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
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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