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Facts and figures will never tell the whole story

February 2010

We must go beyond classic reporting rules when dealing with sustainability, argues Beckie Herbert

‘Tell me a story’ – the phrase conjures up thoughts of wizards and hobbits. But stories aren’t just for kids. In fact, storytelling is the latest (controversial) trend in the serious business of corporate sustainability (CS) communications. It’s something a growing number of our clients are asking about, but it’s causing consternation among CS commentators. At a recent conference, the rise of CS ‘storytelling’ was bemoaned as the triumph of corporate fluff over substance.

It is nothing of the kind. Interest in stories tells us something important about the state of CS communications – that for all the reporting indicators and guidelines, companies feel they aren’t getting their message across to key audiences. A story, in this context, is not a work of fiction. It is a way of communicating facts that makes them interesting.

Companies have invested considerable time and money learning the reporting ‘rules’. The average CS report is chock full of processes and metrics, and carefully aligned and cross-referenced to the labyrinthine  GRI standard. But with all this detail it’s easy to lose sight of the significance of the topics discussed, and what they really mean for the company and society. Reports that have been tuned to the needs of CS analysts usually fail to get the attention of a wider audience of opinion formers, customers and employees.

Companies can improve their reporting by looking for the interesting stories buried in their data. Standard setters and auditors should remember that reporting is a voluntary activity and that companies are more likely to continue investing if they see the benefits.

Of course reports will always have limitations, and companies that really want to engage and motivate must go beyond formal reporting. Targeted communications are needed that speak to the different interests of each audience. This is where storytelling can make an impact. Whether it’s an article, blog, speech or brochure, by telling the story behind the facts, companies can really start to engage with a wider audience.

This type of communication requires a different mindset to reporting. Remember that people matter as much as performance metrics, and you can’t create a compelling narrative out of 25 unrelated initiatives. You need to understand the audience, be confident enough to be selective – and creative enough to make a connection. Above all, focus on the issues that matter to your audience. Challenges are inherently more interesting than achievements, so be bold. Conversations are more interesting than one-way communications.

And the CS geeks need not worry about people being fooled by corporate spin. It doesn’t take a trained auditor
to sniff out fluff and flummery. If the story isn’t credible, it won’t wash.

Beckie Herbert is a director of Context.




Beckie Herbert | Global | Reporting

Further Information
beckieh@econtext.co.uk
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