Making your sustainability report come alive

Many companies are spending a lot of both time and money on their sustainability reporting. But does anyone actually read the reports? Social business expert Tania Ellis brings you 6 tips on how you can make your reporting come alive

Employees as CSR ambassadors
CSR communication is often focused on external stakeholders, but this should also include communication efforts that target employees. Image: KMD

One hundred thirty-four downloads out of 360,000 homepage visitors in one year: that is what one of Denmark’s largest information technology companies, KMD, got out of spending over 1,000 hours on publishing their most recent corporate sustainability report (CSR) report.

In other words: big effort – small gain.  

In just a decade, the number of the world’s largest companies that include non-financial reporting in their annual reports has almost tripled.

Like KMD, many of these companies have used a lot of resources – employing both part-time and full-time positions – on publishing annual CSR reports to communicate the many ways their business is creating value for society.

The only problem is that there are very few people who actually read the reports, except for maybe a handful of jobseekers, students and sustainability consultants.

Make sure the content of the report comes alive by: first, letting it become a part of the broader corporate communication and second, by making it more interactive.

This is a shame. Because as the recent survey Count Me In – The Readers’ Take on Sustainability Reporting’ showed, 90 per cent of the 2,300 respondents thought that reading CSR reports had a very strong influence on their perception of the business, and 85 per cent said that they had developed a more positive image of the company after reading reports.

In short, companies are missing out on potential benefits such as a stronger corporate brand, increased customer loyalty, differentiation in the market place, as well as attraction and retention of staff.

So what to do? Maybe you can do what KMD did. They are now including a short section about their CSR efforts as part of their annual report, and have instead focused their main efforts on telling their CSR stories throughout the year through a variety of their other communication channels.  

As KMD’s CSR manager Mikkel Klausen explains, “It doesn’t make sense to use one format to communicate to many different stakeholders.”

KMD can already see that they are getting much more ‘bang for the buck’. For example, they have posted a number of short videos about their work with climate change on YouTube.

In just eight months the videos have reached a combined view count of 1,000 – a significantly higher hit rate than their annual CSR reports, and in a way which makes the report come alive.

In other words: KMD has not only saved time and resources, it has also made it easier for them to sell their CSR approach to both customers and employees. As what Klausen says: “We would much rather tell stories than report. This approach creates a lot more value for us.”

So how do you get started?

If your company is already using resources on annual CSR reporting, the efforts are by no means wasted.

Just make sure the content of the report comes alive by: first, letting it become a part of the broader corporate communication and second, by making it more interactive.

Thereby you can optimize on the amount of hours you’ve already spent on collecting data and good CSR stories and also turn your information efforts into communication and dialogue opportunities with your key stakeholders.

Here’s the approach we use in my own company when we work with corporate clients: Start by creating an overview of your stakeholders, target audiences, as well as messages, and then build your CSR communications plan according to the following questions:

  1. Why do we wish to communicate? (which strategic and operational goals do you wish do address with your communication, e.g. employer branding, increased sales)
  2. How do we want to communicate? (which level of engagement do you want to achieve, what style and tone for your various stakeholder groups)
  3. Who do we primarily want to target our communication at? (determined by your strategic and operational goals)
  4. Which channels do we want to use to reach our selected target audience? (e.g. social media, public speaking, PR with link/reference to full report) 
  5. What do we want to communicate? (choice of messages adapted to your chosen target audience)
  6. How often do we wish to communicate? (your strategic and operational goals will determine frequency and time period)

A final tip: My experience is that CSR communication is all too often focused on the external stakeholders. So when you are planning your CSR communication, remember to include communication efforts that target your very most important CSR ambassadors: your employees.

Tania Ellis is a Danish-British prize-winning author, speaker and business advisor, specialized in social business trends and strategies. Check her site here

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