Good communication means both listening and learningSeptember 2009
Business must talk to stakeholders in the forums they choose – and hear what they say, argues Ben Richards
Over the past decade we’ve changed the way we communicate. The internet, once merely a repository for information, is becoming a space where users are in charge of managing, sharing and creating it.
This shift has two implications for the communication of sustainability performance. The first is that a carefully packaged report won’t necessarily mean your reputation is being well managed: in online spaces, stakeholders are already describing their experience of an organization. Notably, this commentary exists outside the sphere of influence of the chief executive or the marketing team – in blogs or on consumer forums, for instance.
Clearly, the need to monitor these channels is becoming more important in terms of corporate reputation – but the second shift requires organizations to move beyond monitoring and towards dialogue. Forward-thinking organizations are choosing to engage with individual stakeholders in whichever online space they’re using to make conversation. This dialogue greatly increases the potential for more transparency around performance and for better quality stakeholder engagement.
With the Global Reporting Initiative, Radley Yeldar recently conducted research to find out whether these new two-way technologies are being adopted in sustainability reporting. We found, somewhat to our surprise, that tools for engagement were few and far between. For starters, only a third of our sample even produced an online report – with most choosing to put a pdf document online instead. Only ten per cent used a basic online survey to gather feedback and another ten per cent provided users with a way to manipulate and download the data they wanted.
Making the traditional, static report more interactive could increase its value in a number of ways. By giving users the opportunity to interrogate information, you not only help them find the information they need, but gain feedback on the kind of content you should include in future years. What’s more, the comments you receive can – anecdotally, or more empirically, depending on volume – help with materiality analyses. And ultimately this kind of feedback can help you prioritize activity and change the behaviour of your organization.
But before these channels can be meaningfully harnessed, you must be advanced enough to accept and listen to feedback. Many organizations, in my experience, still find this challenging. However, the clever ones will not wait too long to remedy the situation. Meaningful digital conversations are already happening: whether organizations choose to join them and respond accordingly remains to be seen.