CSR reports are enormous undertakings. They are months in the making, involve high-level strategic planning, and require complex logistical coordination. Companies spend valuable time and resources putting reports together. Yet broach “reporting” with many CSR executives, and their eyes float off into the distance and a fleeting smile wipes across their face.
Ask these executives, “Who’s reading your CSR Report?” Well, hardly anyone…
More and more companies are producing CSR reports. Most have yet to figure out how reports fit into an overall corporate strategy that strengthens the brand, and operational alignment. Consequently, they are content with the mere act of reporting and their reports often lack vision and imagination.
I believe that with a little creativity, companies can create CSR reports that attract, engage and inspire a broad audience of stakeholders and consumers. Below are six communication tips to help your company create a report that more people will read and share.
Tip #1: Develop a CSR Mission Statement. CSR reports must have purpose and direction. Reports are first and foremost your company’s innovation strategy for its triple bottom line: People, Planet, Profit. In effect, a report is a manifesto that shares your company’s vision and values for contributing to the overall health and wellbeing of society. It should, therefore, be undertaken with passion and clear intention. A CSR mission statement can help. Consider this one from Honest Tea:
We will never claim to be a perfect company, but we will address difficult issues and strive to be honest about our ability or inability to resolve them. We will strive to work with our suppliers to promote higher standards. We value diversity in the workplace and intend to become a visible presence in the communities where our products are sold. When presented with a purchasing decision between two financially comparable alternatives, we will attempt to choose the option that better addresses the needs of economically disadvantaged communities.
Tip #2: Write with Consumers in Mind. Most reports are written for NGOs and micro-detailed academics gutsy enough to penetrate the fog of information. The emergence of the socially conscious consumer, however, means CSR and the brand experience increasingly need to be seamless. And, just because your audience understands the technical data, doesn’t mean they don’t want it to be interesting, engaging and easy to read.
A recent Nielsen survey indicates that the number of consumers worldwide who say they would be willing to spend more to purchase from socially responsible companies is growing. In the latest findings, 50 percent of global respondents said they would be willing to spend more and 43 percent reported that they have spent more on products and services from socially conscious companies. A complementary consumer interest study estimates that some will spend as much as 10 percent more for products from companies that “give back” to society.
The question is not whether consumers are interested in CSR. The question is whether companies can create a report that consumers will read and share, strengthening brand equity. How can companies accomplish this? Keep reading…
Tip #3: Contextualize the Data. If communication is an art, let’s be honest, most CSR reports are artless. That’s because companies spend most of their time gathering information and precious little time figuring out how to present data in a way that connects.
For example, say your company’s sustainability measures saved three billion gallons of water last year. The easy way to present that information is by simply stating it as a figure. CSR reports are typically loaded with facts like this, most of which get lost in the information deluge. Artful communication happens when you transform that impressive piece of data into something memorable.
Instead of merely stating impressive data factually, put information in context. Something like this: “Last year, our sustainability measures saved three billion gallons of water, an amount equal to the average annual water consumption of Manhattan.” It may not be feasible to do this with every piece of data, but for the statistic that really underscores the impact of your CSR efforts, connect the dots for readers in a compelling way. Bonus points if you can put this contextualized statistic into a creative graphic or immersive experience.
Tip #4: Look for the Human Connection. People care about CSR because they care about the real life impact corporations have on environments, communities and people. CSR reports can provide the medium to transcend the “what” and “how,” and focus on the “why.” It is the “why” in the storytelling that evokes emotion and helps develop new ways of presenting CSR principles on a humanized, local level.
The Chipotle Cultivate Foundation uses simple, yet powerful videos (“Back to the Start” & “The Scarecrow”) to take complex issues and humanize them to a level that makes people care. The message is persuasive and there is no narration, data or charts needed to convey the story. It is pure emotion.
CSR communication is not chiefly about facts and figures, it’s about telling the stories behind the facts and figures. These stories provide purpose and meaning to CSR, without which the numbers are just…well, numbers.
Tip #5: Share Targets and Goals. A CSR report should not simply be a summary of activities heavily sprinkled with data. People also want to know what companies hope to accomplish, where they want to improve, how they plan to reach their objectives. In preparing reports, it’s crucial for companies to show how the data meets, exceeds, or falls short of their own expectations. Remember that your CSR is a key strategic tool.
One benefit to sharing CSR targets and goals is that it creates a space for transparency. People respect companies willing to share where they’ve fallen short and what they’ll do to improve performance.
Tip #6: Go Digital. Raise your hand if your company’s CSR report sleeps in obscurity as a PDF file on the corporate website. If you raised your hand, you’re not alone. Let’s be clear, PDF files are extremely low cost. They are also extremely boring. That’s why more and more companies are discovering the power of turning their reports into platforms that are easily found and foster engagement, even providing a digital ecosystem for regularly updated reporting and stories.
Nike’s most recent CSR report shows what a reporting website can become. Instead of telling you its CSR efforts, Nike invites you on an interactive journey of discovering innovation rather than reading information. Not every company has the resources to create something similar, but even a relatively simple website, if well-planned, will be significantly more effective at presenting your company’s CSR efforts than a PDF file.
About The Author
Jonathon Hensley is CEO of Emerge Interactive, a progressive digital agency specialized in creating relevant and engaging user experiences across the interactive landscape. Under Jonathon’s stewardship, Emerge has made great strides in the arena of corporate social responsibility and reporting. The agency remains focused on innovation for the way companies use technology to set, track, and share sustainability objectives across a widening audience, and capabilities extend to the development of digital platforms for capturing and analyzing CR data. More information can be found at http://emergesustainability.com.