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?


  1. Great post Marcus! I couldn't agree more with your last paragraph. While GRI-based reporting can be great, I think that the time and resources required often deters small businesses from doing any reporting at all, and they completely end up missing opportunities to share their CSR efforts and engage their stakeholders. Can I find you on twitter?

  2. Thanks for your comment, Tom. While I understand the importance of a true CSR report, increasingly, I find that companies are reporting without thinking about a broader communications strategy!

    I am on twitter, but not an avid tweeter! My username is marcuschung.

  3. hi marcus, yes, we have been seeing more and more airlines use their captive audience to ensure their CSR and sustainability stuff gets noticed - either the full report, a piece in the in-flight magazine or a video. KLM's vid is on Youtube - its rather promotional but it introduces people to the concepts.

    I personally dont think a GRI report needs to be restrictive regarding content, format or design. Yes, there needs to be numbers and metrics. But these can be presented in a very readable way. The only thing in a GRI report that the mass readership (!) would probably find boring and unnessary would be the index, but that can be tucked away at the back somewhere and even provided only in web format, as some reporters do. You can tell a great story even within the context of a GRI report. Nowhere in GRI does it dictate the order the indicators should be reported in, nor the style of the language, nor does it place any restrictions on the number of stories you can tell.

    I agree that internal engagement is a very important part of the pre-and post reporting phases. Marcus, do you know how many of your employees have opened your report and read part of it ? This is something I have repeatedly raised - everyone says internal audience is key but noone actually measures how many employees read or take any form of interest in the report.

    warm regards, thank you for a great blog,

  4. Hi Marcus,
    Thanks for the good post - love the back-seat pocket idea. I'll have to think of where I can find a similar captive/trapped audience for my report next year :) Completely agree with you on the value of CSR reports (just because I don't read 10-Ks cover to cover doesn't mean I want companies to stop publicly reporting - good that its there to hold them accountable. Also agree with our failure to effectively leverage other channels as part of a comprehensive CSR comms strategy that takes into account the needs of different audiences. We should eventually be able to get to a point where the GRI-report is more focused and standardized for the analysts, and then leverage portions of this data and related content for other audiences who won't sit and read cover to cover.

  5. Hi Elaine,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree that "stories" help to engage the mass audience more than data and I hope that more reports will find creative ways of telling these stories.

    I doubt many of our employees have read our complete report (ours is only available online), but we did re-package key stories from the report and push them to employees through different channels: intranet articles, plasma screens in the workplace, newsletters. For our employees, we felt it was important to push stories over the course of several weeks, reinforcing the simple fact that we even produce a report!