Brevity is the soul of wit, says the proverb. Try telling that to the authors of this year's annual corporate responsibility (CR) and sustainability reports. Some of these tomes weigh in at more than 140 pages of densely packed text. And there are a lot of them around, too. In response to growing stakeholder scrutiny and regulation, most large companies churn out a report as a matter of course these days. But all that industry is for nought if the report sits unread on a shelf.
For many companies that want to see themselves as leading the field in CR programmes, this 'mainstreaming' of reporting presents a problem. How do you stand out from the crowd, maintain interest and truly engage stakeholders in your reporting?
Trying to lead the reader through a seemingly interminable set of disclosures on topics that may or may not be of interest is doomed to failure. Instead, smart companies are focusing hard, giving up on trying to provide a detailed account of performance on every single issue. At 58 pages, the 2009 CR report from Tesco is much more palatable than its wordier cousins and is a good example of the benefits of being brief.
Of course, simply chopping pages is not enough on its own to engage and convince stakeholders. The bravest reporters are zooming in on their material issues, the most challenging and even controversial topics, and meeting them head on. By addressing the issues of most concern to stakeholders, they are building that invaluable commodity: trust in the brand.
Energy sector companies, and those that are intensive energy users, are under most pressure to address challenging issues. Utilities such as EDF Energy and Holcim, the global cement and aggregates company, use panels of external stakeholders to provide feedback on their sustainability programmes and reporting. In future, these panels could provide direct observations and quotes as another way of demonstrating transparency and openness to challenge. Companies such as Shell and Vodafone started experimenting with this some years ago.
No matter how focused and relevant the printed report, it remains essentially a static document. It can often contain data that are 18 months old by the time it is read. And there is little opportunity for individual readers to engage in dialogue about the issues reported. Thankfully, we are starting to see some innovation on this front.
The Guardian has just launched its new, interactive sustainability reporting website. This is an experiment in real-time reporting that enables much greater user interaction. The site uses the full power of filters, tags, comment fields and blogs to meld together content that shifts and evolves like a living organism. For readers and other stakeholders large and small, responding to the newspaper's take on the issues, getting your voice heard and sparking debate has never been easier. All in all, it's a satisfying experience. Satisfaction breeds respect, enhancing reputation.
With the upsurge in online activity, maybe it's time for reports to be built not only on company-generated content, but also as a channel for the voices of those affected by the company.
Demonstrating a hard link between any one communication technique, such as CR reporting, and a company's reputation has always been a tough call. But in these cost-conscious times, there has to be more to show for it than a few responses in pre-paid envelopes.
Reporting can be a real catalyst for change. To succeed in the future, it has to become infinitely more two-way - not just a static tool to inform, but a prompt for challenging and exchanging of views on the issues that matter.
Views in brief
- How are you advising clients to pursue a sustainability agenda this year?
I have three tips. Aim for scale in the way that some of the big players are starting to make a difference on big issues such as climate change and energy security. Stick to your knitting, by being clear about the issues that are particularly relevant to you. The Co-operative Group, a long-standing sustainability leader, has focused its efforts on a small number of core themes. Finally, yell about it: too often the real green champions hide their lights under a bushel.