Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Communicating Corporate Disaster Response

After last week's tragic earthquake in Haiti, many companies, including my own, have been busy determining how best to respond. I'm not directly responsible for organizing our response, but it was sort of an "all hands on deck" attitude for the days immediately following the disaster.

Even though horrible natural disasters happen more frequently than anyone would like, few companies seem to have clear procedures in place for how to respond. I've spoken with colleagues from other companies to benchmark their levels of response and I continue to hear stories of uncertain commitments and tentative communications.

But it does seem like companies take into account a few basic facts before mobilizing resources. At my current and former companies, we would consider a few questions after any major natural disaster:
  • Do we have major operations in the affected region?
  • Were any of our employees impacted directly?
  • Were any of our key customers and/or suppliers impacted directly?
  • What was the scale of the devastation?
  • Do our employees seem eager to help?
  • Which agencies seem best positioned to help quickly and effectively?
  • Can we offer any unique aid that no other company can?
  • What are other companies doing?
I don't mean to suggest that companies shouldn't ask these questions or that they're inadequate since every situation clearly is unique. What's interesting to me is the last question in the above list.

Over the days following the initial earthquake, we continued to commit more money, more resources, more products to relief. Our employees donated their own money, time and resources, and our Foundation sought to match employee donations.

Interestingly, media reports began discussing how much money American corporations were committing to disaster relief. Companies started issuing press releases and tweeting. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Business Civic Leadership Center started to compile a list of companies and the value of their reported donations.

For the latter part of last week, I was involved in a very heated e-mail exchange regarding whether or not we should communicate our commitment and which methods might be the most appropriate. Several people felt very strongly that our commitment, while generous, paled in comparison to some companies of our size. Others felt that we should communicate our commitment so that our employees wouldn't miss seeing our company's name alongside other major corporations on lists. Some felt that we should communicate through very select channels so as to avoid appearing "boastful."

During this lengthy exchange, I wondered whether we were missing the point. After all, wasn't it most important that we were doing something, no matter how big or how small? Do people really sit around and compare the monetary value of companies' donations? Am I just being naive?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

CSR Reporting: Who's Reading Them and Is That the Point?

Recently, I flew on United Airlines and noticed that, along with Hemispheres magazine, a SkyMall catalog and the airplane safety card, each seat-back pocket contained a copy of the company’s 2008-2009 Corporate Responsibility Report.

Since I’ve been writing these types of reports for the past several years, I thumbed through it, looking for anything interesting or innovative. Is the data presented in a compelling fashion? Do any headlines stick out as particularly remarkable? Are there any topics that I didn’t expect to see covered?

Even though I’ve been in the reporting business for a while, I’ll admit that I haven’t read that many CSR reports cover-to-cover. But I did read more of United’s report than many others that cross my desk. Why? Because I was trapped on a plane!

To me, this seemed like a pretty ingenious plan on United’s part. When you have hundreds of customers, confined to a space, why not give them the chance to learn about your CSR efforts. Even if they don’t actually read the document, they’ll surely be struck by the fact that there’s a CSR report at their fingertips. And they may even learn something new about the company!

The success of this plan was reinforced a few weeks later when a friend of mine visited from LA and let me know that he’d seen the CSR Report on his flight. He’s not at all interested in CSR, but he knows that I am, and he asked my opinion on some of United’s practices. Here is a customer who wasn’t necessarily searching for this type of information who suddenly knew a lot more about United’s CSR initiatives than he did about other companies' efforts. What a great way to engage your customers.

Apple’s objection to issuing a CSR report because few people read them strikes me as hollow. First, come up with a new way of reaching your intended audience. Second, and more importantly, reporting isn’t simply about one-way communication. The most notable outcome of public reporting, in my opinion, is that companies start to put a stake in the ground and spark internal conversations (and initiatives) around CSR issues. As a CSR practitioner, I’m constantly trying to find ways to engage internal business partners on CSR issues. Publishing a CSR report is one of the most effective ways to do this and to start to shepherd change in a company.

But I think there needs to be more thought around CSR communications, in general. Are CSR reports the best way to communicate? Should you try to engage customers on these issues through a CSR report or are there more appropriate vehicles?

Sometimes, I think companies get so caught up in the idea of creating a GRI-based report, that they miss the bigger picture. After all, isn’t the goal to engage our stakeholders so that we can take a thoughtful approach to our CSR journeys toward meaningful outcomes?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Some Advice for Vendors

As with any new field, CSR is a growing area in need of support. To fulfill that need, hundreds and hundreds of vendors pop up every day, trying to create solutions that will make CSR practitioners' lives easier and help companies realize their CSR objectives.

Hardly a day goes by when I'm not contacted by someone offering consulting services, software, research or something else. The service providers range from established to start-up and it becomes difficult staying on top of all the different vendors and products out there.

I've had my fair share of interactions with different vendors and it shocks me that some act so unprofessionally. After all, representatives are ambassadors of their company's brands and they should realize that their actions reflect on the product or service they're trying to sell. Below are a few experiences I've had that clearly fall into the "don't" category.

Don't come on too strong. One vendor approached my company with a new service that purported to catapult our CSR communications into the stratosphere. An account manager contacted me, my boss and three people in our Corporate Communications team. Once we realized he'd contacted all of us, I scheduled a meeting between him and some other relevant employees. On the call, he was aggressive and pushy, completely turning us off. We told him that we were not interested in his services and he continued to call anyone he could find at the company, aggressively marketing his product even if they were not connected to CSR. All calls and messages came back to me and I stopped responding.

Don't stand me up. I recently scheduled a conversation with a vendor simply because my boss asked me to. I had no idea what the product was or how it related to CSR and neither did my boss, but she asked me to find out what they had to offer. So, I scheduled a conversation and web demo with a representative and waited at the appointed time, but no one called me. Four hours later, I received a rambling voice message informing me that his calendar notified him of a meeting but that he had no idea why he was scheduled to talk to me.

Don't insult a potential customer. A colleague and I were on a conference call/web demo of a software solution that we were really interested in learning about. Toward the end of the call, when we started to discuss cost and budget, I mentioned a figure that seemed reasonable to me, but was negotiable. One of the executives said that we shouldn't even bother continuing the conversation because they wouldn't do business with us at such a low price. A few months later, when a sales representative called to pitch me a new product, I didn't return his call.

Don't assume I have a ton of money. Right or wrong, CSR is often viewed as a cost center and we don't have huge budgets to work with. The money we do have is often tightly controlled and every penny counts. Just because our marketing department may spend millions of dollars, don't think our department has millions of dollars to spend. On anything.

Don't bash your competitors. I once was on the phone, learning about a service and I asked the sales representative to compare his service to a competitor's that seemed similar in my mind. He then flat-out insulted the competitor's product but offered no points of distinction. It seemed like a defensive, illogical and ungraceful response - not exactly the type of people I like to do business with.

Don't create an unnecessarily awkward situation. This one's debatable, but once a vendor invited me and a few of my co-workers to their company holiday party. The next morning, when I chatted with our account representative, I learned that the party featured a table where a naked couple slowly ate a meal. This, apparently, was performance art. I also started to hear stories about how employees were getting plastered, behaving out of hand and hooking up with each other. I was sort of sad to miss the show, but overall I was grateful I didn't see any of the people I worked with in embarrassing situations.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Data Dependency

Most CSR practitioners, I believe, continue on a quest for data. We all want data to support our theses that good corporate citizenship adds value to the company. Value can come in the form of cost savings, enhanced reputation, employee engagement or any number of other shapes and sizes.

The tricky part about gathering data to support CSR is that there are very few defined ways to measure impact and value. And as such, there are very few methods or systems to gather meaningful CSR data within companies. Much of my job is spent trying to take the company's existing data and either performing some calculations to arrive at CSR impact metrics or finding proxies for the value I'm trying to describe.

Since returning to work from the holiday break, I've been working a lot with data for two separate projects. One has to do with calculating environmental impacts of a particular process and the other relates to measuring consumption of a particular resource across the enterprise.

For the first project, I've been trying to get at some raw data from other Business Units. In theory, this should be rather simple. I pick up the phone, call someone in another department, explain the project and describe my need. They, in turn, either take some time to "run some numbers" and send me back the relevant information or they refer me to someone else. Usually, it's the latter, so it typically takes a few days (yes, days!) to track down the right person. More often than not, the data that returns isn't quite what I'm looking for, so we work together until we arrive at something meaningful.

Well, this process has been playing out for nearly two months with a particular business partner and his unresponsiveness has resulted in me not being able to deliver on some promised metrics. I hated to throw him under the bus, but I had to bring in a VP to finally get him to send me the data he'd promised back in November. Approximately an hour later, I delivered the metrics that were expected of me.

In the second case, I recently received a spreadsheet with spend data from every cost center in the company (thousands) and I've been diligently pouring through it, figuring out which line item is relevant and which is outside the scope of this project. Essentially, I'm taking the spend data, translating it into units purchased and figuring out the resources necessary to create those units, resulting in the environmental impact of our consumption. The problem here is that I have to make sense of a spreadsheet that isn't necessarily meant for this purpose and is riddled with codes, acronyms and sequences of numbers I don't understand. It's time-consuming work and rather tedious, but hopefully will tell a good CSR story in due time.

With both examples, you see how CSR practitioners must rely on others to supply information before we can produce results. For my business partners, they can simply run a report through an existing information management system, but I have to spend time doing manual calculations because no system exists (or we can't afford such a system) to extract data in the format we need.