The Corporate Communicator’s Role in Sustainability Reporting

In this introductory series on sustainability and the corporate world, we have already discussed the basics of sustainability, the GRI guidelines and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, followed by some important case studies that have served as examples for our insights.

It is time to bring your attention back to the five-pronged approach on sustainable reporting that was identified in Article 2. The final step in the process, that of targeted and effective communications, will be the focus of this article.

Why Corporate Communications?
Simply put, corporate communications is the field that acts as a liaison between a corporate’s activities and its stakeholders. It is imperative that a company offers a factual, transparent and introspective account of its activities to all its stakeholders. This will serve as a valid representation of its envisioned long-term plans towards success.

Sustainability reporting brings with it, its own set of challenges. It requires a holistic approach, as material must be presented in a way that is comprehensible to all audiences. It requires ingenuity and creativity, in order to inspire individuals to trust the company and the services it offers, as well as respect its sustainability agenda. And finally, it requires transparency. Even the most astute of organisations stumble at times, and addressing and communicating on setbacks requires tact and skill.

Habits for Wholeness

A solid communication strategy must be incorporated to a company’s sustainability reporting agenda. This can be a veritable head-scratcher for corporates.

For example, potential investors are likely to assess a company’s environmental footprint when gauging a corporate’s commitment to ecological sustainability. To this extent, a corporate could rightfully publish detailed metrics and statistics on green business practices in its annual report. However, the average reader who picks up a printed report would be put off and daunted if they were to see a similar phenomenon repeated on text.

The end result is that a corporate first needs to devise a baseline communication or a baseline report. This would be a fairly comprehensive document outlining a company’s sustainability-related initiatives. Branching from this, a more detailed equivalent could be created to placate the information-seekers and a highly condensed version could be envisioned for the quick-fire readers. All three versions should however, complement each other, in keeping with our tagline of ‘wholeness’.

An Eye for Ingenuity
Bayer a Germany-based, multinational, chemicals and pharmaceuticals company has a tradition of producing interactive and integrated HTML reports in which its sustainability agenda gains prominence. The 2016 annual report of this corporate was no exception. The result is a deceptively minimalist report that packs a punch, by presenting important statistics in easy-to-understand infographics. The inclusion of embedded photos and videos in the HTML report further helps enhance the user experience.

Similarly, more radical alternatives lie in the domain of non-traditional annual reports, wherein the very structure of the report conveys a story. BeSpoke has already explored this subject in depth here.

Trust and Transparency
In the corporate world, as in much of life, the best laid plans of mice and men tend to fall apart at times. Sustainability reporting, just like any other endeavour, is a process; and during that process, it is natural to encounter setbacks. In the troubled times of today, transparency is a value that individuals, governments and societies are increasingly calling upon corporates to adopt, and rightfully so.

From a corporate view, enhanced transparency also facilitates the task of risk management. Risk management strives to understand and interpret unfavourable events before and as they occur, to minimise any adverse effects on a company’s operations. Transparency helps by cutting down red tape and bureaucratic obstacles that may arise during these times, thereby ensuring that solutions to these issues can be found as quickly as possible.

The first step in handling mishaps that arise is to gauge the severity of the situation. A social media mishap (an errant tweet or a poorly-resourced blog post) can be dealt with promptly; where a sincere and clear apology should often suffice. More complicated situations, such as an advertising campaign that misses the mark (as multinational soft-drink company Pepsi found out), requires more comprehensive reparations.

Finally, serious allegations of corporate misconduct, that may very well tarnish the reputation of the company and brand, and lead to the detriment of a wide sphere of individual stakeholders, are the apex of ‘what may go wrong’. If a company is just and sincere in rectifying these misdemeanours and re-assuring the long-term trust and success it enjoyed with its stakeholders, an entire investigative campaign needs to be executed. Any and all results that come to light require clear, unadorned communications that should be presented in a straightforward and matter-of-fact way.

Now that we have presented you with a clear understanding of the interrelation between sustainability reporting and corporate communications, it is time to share your experiences, concerns and also join in the discussions by following us on Facebook and LinkedIn.

© Copyright July 2017
The ideas discussed here may be used, adapted or built upon for academic or commercial purposes provided due credit is given to Smart Media The Annual Report Company as the originator of this work.

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