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?