We’ve been helping clients create Sustainability, CSR, Integrated and Financial Reports for 20 years, so we know getting that first report done is the toughest.
Since, in 2018 86% of the S&P 500 published a Sustainability report and 90% of the Fortune 200 published a CSR or Sustainability report, it’s clearly a necessity, not a “nice to have.” And, in the Covid-19-pandemic era, it is a real test of your company’s commitment.
So, how do you create your company’s first report—one that leadership will champion, employees will be proud to share, investors will read, and raters and rankers will recognize? How can you set your company communicating your journey of sustainability, managing all the Covid-19 uncertainty—while actually getting a report done! Here’s how:
1. Build the team
To start… who will be on the committee, and what are their roles? CSR and Sustainability typically cross cuts groups and departments. Many may want to be involved, people can be passionate and it can be a high profile effort. Some may need to help, yet not see it as part of their responsibilities. This is a great opportunity for employee engagement! Bringing everyone together for a kickoff will allow them to see themselves as part of the team and that their independent efforts will come together to be more than the sum of the parts.
2. Find what matters: What’s the focus and what’s material?
How do you know what’s important to the business and your stakeholders? A materiality assessment is the gold standard here, but that may not be in the cards for your first effort. One place to start is to look at others in your industry who may be further along on materiality assessment. This might help guide the team in finding what is of interest broadly. Then, what are the questions your company receives into IR, Community Relations or other front line teams? Those are clear indicators of what’s important to those stakeholder groups. And, what do you want and need your audiences to know?
3. Start small: Find your existing CSR and Sustainability “wins“
Although the gold standard is to create a report in line with one or more global frameworks (GRI is the most widely used), that just may be a bridge too far at first. Work with the team and set some goals for the report, a few should be stretch, but make it doable. To get started, look at what the company is already doing, where does it make the most impact, what’s important to the business and what matters to your stakeholders? Then, what are you already doing? Charitable initiatives, EHS initiatives, employee engagement and diversity initiatives are all rich sources.
Collect what is already happening—look to your intranet, social media, local initiatives at various locations, and other sources. Then organize them into themes that align to your priorities. If you have already decided on what’s important to your company, work to provide anecdotal evidence that you are a good corporate citizen in line with what matters to you.
4. Gather Data: Sustainability impact
Much of the value of a Sustainability or CSR report comes from sharing the impact of your efforts, your performance. So, you need Data! It may be a multi-cycle effort to get clean, year-over-year comparable data, but no better time to start than right now. Try to collect it all—even if data owners are not ready to disclose it or it isn’t all verified yet. Promise review and revision. And, expect a rough road—data in different formats, calculation errors, not to mention just getting people to hand it over!
There will likely be a need to track new things, but much may already exist. If you are public, the 10-K may have a lot to work with, and the rigor in financial reporting is a solid foundation. There may be worker safety and diversity data at the ready as well. You may not be able to share everything you collect but that’s ok, because the effort to measure and collect the data can have positive outcomes on the businesses.
“Not everything that matters can be measured. Not everything that we can measure matters.” Attributed to V.F. Ridgeway
5. Craft the messages: Explain the “why”
You’ll need a writer, or an editor, who can take all the sources and create a cohesive (or at least sensible) narrative structure, some hierarchy and unified tone. Building from key messages is a good starting point. Providing context around the data and stories collected helps readers understand how it all fits together operationally, and how that fits into your business strategy. Ideally you’ll craft a theme to draw in readers, and tie your purpose to your performance, so they understand the value you are creating for investors, employees, communities and society. Use facts, callouts and infographics to get the big points across, fast. Very few are reading your report “cover to cover.”
Be sure to feature the stand-outs in the company who are doing good and leading by example: teams who have unique solutions, buildings that implement a pilot program, individuals who champion an idea through implementation, for example. Featuring success stories encourages more of the same and acknowledges those employee efforts that lead to success.
6. Create a leadership message: Set the tone
The CEO message in the report speaks volumes. Does the CEO frame his or her work in relation to the sustainability efforts? Is this the only time they ever mention it? These days it isn’t unusual for sustainability topics to be raised on investor calls, so it’s important to have a consistent, authentic message. And, a really great CEO message defines the company’s sustainability strategy in relation to the business strategy and the CEO’s role in the company’s efforts. Being transparent is key. If this is the beginning of the journey, acknowledge it. Or, is it a renewed commitment? A new perspective from a new leader? Part of what makes a great report is honesty!
7. Promote your Report: Find your sustainability audiences
Once you’ve done the work of crafting your report, tell people! In this world of information overload no one will find it on their own, it must be promoted—both to employees and the public. And it needs a sustained effort. We’ve written about this before and it is still true! Here are a few strategies to get people reading, and if you’ve gone digital, a few web-native promotional ideas too. This content is typically of interest to many and can be repurposed for social media throughout the year.
8. Consider expert support: Perspective helps
Of course, to get your message out most effectively, you could need the help of reporting strategy, storytelling, design, development and production pros. Not everyone has budget for a completely outsourced report, but there are many ways you can be supported at all points in report creation. If you find you are struggling to see the forest for the trees inside your own company, consider engaging an expert.
9. Keep it up: It gets better each cycle
The first step is the hardest, but it starts the momentum. Over time you will evolve, continuing on your journey. And, be sure to acknowledge all the internal contributors, you’ll need their help again next year. While your initial report (or two) may be done to your company’s own definition and standards, over time you can add data and, when ready, integrate reporting frameworks. Who knows, your C Suite or Board may embrace the value (and values) and accelerate your progress.