Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


Communicators must take a more engaging approach

May 2010

Non-financial reports are virtually useless if no one actually reads them, says Simon Hodgson

What if you gave a party and no-one came? You’ve cooked all day, laid the table, arranged the flowers and dressed your best. Then the doorbell remains stubbornly silent.

A recent debate among media companies revealed that this is just how many of them feel about their sustainability reporting. Twenty of the UK’s biggest media companies meet every quarter at the Media CSR Forum for discussion and debate and, at their last gathering, sustainability reporting was on the agenda. The results were fascinating. Almost all the companies at the table produced some kind of sustainability report and most spent between three and six months on its production. And yet few there had any real confidence that their report was widely read. So why is this?

In my view the real problem is that the average corporate responsibility report is a composite, multi-purpose document, designed to fulfil several functions and consequently doing none of them well. But companies also feel the need to make them as comprehensive as possible and to follow standard formats. This means the editor’s privilege is reduced or removed and, with it, the ability to tell a compelling story. Unfortunately most reports remain long, indigestible and consequently unread.

There must be a better way. One solution would be to write several short reports, each thoughtfully tailored to a particular audience. Another would be to put the trainspotters’ data into an indexed, quick-reference data book, getting it out of the flow of the main text. After all, most report readers just want to find quickly the information they need without having to wade through pages of text to get there.

Another idea would be to use different media for different groups: customer messages on the back of till receipts, supplier news with contract letters and employee stories in the staff newspaper/intranet. Finally, we could separate the enduring year-in-year-out content from this year’s update, giving us a chance to tell a proper story in an engaging way. Interactivity is also surely key, allowing readers the chance to comment and respond. But of course, they will only do so if the story interests them, and so this is contingent on their finding the right story in the first place.

From the discussions I witnessed at the Media CSR Forum, it seems there would be great enthusiasm for many of these and other, better innovations. The leaders are experimenting with blogs, video and CR micro-sites.  But it was equally clear that most corporate responsibility teams are too busy to contemplate such changes – many of them because they are engaged in writing such lengthy reports!  And they also worry that stakeholders will all demand their place in the sun, making pruning difficult.

If, like me, you believe that the bargain struck between company and society needs to be as explicit as possible, then we all clearly need to do better. Unread communication is little better than none.

Simon Hodgson is managing director of the sustainability consultancy Acona

Simon Hodgson | Global | Nonfinancial reports

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