The Issue of Public Relations in ESG: Does it lead to meaningful change?

By Sofia-Marie Mascia  

On the HCIIG Blog we’ve already established that in a globalized age where the influence of the private sector is so salient, multinational corporations have the power to influence the lives of the millions of people associated with their business. Workers and shareholders rely on ethical practices of these companies as employers, but consumers often take away more than a product or a service from their purchases. When companies are so visible, consumers who associate their services or goods with a personal life choice or brand are more likely to care when a firm doesn’t make responsible choices in production.

An example of this is when international human rights groups criticised FIFA for employing slave labourers in building the Qatar stadium in preparation for the 2022 World Cup. To combat the public relations scandal, FIFA created a Human Rights advisory board and established guidelines for labor regulations. Under pressure from such a large international corporation, the Qatar government changed its labor laws to be more comprehensive, especially in regard to banning slave labour. This case seems like an ideal example of humanitarian actors facilitating real change in corporate responsibility until you question what impact these changes had on the ground and in real time.

FIFA would argue that Qatari workers now are empowered to contact FIFA if they feel their rights are being infringed upon. However, it is more likely that because of a language barrier and the intimidation of appealing to a corporation as powerful and pervasive as FIFA stopped the changes from being effective in the long-term. Not to mention a lot of the workers don’t even know their rights and are so desperate for income they would hardly ever risk losing their jobs.

This brings up an interesting concern when analyzing the role of corporate social responsibility in human rights. Must a public relations scandal facilitate all change to ESG attitudes in corporations like FIFA? Would change have occurred in Qatar if viewership of millions of football fans was not at stake? What about industries that are less likely to attract publicity? The modifications implemented at a high corporate level appease the public, but often don’t improve the quality of life of laborers in the Global South. In the future HCIIG may look at cases where public relations are less of a motivator, to see if a meaningful change in adjudicating human rights abuses is possible while maintaining a successful business platform.