Writing Disruptive Corporate Responsibility Reports
A while ago my firm was hired to, as the strategy brief challenged, “…imagine the future of the sustainability report. Be disruptive.” The client asked us to consider this evolution and made it clear that a perfectly acceptable answer could be, “there is no future for the sustainability report.”
The “there is no future” option was tempting. And many leaders in the space are more than willing to let the idea of corporate responsibility (CR) reporting fall away and be replaced with the more comprehensive and maybe holistic integrated reporting (IR). Last year, Hannah Jones, vice president of sustainable business and innovation for Nike Inc., said her company will soon “jettison the language of sustainability, and simply talk about value creation.” Ultimately, we decided that was a cop-out, and potentially simply an example of shifting (as opposed to jettisoning) of the language of sustainability itself.
Great minds collided at our shop as each team took positions arguing for and against what paths CR reporting could take. It got emotional, theoretical, aspirational, and occasionally it got practical. Some wanted to invent technology for users to engage with CR content, others were focused on the boundaries of reports, and still others decided that the report itself was dead but that content from the report needed to become “reassemble-able” to suit the reader’s needs better. “The report is dead, long live reporting” became their mantra.
As a way into this re-imagining of the CR report, we looked at the 5 common elements in reporting. We dissected audience (who reads these things anyway), medium (what’s the best modern form for delivery – small bites, video, pound of paper, embedded in brand content), boundaries (how far out, how far in), and frequency (annual, bi-annual, monthly, etc.). But the most cerebral fistfight of the project came during the topic of authorship (who writes these reports).
It seemed clear from our research on the language of sustainability that most CR reports are actually a Sybil-esque multitude of voices glued together with brand standards. Or, they are ghost-written by consultants. Rest assured – if this were a stone-throwing contest, we are well aware of our own building materials. We’ve ghost-written our fair share.
This is all (maybe) interesting martini-talk, but the reality is that no one ever asks “who wrote this?” as a meaningful inquiry into its content or authenticity. Few of us actually care, but we should – and that’s the point. We should no more accept unsigned sustainability reports than we should unsigned checks. Yes, CEOs and CSOs often “sign” the intro, but nine out of ten times I bet that letter was approved by them rather than written by them.
Semiotician Umberto Eco said “few lies carry the signature of the author.” It’s a quote that sits squarely in the Authenticity via Anonymity debate enabled by and entangled in the internet more than most forms of communication. But I think there’s also an opportunity in that line to understand sustainability (in most of its forms in general, but in reporting in particular). I don’t think Eco means that authors don’t lie, but rather that “unsigned” (author-less) texts are all in question.
Here’s the biggest problem with author-less texts: If we do not know an author, we can’t trust the authority. And, it follows, its very authenticity (authenticity seems to be the new accuracy) is called into question. The Bible has several books – each assigned an author. I argue it would be a less influential text without this direct attribution.
From our charrettes we developed a five part formula for a disruptive CR report:
Audience: If the following disruptive rules are followed, there should be no need to define an audience any more narrow than “stakeholders.” This is because the audience will in fact become the author.
Medium: Digital really seems to be the only option here. This permits content to be controllable [re-written] by the audience. A report is constructed in building blocks allowing various audiences to reassemble the report that they want to read or need. Disruptive reports create nodes of information that allow the audience to read into the narrative based on their perspectives and agendas. In most cases, it is the audience that will find [share/report on] unintended outcomes of corporate sustainability initiatives. These unintended outcomes of sustainability become relevant as we look deeper at the boundaries of reports. (See SGS Ghana, a global inspection and verification company’s simple but effective approach to allowing report users to customize the report on the fly.) Reports will be come tools to be used rather than tomes to be read.
Boundaries: Boundaries are starting to become meaningless the more we adopt the McDonough maxim of “there is no away.” Practically, corporations need to define boundaries as those areas of direct and controllable impact. For some this extends to end of functional use for their products. But to be disruptive, the future CR report will need to also look at the unintended impacts of corporate behavior. The emerging field of modeling and managing unintended incomes is an exciting field. (See Oxfam America, Coco-Cola and SABMiller’s initiative to measure the poverty footprint of international business.)
Frequency: Disruptive reports are not bound by calendar or fiscal year. This means it is not a report at all. There is no timeframe associated with a disruptive report. It is realtime, on-going, a verb. We will be able to experience a report the same way we experience urbanity – by walking through it. Cultural theorist Michael de Certeau described walking in a city as experiencing “the universe in a state of constant explosion around you. It is a series of paroxysmal attacks.” CR reports should aspire to this – they should attack the senses. Again, the report is dead, long live reporting.
Authorship: The brand will let go of the authorship by inviting new authors into the process. Consumers will be asked to be authors of the report, as will NGOs, employees, government officials and investors. Currently, reports are author-less by default. We predict a disruptive report will be author-less by design, inviting dialogue and dissent and ideas and innovation. Like nature, these reports become porous exchanges of information. This is actually already happening, but companies are not leveraging it. Every forum comment, every consumer engaged in an action inspired by a company, each purchase (as a vote with a wallet), every digital opinion or dissent are actually digital traces of a giant unorganized CR report. Disruptive reports will gather and share this information.
In the end, the client interested in creating a disruptive report published a digital version of their report. Hardly innovative, it was a safe decision. But that’s okay, because the thing about disruption is that we can always do more of it. Being more disruptive is always an option.
John Rooks is the founder of The SOAP Group and the author of More Than Promote –A Monkeywrencher’s Guide to Authentic Marketing. If you’re working on your next CR report, consider adding a little disruption. And if not, maybe try using our CR report name generator here: http://csr.thesoapgroup.com/ to find a title for it.
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