At this week's 2018 GRI Reporters' North America Summit, participants geeked out on all the best ways to improve their sustainability reporting with increased materiality, stakeholder engagement and communications. But the conference also served newer reporters, sharing tips and tools for those just getting started with reporting. Stewart Rassier from the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship, an experienced consultant with multiple "first reports" under his belt, together with Jamie Jones Ezefili from Northern Trust, an accomplished first time reporter, shared some best practices for first time reporting.
"The first report is hands down the most difficult report you'll have to do," Rassier explained, which was oddly reassuring. The first one is always the hardest. But the most important thing is to get started, because each subsequent reporting cycle allows a company to get a little more transparent.
The reason it's the hardest is that reporters generally underestimate the legwork involved. That's because a sustainability report isn't just a collection of good deeds, although those are nice. In addition to being a communications document, "A GRI report is tool for organizational change," Rassier noted. By following the GRI reporting methodology, a company is encouraged to talk to a few more stakeholders, bench mark a bit more, collect and analyze more data and share a bit more. Each of these steps requires a little bit more buy-in from a few more co-workers. Indeed, the GRI methodology provides a detailed roadmap for producing a comprehensive sustainability report.
Host a kick off meeting
The very very first step for an intrepid reporter is to host a kick off meeting with key stakeholders: people who want to be involved (leadership and key advocates) and people who need to be involved, who own data you will need to access. Jones explained that bringing everyone together allowed the team to feel like a group. After one passthrough the reporting cycle, Jones made sure to publicly congratulate everyone who helped her. Northern Trust uses an internal rewards system. She also made sure to communicate with all the relevant managers and management group.
This year, "Everyone accepted my kickoff meeting request right away. No one tried to delegate so it seemed to work really well."
Each year the number of important parties may evolve as a reporter better understands the stakeholders and the information they want. This can inform future reports. "I get letters all the time from shareholders and stakeholders and that informs us," she explained. "If people ask how many women on the board, I need to make a point of disclosing."
After the kickoff comes collecting data. Rassier suggests collecting what is available. Try to get it all -- even if data owners are not ready to disclose. "Promise colleagues that you won’t disclose anything without their permission. Tell them you are just collecting for now, and there will be many chances to review." He offered. This allows the team to get a lay of the land and see what is possible. Ultimately, the company will likely not be able to share everything and that's ok. But the comprehensive data collection allows for a "lay of the land" assessment and future benchmarking if need be. If colleagues balk at sharing certain data, take a look at what competitors are sharing and offer that as an example. Remind colleagues of how few lawsuits have actually come from corporate responsibility disclosures.
Rely on data that already exists
While the sustainability reporting process will likely involve tracking new data, a lot will already be available. Jones found that 40 percent of the data in the sustainability report came from the annual report. Using these existing public data, especially those that have already been vetted, is a great way to build out a first report. Then building can happen over time.
Focus on nerds, punters and employees
When it comes to the actual writing, Rassier recommends remembering three main readers: sustainability nerds like the readers of this article, punters who are interested in a specific element of your company and employees. What do they care about? To tell the best stories, balance hard numbers with context and individual stories to add color and create meaning for all these readers. Rassier also recommends that reporters look for “microcosms of goodness” to feature: teams or buildings that have an innovative solution to a waste, energy or employee engagement challenge. By featuring these success stories, a reporter lays the case for replicating those wins in other parts of the company, to increase impact.
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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.