Why most CSR reports fail, Part 3: Tone of Voice
The CSR reports of the past often took a positive, upbeat tone. An annual printed report with limited distribution was a one-way vehicle for the company to promote its actions with little ability for stakeholders to comment or reply. As a career marketing and communications guy, I can say that this is how we are trained, we don’t know any better!
But now companies are told they need “dialogue”, “transparency”, and “authenticity”. Great concepts, but what do they look like? How does a classically-trained communications professional incorporate these new ideas into a CSR report? While dialogue, transparency, and authenticity aren’t confined to CSR reporting (social media is injecting these concepts into all marketing and communications), they are especially important here. Whether it is standing up to the scrutiny of an NGO or socially responsible investor or overcoming the innate skepticism the public has for companies’ professions of responsibility, the right tone is crucial. I contend you shouldn’t even claim to be responsible — put your strategies, initiatives and accomplishments out there, let your audience be your judge, and invite them to guide you in your future efforts.
Which brings us to “dialogue“. Many company have formed relationships with NGOs like Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council which offer firms expert guidance on sustainability issues. Or they have advisory groups for various stakeholder groups like communities they operate in. And they report on these in their CSR report. All well and good. But few invite the readers of the report to become part of the conversation, and when they do it is often through a comment form online, or a general email address like email@example.com.
One company stands out on this criteria: Starbucks. Their My Starbucks Idea site has a robust conversation about social responsibility ideas. And not only has the company created this open, public venue for feedback, they list Idea Partners, individuals at the company who will “listen to your ideas, ask questions, tell you what we’re doing behind the scenes” – like sbx_slo, a sustainability manager. This is a great resource that is actually somewhat underused in their “Shared Responsibility” section of their website, with small links but no prominent invitation to these visitors who probably have some great ideas for them.
Transparency is a much simpler concept but one that is understandingly difficult for companies to execute: put lots and lots of data out there to support your claims. Or better yet, just share the data. Swedish forest products company SCA’s sustainability report publishes data on raw material use, energy, and waste by line of business and even down to the individual manufacturing and processing facilities.
Authenticity is perhaps more difficult, more of a “I’ll know it when I see it” characteristic. Too many firms follow the quip: “If you can’t be authentic, fake it!” Or they use typical marketing language that boasts how responsible the company is, or proclaims that the environment has been a top priority since the company was founded (how many of these claims would stand up to a search or EPA enforcement sanctions?).
Starbucks is again the standard. Their goal to serve 25% of beverages in reusable cups by 2015 is ambitious. The 2010 report shows their progress: serving 4.4 million more beverages in reusable cups in 2009 vs. 2008. They could have left it there and readers might have thought they were doing pretty well — 4.4 million is an impressive number. But they took the extra step to disclose that this is only 1.3% of all beverages served by the company, and their efforts “need improvement.”
Most companies flinch at the idea of admitting they are falling short of goals. They fear stakeholder anger, maybe even regulatory action if they are unable to fulfill their commitments. But this kind of authenticity innoculates Starbucks from this kind of backlash. It would have been far worse for them if some NGO or activist had done the calculation to show how far short of the goal they are.
Communications professionals are learning the art of dialogue on social media, and they must bring these new skills to the front when they work with their sustainability and CSR colleagues. But they must leave at their door their well-hone skills of selecting one particular facet and spinning it into a positive, leadership story. Facts, completeness, and balance go a long way in making a CSR report successful.
Other posts in the series “Why Most CSR Reports Fail”:
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