How unified reporting might look, humour-injected eco ad campaigns and system dynamics explained

One report, many channels

Caught in the limelight and faced with an ever-expanding range of social and environmental pressures, how should companies respond? Harvard lecturer Robert Eccles and co-author Michael Krzus suggest a “single, jargon-free document” – the One Report – that incorporates key financial and non-financial data.

Published as part of a series of articles on social reporting, the authors’ argument diverges from traditional thinking in its emphasis on multiple-communication strands. One Report doesn’t mean only one report.

It’s sage advice. Today, triple-bottom line reports abound, but only when they are backed up with detailed information of interest to specific stakeholders does such transparency become genuinely relevant. The internet has facilitated such tailored responses exponentially, while also boosting a company’s capacity to listen “as well as simply reporting or talking”. Such dialogue will enable companies to undertake an information gap analysis and thereby determine the information stakeholders really need – and what they can do without.

A new paper from the Harvard Kennedy School corporate responsibility initiative picks up where Eccles and Krzus leave off. Borrowing from computer semantics, the paper argues that web-enabled technologies demand that companies move from “Accountability 1.0” to “Accountability 2.0”. That’s to say, from one-way communication (such as press releases and, yes, corporate responsibility reports) to two-way dialogue. The result? Greater mutual understanding and more consensus-oriented solutions.

The paper concludes with a helpful matrix that depicts which web 2.0 tools (blogs, podcasts, tagging, webinars, microblogs, crowdsourcing, games, etc) are relevant at which stage of corporate communication (proclamations, reactions, interactions, dialogue, collaboration and co-creation). The list of final recommendations will help direct communications professionals in the emerging e-universe. The overall message is clear: if you can’t distinguish your augmented reality tools from your multi-user virtual environments, it’s time to get learning.

Sharpening Your Skills: Social Reporting, Harvard Business School, working knowledge paper, June 2010; The Accountability Web, Bill Baue and Marcy Murninghan, Harvard Kennedy School, working paper No 58, May 2010

Fun for all

Protecting the environment is a deadly serious issue. But that doesn’t mean communicating green issues must be too. In fact, the more fun they are, the better, this short, insightful article points out. Dalton looks at how German car manufacturer Volkswagen has thrown seriousness aside to successfully grab the public’s attention. A competition for ideas for fun ways to get people to change their behaviour saw the conversion of a conventional set of subway stairs into a piano keyboard that played a note with each commuter’s step. Use of the staircase increased by two-thirds as a result.

The curiosity formed part of Volkswagen’s Fun Theory campaign, an innovative publicity drive for its fuel-efficient line of diesel-powered BlueMotion cars. Rather than push its product up front, the company integrated scenes of people enjoying similar instalments into its advertising. The overall message? It’s fun and desirable to do the right thing.

Volkswagen is on to something. While it’s difficult to prove, there is strong anecdotal evidence that humans are particularly receptive to fun and novelty.

But humour may not always work, Dalton warns. Where it fails, try money. Studies in behavioural economics show that financial rewards are becoming an increasingly popular motivator for virtuous behaviour. Paying people to give up smoking is a popular case in point. But beware: paying people to do things they might otherwise do for free can sometimes backfire. We like to think our motives are pure, even when they might not be.

Fun for a Change, Aaron Dalton, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2010

System failures

Interactions between multiple stakeholders of differing viewpoints are intrinsically complex. This paper’s argument rests on the idea that companies’ responsibility efforts are subject to positive or negative attributions by stakeholders. These attributions are the context in which companies’ responsibility efforts play out, what the papers refers to as a “system”. The impacts of these efforts can gain or lose impact through this system as they come into contact with various stakeholders. To add to the complexity, the eventual outcome is difficult to predict, given that it depends on an interplay of different stakeholder actions over varied timescales.

The management of issues for which the outcomes that are neither linear nor predictable is far from easy. The concluding section takes a worthy stab at making some suggestions. Wise leadership, the authors maintain, involves getting an entire system’s dynamics moving in the desired direction. Fail in that, and it’s time to rethink a strategy’s initial objectives. Topically, one of the paper’s two illustrative examples is BP’s baulked attempt at rebranding itself as Beyond Petroleum. Employees raised doubt about the company’s environmental management, which got picked up by activists, and made their way into the national press. Given the current Deepwater Horizon crisis, the paper holds extra timeliness.

A Crowd of Watchdogs, Maria Besiou et al, Insead, Working Paper 2010/28, April 2010

Campus news

Dr Andrew Hoffman of the Ross School of Business, and Dr Michael Toffel and Dr Forest Reinhardt of Harvard University have won the Manos Page Prize for Sustainability Issues in Business Curricula. The educators were singled out for their courses on green construction and environmental management respectively. Now in its second year, the curricula prize is awarded by the University of South Carolina., the online repository of sustainability-related education materials, has fresh content from new members Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú and Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.

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