The current once-yearly model of commercial sustainable development reporting is looking increasingly out of date and will be replaced by myriad forms of reporting, according to research by Acona and SABMiller.
Multiple Messages argues that discussions over the nature and practice of sustainable development reporting are taking place in the shadow of a “tidal wave of social and technological change” that is fundamentally transforming the way we communicate. Social media, instant access, handheld devices, syndication, and all-powerful search engines have conditioned users to find the content that they want when they want it, the report says.
At the same time the fast-rising BRICs economies are developing their own views on the role of companies in society and affecting the way global corporations think, the report argues. As a result, annual reporting on such issues is behind the times, the report says.
Multiple Messages concludes that the future of sustainable development reporting will be “plural, bespoke and continuous”: plural in that the content will be spread through multiple documents and channels; bespoke in that different audiences will require different content; and continuous in that companies will be expected to communicate regularly – and the development of the story will become as important as the facts themselves.
The annual report will be replaced by tailored multi-stranded communications to different audiences, using technology to allow regular updates, Acona and SABMiller argue. This, they say, requires a more nuanced view of verification, breaking the task into pieces dependent on the nature of the content and the requirements of the audience.
“Sustainable development reports may work as a ‘document of record’ but they fail when judged as an exercise in communication,” said Simon Hodgson, managing partner at Acona and one of the report’s authors. “They tend to be long documents full of information in search of an audience. To succeed in the new connected, plural future, they must recognise the audiences in search of the information.”
“Leading global companies are often at the forefront of efforts to tackle environmental and social issues but more and more stakeholders are looking for deep, up to date information on their specific issue, to understand its materiality for the business and to break performance down market by market,” said Andy Wales, global head of sustainable development at SABMiller. “It’s a significant communications challenge, but one which companies cannot shy away from.”