Over several years now I have been analysing the external communication like websites and reports by some of the top 50 Global Fortune 500 companies regarding their CSR and sustainability efforts. Comparing their communication with the business reality often revealed a huge gap between the public image the company aimed to create by its external communication and the actual business conduct.
When I take a look at a CSR or sustainability report today it rather reminds me of a public relations brochure with well-written articles and slick pictures. After all, CSR and sustainability departments are usually associated with the corporate communications or public affairs department. Accordingly, that reports today appear to be rather brochures than sources of reliable and useful information should not be too surprising. Reports that can be exposed as PR campaigns certainly do neither positively contribute to a company’s authentic public image nor to its reputation.
If a company has a genuine interest in enhancing its reputation and creating an authentic public image by external communication, considering the following principles may be helpful.
The scope of a sustainability or CSR report should be readily comprehensible. Reports of 100 pages and more may first appear as if the company is very active in the field of social and environmental responsibility but a report is not a book. When the actual content is based on “fancy” company stories while the hard facts are not easily accessible to the reader, a report is missing its major objective: information as opposed to story-telling. As a consequence, the focus should be on accessible and reliable information in a succinct manner.
Comparability is of great value to the reader. Using globally acknowledged reporting frameworks such as GRI (Global Reporting Initiative) or IR (Integrated Reporting) makes the information more valuable to the reader as it allows to objectively comparing the CSR and sustainability performance of companies. This in turn gives the reader the opportunity to make fact-based and better-informed decisions, for example when it comes to ethical investments. A report based on a framework allows an easy and fast access to all important company information in the field of CSR and sustainability.
General transparency has certainly increased thanks to awareness-raising reporting initiatives like GRI and IR. However, there are still many companies only reporting on particular indicators. Only a full disclosure of all relevant GRI indicators makes a report more comprehensible and credible. Additionally, external assurance gives company information more reliability and significantly underlines the credibility of the report.
Report credibility can be further enhanced not only by using reporting frameworks and external assurance but also by discussing controversial issues openly in the report. By this approach, a company presents a more balanced and authentic public image and clearly shows ambition for self-improvement, which fosters credibility and hence, reputation.
In conclusion, a report with a comprehensible, well-structured scope based on a globally acknowledged reporting framework, together with a company’s genuine interest in full disclosure and discussion of controversial or difficult issues definitely adds credence to the public image of a company. However, a good report is only as good as a company’s deeds. A company, which can be exposed of being non-compliant with its own company codes and globally acknowledged voluntary guidelines, is clearly running the risk of losing its reputation and credibility.