The report’s out, but communicating’s not over
‘Some people think it’s all over…’
Rehashing Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous commentary from England’s 1966 World Cup success (it’s our only one—we have to keep going on about it!) seemed like a fitting way to introduce this article on how sustainability reporting is never really over.
If you have recently shipped the report, this is likely the last thing you want to hear. The report is published, uploaded and launched. You have collapsed in a heap, said hello to your family again, and maybe even had a few well deserved days off. While you may want to focus on other CSR activities for a change, there are a number of things you should also consider doing now the report is live.
You may not feel like it, but if you don’t find time for them now—or at least before next year’s reporting effort starts up—you may never find the time.
1) Distill key facts and stories for Marketing to use.
Think about it. You have just invested months of your life pulling together the company’s latest sustainability efforts. In the report is buried fact after fact, often with handy accompanying data. The information was supplied by colleagues who (appear to) know what they are doing, and may even have been subjected to an assurance process. It’s all good stuff, and should be put to use.
You need to think of Marketing as your audience now. What do they need to do their thing? The answer is short, pithy—ideally single-sentence—summaries. You can support them with detail if you need to. Maybe your report is full of case studies, with good introductory paragraphs that illustrate a point really well. If so, you can likely use them without much adapting. In the last report we wrote for the adidas Group, much of the content is already in ‘story’ form, which makes this process even easier.
You should be talking to Marketing anyway—and in an ideal world they have an interest in the whole CSR topic. But even if you are not, the report is a great conversation-opener. Ask them to a meeting and go in there with at least three great snippets from the report that you have prepared earlier. When choosing these, ask yourself: ‘Is it new?’, ‘Is it distinctive? ‘Is it topical?’ If you can say yes to all three—or even two of these—you likely have material that will interest your Marketing and Brand colleagues.
2) Review how you describe your programme.
Having just produced countless pages on your programme, now is the best time for this. I’m not talking about revisiting the strategy—that’s a different question and one you may not be in a position to do anything about at the moment. But critical self-reflection on how you described the programme is fair game between reports.
When you tried to tell your mum what you were working on while you were in the throes of producing the report, did she get it? I bet she didn’t. If you got anything more than ‘that sounds interesting, dear’, I would wager you’re doing better than 98% of the CSR community.
It is too easy for CSR professionals caught up in the details of the field to forget that most people don’t even know what the three letters in the CSR acronym stand for. ‘Responsible business’ is a more straightforward idea, and one that certainly has more traction with smaller companies. But the crucial point is that people ‘get it’. For your programme to thrive, employees around the organisation must understand how they can play a part, and how they can do that as part of their day job.
You have to meet people on their own ground. We’ve spent years writing sustainability reports for the adidas Group, always with the ambition that they are engaging and straightforward to read. We’ve storyboarded launch videos and set them to music, sent pop quizzes introducing the report to staff by email, filmed the CEO introducing the report… a whole range of tactics. But what has made the most difference with internal engagement was restructuring this year’s (2013) report around what the adidas Group call the ‘4Ps’: People, Product, Planet and Partnerships.
Something really clicked into place for staff with this description of the programme. Again, it’s worth emphasising that the strategy and overall approach has stayed the same. It has been using these ‘four pillars of the sustainability programme’ that has galvanised employee interest. Each pillar comes with an overarching ambition and the result is more clarity for colleagues who work in different departments. For example, product designers can focus on where they can make a difference, and the Sourcing team—already a strong advocate for the programme – are even more engaged.
3) Take a good hard look at your targets.
Do they really make sense? Ask yourself: ‘do these targets only make sense to the team working on the issues, but not to anyone else?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, why are you sharing them? They aren’t helping you be more accountable to your stakeholders.
Firstly, are they the right targets? Will they help you stay focused on delivering the strategy or is the law of unforeseen consequences at play? (For example, are they leading to perverse efforts to ‘fluff’ your in-kind donation figure?) If the targets are not delivering the real behaviours and improvements you want, change them.
Secondly, your targets must be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound). This makes them easier to understand, implement and check back on. If I see ‘ongoing’ as a deadline, I cringe. The activity may be ongoing, but where are you heading with it? That’s what inquiring minds want to know.
Thirdly, how do the targets fit together? Are there huge differences in level? Some degree of difference is fine. It reflects the fact that some areas of your programme are more advanced than others. But it doesn’t make sense to have ‘reduce water use in our administration buildings 20% by 2020’ next to ‘engage 100,000 children in healthy eating activities by 2025’. One is an ongoing measured efficiency effort, probably capably led by one colleague. The other is an ambitious company-wide outreach programme.
Fourthly, if you are publishing targets that are only meaningful to your internal CSR team, rephrase those targets. This may involve raising the target to a higher level and leaving the details for your team to manage. That may sound like ‘hiding’ something, but I would argue that it’s the opposite: it’s about increasing transparency by targeting your communications to the intended audience.
You’ve just produced your report and most likely, so have your peers and competitors. Get a hold of their reports while they’re fresh. Review them. Compare them. What are the common elements and differences? Who is doing what well and who is falling behind? There are lots of ways to do this. Traffic light systems can be useful for an at-a-glance assessment. Perhaps you can connect with a university course or take on a recent graduate and make this one of their first research tasks.
Particular items to look out for include:
- How, if at all, is the sustainability strategy linked to the overall business strategy?
- Is the sustainability strategy connected to the ‘way things are going’—the megatrends of climate change, resource depletion, increased urbanisation, etc
- Does the programme ‘hang together’?
- Does the balance of stories to data feel ‘right’ to you?
- And finally, how are people used in the report? Is it a dry corporate read or do the employees who are actually making these changes have a presence? And what about external commentators—are they used to add credibility to the narrative?
5) Engage your stakeholders.
My last tip would be to use this time to discuss your last report with key audiences. Invite a group for lunch and get an interesting roundtable going—or do it remotely if necessary. Be very clear about your reasons for asking for input, how you plan to use it, and any compensation (such as a contribution to a charity of their choice) that you are willing to make.
You need to find the level of engagement that works for you and your stakeholders. Is it narrowly focused on the report or is it a more wide-ranging review of your programme? You could even decide to involve stakeholders in reviewing your targets for the next report.
This is about closing the loop. The whole reporting process was about demonstrating your accountability and your improving social and environmental performance to your stakeholders. This kind of engagement is proof of your ongoing commitment to that approach.
And after all that, you’ll need another break to recharge your batteries before the next reporting season begins. By which time England will be World Cup winners again. Or not!