5 Insider Lessons When You're Creating (and Surviving) a Corporate Sustainability Report

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In my first post about Corporate Sustainability Reports on October 3, I laid out what I consider compelling data that shows how this valuable communications tool can bring bottom-line benefits to your company. With more and more companies embracing a sustainability philosophy, there are a lot of resources available to you as you begin your quest, all developed by top communicators from around the world. This post will show you some great examples of successful corporate sustainability reports from General Mills and GNP Company, among others, and direct you to some corporate sustainability report resources while giving four insider lessons that will help you to not only survive, but thrive through the creation of a sustainability report.

1. Do Your Due Diligence – Study from Some of the Best

Corporate communicators only need to spend a short amount of time at CSRWire or Sustainability Reports to quickly see that corporate sustainability reports come in all shapes and sizes. From UPS’s 134-page “Committed to More” interactive PDF, to H&M’s seemingly fashion magazine-inspired 130-page “Conscious Actions” interactive report (see below), or Cargill’s 20-page “Cargill @150” report, each report offers valuable information and presentation styles that can be inspirational for communicators tasked with developing their own organizations' corporate sustainability reports.

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Julie Berling, Senior Director of Strategic Communications & Insights for Minnesota-based GNP Company (makers of Gold’n Plump® and Just BARE® chicken and a Maccabee PR client) and chief strategist of its yearly corporate sustainability report “Farm to Fork Report” advises, “Keep your sustainability report simple and your audience in mind.”

To that end, GNP Company demonstrates its company values through four key focus areas important to its company – People, Progress, Poultry and Planet. Within each focus area is information about its process areas and their impacts, with year-over-year findings. Bottom-line? Determine a format that will work with your organization’s brand…and get to work!

2. Collect Data. Then Collect More Data; And Pull Together a Village

Key to a corporate sustainability report is knowing what data points should be measured. Global Reporting Initiative’s website is a resource that corporate communicators and PR pros should bookmark. It’s loaded with information that not only provides deeper insight into why a corporate sustainability report is important than provided in this post, but also features a roadmap on what data points your company should report. According to its website, “by using the GRI G4 Guidelines (which will soon transition to GRI Sustainability Reporting Standards – GRI Standards, for short), reporting organizations disclose their most critical impacts – be they positive or negative – on the environment, society and the economy. They can generate reliable, relevant and standardized information with which to assess opportunities and risks, and enable more informed decision-making – both within the business and among its stakeholders. GRI G4 is designed to be universally applicable to all organizations of all types and sectors, large and small, across the world.”

Refer back to General Mills’ 2016 Global Responsibility Report (mentioned in my first post) to see an effective use of GRI G4 standards in its reporting. GNP Company’s Berling also points to the value of consistent measurement. “Build your sustainability report around data points that you can sustain in year-over-year reporting to ensure relevance over time,” she says.

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It’s important to know from the start that developing a corporate sustainability report takes the commitment of a team of people to bring it to fruition. Not only are the writers, designers and developers of the corporate sustainability report critical to pulling it off, but so are the researchers and data collectors, the accountants, the sustainability program managers, the C-suite, the administrative staff…well, heck, because it’s a strategic corporate initiative, everyone at an organization is technically a part of its success. However, to put in place the policies and procedures needed to get at your organization’s sustainability story, Berling goes on to say, “Be sure to engage the right people at the right level to drive the statistics and stories in your report. It’s easy to cast too wide a net and lose focus.”

3. Write, Tell and Show Your Sustainability Story

Today’s corporate sustainability reports have moved beyond a single print-based reporting tool to a multi-media showcase of an organization’s sustainability performance. Case in point – General Mills. While its 126-page report is comprehensive as a downloadable PDF, it’s also available in an interactive format and in an archives database for those who want to dig deeper. General Mills also produces a video overview and blog each year, with an audio interview this year as well. Pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly incorporates its 136 page integrated report into a microsite that also houses videos, infographics and charts to tell its story, all communications tactics that are growing in popularity in corporate sustainability reports.

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In a world where the average attention span of a consumer is less than that of a goldfish (8 seconds to 9, respectively), infographics have become an important tool to complement the long narrative reporting in a corporate sustainability report. Our agency client GNP Company (above) does an effective job of using infographics to provide an overview of the company, which beneficially, can then be leveraged in other internal and external communications pieces.

Even when using multi-media or infographics, Berling plans GNP Company’s corporate sustainability report to include long-form narrative. “It’s important to include the story behind the stats,” she advises. “The statistics are important for trending and tracking improvement and progress, but they pale in comparison to the people and the processes behind the numbers. That’s what truly gives your report relevance and meaning to your readers.”

4. Don’t Just Publish it. Leverage it!

Whew! Your corporate sustainability report is at the printer and loaded on your website. You’re done, right? My advice is to plan for additional ways to share your corporate responsibility story far and wide. Consider:

  • Hold an employee event that offers your ready, and most likely willing, company ambassadors a first-exclusive look at your corporate sustainability report. Give them ideas on how they can share the corporate sustainability report with their networks (e.g., as a part of email signatures; links in customer correspondence; on their LinkedIn profiles, etc.)
  • Develop an ongoing social media program that points to key stories throughout your report, leveraging the multi-media and/or infographic elements.
  • Ensure that your key media contacts have access to the latest report. If they’re interested, arrange interviews with your key corporate sustainability report thought leaders, but also be satisfied knowing the media has access to your corporate sustainability report story for potential stories down the road.
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5. Celebrate the Process (And Start Planning for Next Year’s Corporate Sustainability Report!)

And finally, celebrate your corporate sustainability report process. And again, celebrate its results. That’s the advice given by General Mills’ Catherine Gunsbury, Director of Sustainability & Transparency when questioned about what advice she’d give an organization about to embark on developing a corporate sustainability report. “Celebrate the many employees who contribute to reporting. Engage them in the content and in better ways of getting the work done next year.” Most importantly she reminds us, “your corporate sustainability report is ‘everyone’s report,' as reflected in the work…and the rewards.”

In closing, I’ll remind you as communicators that corporate sustainability reports are a ton of work. But I believe it's one of those career projects that will give you a feeling of accomplishment and reward. As I finalize this post, I’m listening to music and take it as a sign that Gloria Gaynor’s 1979 song, “I Will Survive” is playing in my ears. Truly. I’m not making that up. (And clearly I’m not a millennial!) So, if you’re contemplating developing your first corporate sustainability report and Ms. Gaynor’s lyrics of At first I was afraid, I was petrified” are in your head, know that at some point in your corporate sustainability report journey you will say, “I will survive!”

Want to learn more? Check out part one of our corporate sustainability reports series.

Image Source(s): Savage BrandsH&M, GNP Company

About the Author

Jean Hill

Jean Hill is senior vice president at Minneapolis-based Maccabee, a strategic public relations and online marketing agency.

Topics:  Corporate Communications

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