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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.

John Rooks
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5 thoughts on “Writing Disruptive Corporate Responsibility Reports

  1. Another excellent article. You’re a great writer. Your ideas here for an ongoing, digital CR “report” should be adopted. Sensible. And slightly optimistic. Both are refreshing on the CR scene.

  2. This is a fantastic article and I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been involved in corporate responsibility reporting, both writing and assuring, for many years and have come to exactly the same conclusion. Live, real time, stakeholder driven and written reporting is definitely the way to go and I firmly believe that the first to really give it a go, and by that I mean ‘properly, with no half measures’, will attract a huge amount of attention, but more importantly, gain a significant amount of trust. I do think, as an additional point, that there is a great deal of work still to be done regarding the completeness and transparency of CR reports, as most that I read are just one long ‘good news’ story, which doesn’t engender trust, as even the most unversed reader knows that life just isn’t like that. It tends to remind me of the eternally chipper person at work – always happy, always telling everyone how wonderful their lives are – you just can’t help but wonder how horrific it must really be for them to put on such a front! The days of the ‘everything’s great and we’re brilliant’ CR reports are well and truly over, nobody believes them anymore and rightly so. Not only do they not engender trust, in my opinion, they actively drive mistrust, which I’m sure is not really the intent.

  3. This is what I would call FRESH thinking!

    I am not sure, though if I would recommend your idea to all types of clients. Sure fresh and free companies like Ben & Jerry could adopt this approach. Would be fun to see if it would work, too.

    For the vast majority this approach might be a bit too disruptive.

    First, this type of reporting rather far away from the current practice of GRI-Reporting. (And believe me, I am not a great fan of GRI.) I can see the advantage of adding on more possibilities to really interact, and really open up the conversation. The suggestion not to report on a standard frequency, sounds nice but is a way too far for me. It is a good practice tha we expect companies to report on, at least, an annual basis.

    Second, this type of reporting needs a lot of courage, as not all contributions will polish the vanity of your company pride. Let me assure you: Most CSR Officers love their company.

  4. K.M. – Thanks so much.
    Michael – Right on! At SOAP, we’re working on a methodology now to address the unintended consequences [positive and negative] of corporate sustainability. We see that as a new boundary to address your “completeness” comment.

  5. Interesting article – and some great forward-looking ideas. One thing I’d like to see addressed is the WHY – why do we need to have real-time reporting? Why do we need author-less design, and what will the impact be? How will it help investors make better decisions?

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