Last week I attended my first Ethical Corporation conference -- their first Responsible Business Summit in New York. Since most Ethical Corporation conferences are held in Europe, I welcomed the chance to just hop on a train (and subway) and attend one in my backyard. An impressive line-up of speakers from Microsoft, PepsiCo, GRI, Bank of America, BNY Mellon, P&G, Maersk, BASF and other CSR leaders addressed an equally impressive assembly of environmental and corporate social responsibility (CSR) practitioners, some consultants and a handful of vendors.
All in all, it was an auspicious gathering that promised to – and did – deliver some of the latest thinking on corporate social responsibility, particularly the process of “Embedding Sustainability” which was the conference theme.
As a consultant who helps companies develop their CSR reporting strategy and produce CSR reports, I was particularly interested in those sessions which dealt most directly with trends in non-financial reporting. So, when I saw the session titled “Is one-way corporate responsibility reporting dead?” I made a beeline for that room.
That was a tough choice, because it meant foregoing the concurrent session on stakeholder engagement and performance measurement featuring BT Americas head of corporate social responsibility Kevin Moss (whom I follow on Twitter) and Intel director of CSR Strategy and Communications Suzanne Fallender (who I heard speak at the Economist conference last year). Fortunately, Kevin and I sat together at lunch that day and I managed to convince him to provide a sneak preview of his comments. And, I can access the conference slides online, so I won’t totally miss out on their insights.
The session on the demise of one-way CR reporting featured execs from two global pharmaceutical companies – Abbott and Merck – who discussed the evolving model of corporate communications, use of social media, and stakeholder engagement as they contribute to corporate responsibility communications. Not surprisingly, both speakers acknowledged that they are continually rethinking the way they get their CR message out and how they interact with stakeholders. While “one-way” reporting was never really defined, both speakers generally equated it with linear communication and print reports as opposed to non-linear, online reports.
Abbott’s Nonlinear Communication Model Tracey Noe, senior director of global citizenship and policy for Abbott, began by raising some fundamental questions which every organization should ask when formulating its reporting strategy: Who are we trying to reach? What information are these stakeholders looking for?
Noe cited the old, linear model of communications versus the current, nonlinear communication model and shared a spaghetti-like stakeholder communication map provided to Abbott monthly by a social-media monitoring vendor.
Abbott, like other industry-leading CR reporters, has made its reporting more accessible and responsive to stakeholders through:
“Everything was material,” groaned Dziedzic. In subsequent reports, the pendulum shifted and Merck’s understanding of materiality shifted to asking external stakeholders what they thought was important. Then the merger 2009 with Schering-Plough – which reported primarily on its environmental performance – caused Merck to put its full-blown reporting on hold as it consolidated its internal data reporting systems. Instead, for 2009-2010, Merck released an abbreviated bridge report.
“We had to take a step back and really consider what was material. That required asking who was our primarily audience,” recalled Dziedzic. “The answer was socially responsibility investors, for better or for worse.”
Given this reflection, Merck’s post-merger approach to corporate responsibility reporting has four key components.
Cindy Mehallow is principal of CRM Communications, a woman-owned sustainability communications consulting practice specializing in corporate social responsibility reporting and stakeholder communications. GRI-Certified in sustainability reporting, Cindy has produced award-winning sustainability reports for Fortune 500 clients in a variety of industries.