My friend? A new relationship paradigm for companies and their neighbours

My friend? A new relationship paradigm for companies and their neighbours

In the Facebook and LinkedIn age, we expect everyone to be our friend and our relationships are increasingly defined by “Likes” and a friendship status. So also do companies, who seek solutions based upon acceptance of their position or plans by everyone around them.

At one workshop at last year’s 2nd UN Forum on Business & Human Rights, their were raised eyebrows (that's how one expresses outrage in Geneva) as one delegate stated bluntly that companies should not expect neighbours, stakeholders, residents, activists or anyone else to have any interest in their well-being.

It was a wake-up moment for many working in Sustainability and corporate communications departments, who had assumed until that moment that everyone wanted a win-win solution. Everyone can be friends! Everyone can be happy!

But companies do need to adapt to a world where they are engaging more constructively with those who have no interest in them at all. For example, Sustainable Development Reports have always been written from a perspective of everyone being on the same side – wanting development, wanting projects, wanting economic success of the firm. But to some, firms are an unmitigated ‘bad thing’ and they are increasingly calling for their say to be heard, even in those very companies’ own reporting. It’s going to be a tough call, allowing those who oppose you to communicate through your channels. But in doing so, many companies will really start to understand the realities for all stakeholders, not just the select few (or many) who like you or are neutral.

By engaging with and reporting to only those who are positive or neutral, much can be missed that would actively help the corporation learn and improve.

A further advantage is that it will provide a richer understanding of how the company is being managed in difficult situations and in multi-stakeholder environments. It may even reinstate the value of Sustainable Development Reports which are increasingly feeling – to many – like school reports: “lovely lad; lots of potential; needs to try harder”.

The UN Forum on Business and Human Rights was fascinating for its rich diversity of thought and the sheer scope of its interests. Across the corporate world, down the years, most of the standards and most of the pace-setting has come from the corporate side and their consultants, yet in the Rights arena, the lead is much more even-handed. The roles of NGOs, individual activists, even law firms and politicians is more front-line, not relegating corporate interests to the back seat but certainly creating more balance.

In Geneva last December, it was certainly interesting to see how much had been developed during one year, and it is to be expected that the 3rd UN Forum on Business and Human Rights next month will make further huge steps forward. Corporate participation will certainly help deepen the understanding of when and how you need to engage with and report to stakeholders, friendly or not.