Responsible policy

by Dr Michael Groves

27 Jan 2010

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The ever-growing trend for companies to produce annual reports on their corporate social responsibility (CSR) or sustainability record, has created more questions than it answers.

There is no doubt that the reports are more sophisticated and standardised, helped along by a range of voluntary standards and guidance notes for CSR reporting and statutory requirements to report on environmental risks. At the same time, the reports have in many ways become an expensive exercise in document creation and consultancy-speak. In other words, a communication tool that tries to please everyone and consequently pleases no one. If you want any proof of this, even the investment analysts find them boring!

At best, your jobbing CSR report is just a piece of corporate wallpaper. At worst it is a duvet hiding all manner of governance failings. One can readily cite the example of Royal Bank of Scotland, which latterly had played ball on climate change, produced an annual sustainability report and ticked many of the CSR boxes. The turmoil in 2008/2009 showed that its reporting regime merely accentuated the disjuncture between measures of environmental and community engagement and actual company performance and governance. These reports singularly failed as tools of openness and transparency.

The aspirant CSR communicators need to recognise that being open and transparent is perhaps more important now than ever, with the private sector subject to a greater level of cynicism and scrutiny. On the plus side, there is a growing canon of evidence showing that companies that are prepared to open themselves up and listen to their customers will be more successful.

The business must then decide what the best methods are of communicating with the many groups interested in its CSR record – be they customers, regulators, investors, employees, local communities or suppliers.

While it may be harder to do, I would venture to suggest that a combination of different communication methods would be most effective, be they web based (including social media tools), printed summaries, presentations, one-to-one meetings, debates, adverts, maps, graphs, exhibitions, postcards or tea towels.

There is huge scope for businesses to be genuinely interesting in relation to CSR. If nothing else, it is about telling a story and responding to the resulting debate and questions. The digital world also allows the story to be told in real time, with video, blogging and graphics that show
what is happening right now within the business and even across its supply chain.

Adopting a greater level of CSR openness may be daunting to the “on message” communication control freaks out there, but I’m afraid they will just have to get used to it. In fact, they will either adapt or be trampled into the soil when future CEOs, CFOs and CIOs born into a social media-dominated world start to get their hands on businesses. It’s already happening, so come on you corporate suits, open yourselves up a little more.

Dr Michael Groves is an environmental professional and entrepreneur.

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