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Five Characteristics of Effective Corporate Responsibility Reports

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Corporate responsibility (CR) reporting has come a long way since it was initially championed by progressive outliers in the 90s. Today, 95 percent of the 250 largest global companies report on their CR activities.

We can all agree reporting is a noble endeavor, but the reality is it requires a significant investment of time and resources. Below, we’ve identified five characteristics that can help companies improve their CR reporting ROI, whether they have years of experience or are just beginning to get their feet wet.

[For the sake of objectivity we avoided showcasing examples from report editions we were directly involved in developing.]

1. Credible

Companies can boost their reporting credibility through transparency and rigor. We challenge clients to set clear, measurable goals that are bold enough to encourage big ideas and drive innovation. We also urge clients to openly share their performance, addressing achievements as well as areas for improvement. Companies can further strengthen their reporting credibility by following an established standard, such as the GRI, and by seeking assurance from an auditor who can verify accuracy.

Example: Nike presents its performance in a straightforward and transparent way, outlining measurable goals, status (in three words or less), and background on its progress and challenges. Nike also has an in-depth stakeholder engagement and review process.

2. Relevant

The task of prioritizing social and environmental issues for strategic planning and reporting purposes can be daunting for any company. The key is to identify and illustrate issues that are highly material – those that have the greatest potential to impact the company’s long-term success and that matter to its most relevant stakeholders. One note of caution: The most relevant stakeholders aren’t necessarily the loudest. CR reports are often geared toward the interests of media and NGOs, missing an opportunity to communicate with consumers, business partners and other deeply invested stakeholders.

Example: A materiality index, such as the AGCO example highlighted by Elaine Cohen in a recent Triple Pundit post, can be a useful tool to support prioritization and alignment.

3. Authentic

Although “authenticity” has become a business buzzword, it’s often an afterthought in the CR reporting world. Reports that lack authenticity miss a valuable opportunity to build a connection with stakeholders. One way to test the authenticity of your reporting is to ask a range of employees at various levels and from various departments within your company to review draft content. Do they recognize it as an honest expression of the company’s culture and values? Is it meaningful to them? If not, it’s time for some self-reflection.

Example: REI’s stewardship report is a good example of authenticity. The co-op clearly expresses the link between its core purpose and its commitment to social and environmental responsibility.

4. Engaging

Over the last five years many companies have made the jump from print to online reporting formats (or a hybrid of the two), and some have gone a step further. We’re thrilled to see companies aren’t just focusing on what is presented but how it’s presented, with improved design and functionality. Colorful still images, videos, infographics and other visuals help guide the audience and make the experience much more thought-provoking. Additionally, social sharing capabilities are enabling companies to expand their reporting reach.

Example: Unilever’s* Sustainable Living website incorporates video, interactive data charts, social sharing and other features that invite discovery and action.

5. Digestible

One of the most challenging aspects of CR reporting is the balancing act between being thorough and concise. Companies with good intentions that aim for a high level of transparency sometimes overshare and lose their audiences in the weeds. Building reports in a website environment can help alleviate this temptation because linking capabilities allow the audience to view in layers, drilling for greater detail with each click. No matter the format or length, simple, straightforward navigation is critical.

Example: In addition to web format and a full PDF, Starbucks* provides a scorecard PDF for stakeholders who are interested in a high-level performance snapshot. This versatility improves the likelihood report content will be put to good use.

What are your favorite CR reports? And how do you plan to evolve your reporting practices in 2014? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or connect with us on Twitter.

*Disclosure: Edelman client.

Elise Chisholm Clare is a senior account supervisor in Edelman’s Business + Social Purpose Practice in Seattle.

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