1. Great stuff is happening but you don’t want to talk about it – yet
When I run into sustainability professionals at conferences I hear a lot of great and exciting stories about the projects they are working on. When I ask why I haven't heard about their initiative yet, I hear, "Oh, it's not public yet." I completely understand the need to keep things under wraps until you have the kinks worked out, but some of these projects have been going on for years.
3p recommendation: Get out there and tell your story. We'll appreciate the transparency. Even if it's not perfect, don't you want some advice about how to improve?
2. Scattershot CSR communications
The flip side of under-sharing is over-sharing. We love transparency, so I don't want to caution companies against disclosing too much. At the same time it is important to be strategic about how the information is shared in order to maximize the positive impact of the communication.
Some companies take a duckshot approach to CSR communications, putting out a press release every time someone changes a CFL lightbulb. It's not that these communications are bad so much as that they lack impact because they don't tell a story about your company and its social and environmental commitments. All communications should reflect the company's overall CSR strategy, otherwise they represent a missed opportunity.
One solar panel manufacturing company regularly sends me press releases about their financial donations to the Boys and Girls Club. It's a worthy cause, for sure, but it's a cause that is misaligned with the brand. Receiving these announcements only makes me wonder why they aren't donating time and panels to Habitat for Humanity - that would be a better use of their money and expertise and it would give them a branding benefit from a cause marketing standpoint as well.
3p recommendation: Make sure the sustainability news you promote is tied into an overall strategy. If you don't have a CSR strategy, get one.
3. Communications operates separately from operations
There's a harsher term for the case where the communications message is not backed up by the actions of other departments: greenwashing. When a communications team runs around telling stories about the great things a company does without the input of the C-Suite, bad things can happen.
3p recommendation: All department heads need to be engaged and buy into the corporate CSR strategy, and communications should reflect only these jointly decided activities.
4. Avoiding material issues
Going back to those random communications from #2, it's important that your CSR communication strategy reflect those issues that are at the core of your business - the issues that are most important to the future health of your business. If you are a solar panel company, let's hear about how much renewable power you created and let's also hear about your management of the conflict minerals and toxins in your supply chain. We're less interested in the vegetarian meal options in the cafeteria, although they are nice. Similarly, if you are a pharmaceutical company, we want to hear about how many people your products have helped, but we're a bit less interested in whether you put solar panels on your factory. We also want to hear about your stance on animal testing and your work on water contamination from unused meds.
3p recommendation: Focus on the issues that are material for your company in your CSR strategy and all CSR communications.
5. Skipping the stakeholders
Finding the issues that are material to your company is not always as easy as it sounds. You probably have a good idea, but the other employees, customers, NGOs and policy organizations with whom your organization interacts also have ideas about what's material. Make sure you ask them and incorporate their suggestions into your strategy.
3p recommendation: Even if you can't manage all that material information at once, at least make a note of it in your strategy and communications - let people know you recognize it's important and start making a plan to manage it.
6. Playing defense rather than offense
Some companies are proactive about their CSR strategy - you can find it on their website, in corporate executive talking points, and in all the outward communications channels.
Others make CSR decisions in private and only share their decisions under the force of public pressure. Apple is a great example. The company was singled out by Greenpeace for their dirty data centers - not because their data centers were really bad, but because they refused to share data with Greenpeace and the NGO assumed the worst. When Apple came out a few weeks later with news of a renewable energy powered data center, which was likely in the works in the middle of Greenpeace's research, the announcement read as too little too late, or worse, a decision borne of the green giant's pressure rather than a proactive move. If Apple had been more upfront with Greenpeace, or more open about its plans to improve its energy use, they might have avoided all that bad press.
3p recommendation: The secrecy which works so well for product launches is lost on the public when it comes to CSR communications. Communicate openly and honestly, and you won't need a defense quite as often.
7. Avoiding the negative
Many many CSR communications focus on the positive and that's great, but it's important to also be honest when things aren't going so well, otherwise, it's hard to believe you about the good things.
3p recommendation: Don't be afraid to share bad news - we appreciate your diligence and your honesty. You didn't think this CSR stuff was going to be EASY, did you? Neither do we. We know it will be hard, and you might not always meet your targets, but we want to hear about the process anyway. Believe me. Being honest will further your overall communications goals and we're more likely to celebrate with you when you do hit a milestone.
8. Going too light on quantitatives
If I had a dollar for every CSR report filled with pictures of sunshine, solar panels and smiling, multicultural employees, I'd be a rich woman. These reports are a great start, but until a company starts setting targets and reporting honestly on whether or not they're meeting them, I take their communications with a grain of salt.
3p recommendation: Pictures and breakout quotes do a great job of setting the stage, but it's important to have a second and third act, too. Those pictures should inspire me to read further, and hopefully I should find quantitative goals and results to back up the story told by the beautiful pictures.
9. Lack of comparability
You might have all the graphs in the world, but how do you compare to other companies in your industry? Other companies with a CSR strategy? Reporting comparatively is indeed a tall order, but it's something that should be in your company's long-term sustainability plan. And not just for feel good reasons, but because if your sustainability performance suffers compared to your competitors, you're opening yourself up to a lot of risk.
3p Recommendation: It's hard to know where unless you are using a framework like the Global Reporting Initiative or the Carbon Disclosure Project to track your progress.
10. Focusing too much on the report
We get it. Writing a sustainability report is extremely challenging - it can be a marathon and all the sustainability coordinators we know are just pushing for the finish line. But remember that the goal of all that reporting is to share it with people. And people don't love reading hundred-page PDF documents no matter how pretty they are.
3p recommendation: Think about how you can share that information with your stakeholders all year long and build on all the hard work you did putting out a report. Can you use the material to create presentation slides for executives or chop it into blog posts? Get creative and make sure to ask for feedback!
Readers: what mistakes have you seen in CSR communications?
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.