Is corporate responsibility and sustainability reporting broken?

Reporting, ain't what it was supposed to be...

Mallen Baker is a highly respected commentator and corporate responsibility expert. He's written for every single edition of Ethical Corporation since 2001 and now runs a digital agency focusing on CR reporting. 

Here's a quick Q&A I did with Mallen recently about the challenges with CR and sustainability reporting.

(Full disclosure: he and I partner with regard to online CR training)

1) You've said reporting is broken. How is this true today?

I often use the parallel of the way they do announcements on the London underground. At busy times, I go to catch a train and they’ve got someone with a megaphone on the platform whose sole purpose is to tell you to “use all available doors”. At no point have I ever seen anybody move away from the door they’d already committed to just because they’d heard this announcement. It is completely redundant communication. But hundreds of people continue to be employed to do this utterly futile thing.

You can understand the rationale for the message. If people spread out along the platform, it makes the system more effective. But as a vehicle for achieving the behaviour change needed to make this happen, the current model is wholly failing.

That is because the form of communication has become completely disconnected from the original purpose. There is apparently no-one much interested in the obvious feedback that it is failing, and so it continues. Arguably, that is also a fair description of CR / sustainability reporting.

2) What's to be done to fix it?

The first thing is to recognise that it’s no more about the framework you use, whether it be G4, or integrated reporting, than it is about what colour the megaphone is.

We have been all very distracted by the important question of what should be done, but not much used to discriminating about how well it’s done.

Take, for instance, the CEO introduction to your report. The frameworks say you should have one, and may tell you what should be in it. But you have to step back and ask yourself why.

Really, the reason is two-fold. The first is that it is important information to see whether the controlling mind of the company truly gets the agenda and has a vision for change. Leadership is key to success. We want to know it’s not just lip service.

And secondly – it being an introduction – we want something that going to interest us and entice us to want to delve deeper into the report.

The actual model – which is structured along the lines of  a few “examples of why our company is great” sandwiched between two sections of meaningless rhetoric (so sustainability is part of your corporate DNA, is it?) – does not effectively fulfill either purpose.

But it wouldn’t be hard to change that. And with many of the things that are currently wrong with reporting, it’s striking just how many of them would be relatively easy and low-cost to fix if companies had the vision and the will to do it.

3) You also talk about 'immersive reporting' - what's that, and what would it work better than what we have now?

Most companies want their report to service all their stakeholders. But only a few of those stakeholders are comfortable with the idea of reading a report. The others need to experience the message in a different way.

Immersive reporting is about taking some of those key messages – backed up by the solid information of how you’re performing – and use online tools to make them genuinely engaging for non-expert audiences. If you can provoke your visitor into putting themselves into your shoes in some way, then you’ve made them far more receptive to considering what your role should be in relation to an issue they care about.

Our experience with producing tools like this for companies has shown that they are genuinely attractive to visitors looking to engage. But it takes that extra element of thought and planning to get right, and the vast majority have been happy to date to simply slap their GRI report online and assume that counts as effective engagement.

4) You are known as a GRI critic, what's your beef, in brief?

There’s some good thinking in the GRI guidelines, they are well worth reading and companies should take what’s useful for them, from the guidelines. 

But I do genuinely believe GRI took us down a blind alley by focusing on a large, complicated wishlist of every indicator that someone sat in its committees thought should be in a report.

The model that has come from its multi-stakeholder process is the concept of a single report that services the needs of all stakeholders. There is no other single communication that any company produces that is aimed at such a variety of audiences with such a diversity of different information needs. And for good reason.

Now, quite a few companies I’ve spoken to – without any prompting from me, by the way – are saying that G4 is a step too far and they’re re-evaluating what they’re going to do. For me, that’s a great opportunity if we can persuade more companies to stop worrying about what frameworks they use, and instead focus on good quality communications.

5) Whose reports do you like, and why?

Nike did a good job with making their report more immersive, with highly visual paths through their product process, with nuggets of information extracted from their report acting as hooks that would get the attention of the interested, casual reader.

I like the way Centrica have used infographics to bring aspects of their process to life, and how they have their CEO Sam Laidlaw responding to independent questioners rather than doing a boring scripted monologue to camera.

And I was recently quite impressed with how Kingfisher have really brought their Net Positive commitment to life – and haven’t been afraid to present it as an unfinished story – a work in progress that they’re deeply serious about but they haven’t yet solved. We are far more likely to be engaged in open stories – but most companies won’t tell us anything unless they can demonstrate an effective conclusion. “Change is happening in our business” is a great strapline for me – full of potential and energy, and implicitly acknowledging that things are not currently perfect.

6) Tell us about this online training course, briefly...

Getting to Grips with CR Reporting focuses on how we make better reports. It looks at some of the different components, and talks about how we can make those work well, and reviews how you can make best use of the tools that might be out there, whether it be at the level of case studies and interviews – as well as the frameworks such as G4.

It’s video on demand training, so people can view the content whenever it suits them – and it’s really focused on the practical things people can do to produce more effective reports. After all, most companies sink considerable resource into producing these reports. If, for relatively low cost and additional effort, you could make that enterprise more effective in how it works for your business – why wouldn’t you?

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The course has four modules of content and runs for four weeks through November 2013 – although people can take longer to work through it if they need to. The website to find out more is: http://getting-to-grips-with-cr-reporting.com


There's also a similarly focused online CR communications training course that runs from the end of November. See more here.
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