on human rights issues that can both advance brand differentiation and enhance the company’s attractiveness in the eyes of employees as well as job recruits.

The point is not to try to equate human rights with sustainability in the eyes of business executives. 

It is to begin to help spotlight ways in which attention to human rights may provide opportunities for strategic CSR, just like smart businesses began to do on the environmental front a few short years ago.

Eric R. Biel is managing director, corporate responsibility in the Washington, D.C. office of Burson-Marsteller. Business and Human Rights – On the Radar Screen 

By Eric R. Biel


Business efforts to promote “sustainability” – or, more precisely, the environmental component of that term – have grown by leaps and bounds in the past two to three years.  By any measure, how companies are responding to environmental challenges has been the dominant CSR issue of the day – with no sign that will change anytime soon. 

The contrast with activity on human rights is substantial. Former senior Shell and UK government official Sir Geoffrey Chandler, who founded Amnesty International’s business leadership group, has publicly lamented the lack of leadership and engagement by businesses and NGOs on the human rights front.

Learning from Sustainability

Why such a difference in focus and activity?  Put simply, more and more business leaders today recognize that being active on sustainability makes good sense from both a financial and a social perspective.  They see a strong CSR program in the green space as a means of achieving strategic advantage. 

Consequently, there has been a rapid growth in companies making commitments to reducing their “carbon footprint,” changing their product and service mix and seeking to gain long-term advantage through recognition as green brands. 

In contrast, the business case has not yet been made clearly enough on human rights, and as a result, corporate engagement there has lagged in comparison. 

To be sure, some companies, such as the 14 members of the Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights (BLIHR), headed by former Irish President and top UN human rights official Mary Robinson, have devoted considerable effort to mapping their human rights challenges, responsibilities and objectives. 

And the roughly 3,000 corporate participants in the UN Global Compact pledge to link policies and practices to several human rights and labor, as well as environmental and anti-corruption principles. 

Even so, human rights issues have barely made a ripple on the corporate radar screen in recent years compared with the race to engage on environmental challenges. But 2008 may well be the year that begins to change, with ramifications for businesses and for the PR and communications consultants who advise them.

What’s New in 2008?
Two events stand out in this regard.  First, and far better known: the Summer Olympics in Beijing.  Major sponsors have received the bulk of the scrutiny to date, but as the Games near, human rights NGOs and the media will also spotlight other companies that do business in China. 


The Olympics provide an ideal opportunity for concerned groups to focus attention on inadequate labor practices, supply chain problems and other areas where businesses can be tied to human rights concerns in China.

The second important 2008 event is far less well known, but its impact ultimately could be greater. By mid-year, Professor John Ruggie of Harvard, the first-ever UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights, is scheduled to issue his final report, culminating nearly three years of research, field hearings and other activities. 

While many major global companies, on their own or through their trade associations, have engaged with Ruggie, most business leaders probably have not even heard of him.  That may start to change with the issuance of his report, which, along with the work of BLIHR and others, may establish a road map for how smart businesses can begin to internalize human rights principles in their activities and operations. 

Will Business Pay Attention?

The report’s impact will depend both on its content and a sound communications strategy that carries the following message to business audiences:

Corporate efforts to advance human rights extend beyond managing risks and meeting standards; these can also help promote new business opportunities.

To be sure, the business case for engagement on human rights is a tougher sell than on green issues.  For most companies, the impact and relevance seem far more remote than on the environment – the risks more distant, the opportunities more speculative.

As 2008 rolls along, there will be more attention to how failures to address human rights concerns are creating new risks to corporate reputation, much like the product safety crises of the past few months. That will be a start in highlighting the issue, but it will not be enough to stimulate heightened interest in human rights among senior executives. 

For maximum impact, Ruggie’s report will need to make a compelling case not just for the costs of inaction, but for the benefits of leadership on human rights.

How Can You Help Make the Business Case?

Which brings us to the important role that PR and communications professionals can play in working with their business clients. 

For some clients, it may be enough simply to spotlight the growing attention to human rights issues likely over the coming months; monitoring and informing them of relevant developments will be enough.  But for others, it will be useful to identify tools that help clients better understand and assess the landscape. 

These may include:


•    Informing on the benefits to reputation gained by those companies already active in this area, such as the members of BLIHR;

•    Benchmarking how the client stands vis-à-vis key peers and competitors with respect to adherence to core human rights principles;

•    Surveying its key supply chain and business partner relationships to identify particular points of human rights vulnerabilities;

•    Assessing potential openings for dialogue with NGOs that are less interested in “naming and shaming” than in working together to advance human rights objectives; and

•    Identifying opportunities for engagement on human rights issues that can both advance brand differentiation and enhance the company’s attractiveness in the eyes of employees as well as job recruits.

The point is not to try to equate human rights with sustainability in the eyes of business executives. 

It is to begin to help spotlight ways in which attention to human rights may provide opportunities for strategic CSR, just like smart businesses began to do on the environmental front a few short years ago.

The article was written by Eric R. Biel, managing director, corporate responsibility in the Washington, D.C. office of Burson-Marsteller. It was excerpted from the PR News Crisis Management Guidebook, Volume 2. To order a copy, visit the www.prnewsonline.com/store.










Comments Off

Deals of the Week

Get $150 Off PR News' Social Media Summit with Taste of Tech

prn_ms_175x135_ep

Unlike other conferences, you’ll be immersed in the strategies and tactics that you can apply right away to your work as a communicator. You’ll learn what it takes to compete for attention, engagement and positive brand awareness across an array of social media networks.

Use code “150off” at checkout.

Get $50 off PR News' Digital PR & Social Media Guidebook

DigitalPRSocialMedia_PrintDigital_vol6

This guidebook has one essential purpose: helping you maximize your communications effectiveness in the digital world. The articles in this guidebook produced both by the PR News staff and more than fifty communications industry thought leaders, focus on most every facet of digital PR and social media.

Use code “DIGITAL6” at checkout.

Save $100 on a PR News Subscription

Let PR News become your weekly, go-to resource for the latest PR trends, case studies and tip sheets. Topics covered include visual storytelling, social media, measurement, crisis management and media relations.

Use code “SUBDEAL” at checkout.

Comments are closed.