At its heart, Corporate Social Responsibility is really about how your company engages with the world - the communities where it does business. Do you give back or do you suck out natural resources and leave only pollution behind? Are you helping to enhance the local community with great jobs that help build healthy families, or are you paying as little as possible? Does your company exist to benefit the community or just the shareholders? If it's the former, how do you define your contributions?
Without a clear communication strategy, no one really knows.
Now, when I say "communication," I'm not talking about the department with a capital C, I'm talking about truly communicating - not just putting your message out there, but making sure that the person you are talking to can hear you. True communication requires both a speaker and a listener, ideally taking turns. You might have the best story in the world to tell, but if no one is listening, then your communication strategy is not very effective.
The most effective CSR reporting will be mindful both of the company's achievements, and the priorities of the people who will read the report: employees, customers, community representatives, NGOs, and yes, shareholders. Integrating their priorities into your CSR strategy can help you maximize the impact of your reporting. But how?
Back to basics: the purpose of a CSR report
The purpose of a CSR report is to communicate your efforts to the people who care about them - all those stakeholders. Yet, the most common complaint I hear from companies that write CSR reports is that after all that hard work, very few people actually read the report. One of the best ways to get a better reception to your report is to actually talk about the things that the people you hope will read the report - employees, investors, media, NGOs and customers care about. If you've talked to them about CSR strategy and their ideas show up in the report, I promise you, they will not only read the report, but share it on social media networks and maybe even blog about it. (We would!)
You need to talk to people
When you get into the nitty-gritty of what your corporate responsibility strategy is and what type of goals you are setting for the future, things can get complicated quickly. Only those who are involved in your company's sphere of influence can tell you what's crucial to cover.
Employees up and down the ladder, customers, NGO representatives, regulators and policy experts, can all give you insight into the places where your company excels and where it needs to improve. We've all seen superficial CSR reporting - those press releases from companies that proudly change a few lightbulbs and call it a day. Energy efficient lighting is probably material if your company runs a grow house (please excuse me, I'm in California), but for less energy-intensive industries, it's not enough to address the low-hanging fruit (pun intended.)
This means a transition from just communicating your CSR efforts to listening to stakeholders and then communicating your efforts - from one-way communication to two-way communication. But this simple shift in focus has numerous positive impacts, from increasing the impact of your CSR reporting efforts, to risk mitigation to meeting the demand for increased transparency that all companies are currently feeling in this brave new world of social media.
Side benefits of engaged communication
If you use your CSR reporting juice to focus on the superficial, you miss out on the risk mitigation benefits of stakeholder engagement. By looking more deeply at your organization's activities, you can anticipate which actions are going to become a lot more expensive down the road - or maybe even impossible thanks to new regulations. You can anticipate and avoid activities that might land you in trouble with NGOs like Greenpeace, and finally, you can gain goodwill and brand value with employees and consumers alike, making your company more resilient to bad news if it occurs.
A deeper reporting strategy can save your company money down the line - that means the CSR program won't get chopped as soon as the easy energy-efficiency projects are completed. By focusing on the core issues that make your company tick, your reporting can improve the resiliency of your organization.
Yes, it can be a challenge to keep the conversation productive and on track, and yes it can be a challenge to prioritize all your stakeholder feedback - once you get down to business there are lots of tools and courses to help you with that. The point is just to shift your mindset from talking at stakeholders to listening to them.
From CSR report to CSR reporting all year round
Ultimately, your goal should be to shift your approach to CSR reporting away from just focusing on that annual communication behemoth: the CSR report. I understand why companies get so bogged down with the report - it's a huge job with many moving parts and input from many different departments and internal stakeholders.
But ultimately, it's not the contents of the report, but the act of reporting, that matters most - and that communication channel should be open all year round.
Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.