Whole industries are built on CR reporting but we risk forgetting the point of it all

The time of year is upon us when we see this year’s flow of corporate responsibility reports. Six months of blood, sweat and tears. Every box ticked and designed to the hilt. The back-patting is audible while the awards come in thick and fast.

CR report copywriting has been my bread and butter for years. Whole industries (in the form of reporting agencies) are built on it, while in-house entire teams are tasked with number-crunching, and badgering the c-suite for months on end.

But it’s precisely this level of investment, including my own, that gets me thinking, has the reporting merry-go-round made us lose our way? Are these pages / vox pops / apps really proof of good, transparent business? Or have companies focused so much on the saying that they’ve forgotten the doing.

Getting to the point

Every time I read a CR report (and I confess I rarely get through a chapter without glazing over – and I’m an ‘interested stakeholder’), I have a sense of déjà vu. “Our people are at the heart of what we do.” “We are committed to mitigating our impact on the environment.” “We see our suppliers as partners.” “We act on what matters most to our stakeholders.” Sound familiar?

Don’t get me wrong. Those are all commendable statements if they’re actually provable. So, here are my top five tips to get more real with your reporting:

1. Go back to basics: why does your company exist? How is it making the world better? Illustrate your impact in a value chain so the outside world gets how it all fits together. For example, a mining company isn’t just about extraction. It’s about providing the stuff that ends up in our mobile phones, cars and cookers. That makes us all responsible.

2. Prove it or delete it: I’ve boiled down reports of 50,000 words to 5,000 using this rule. Better to have a few hard facts than voluminous verbiage.

3. Governance: usually shoved in at the end of the report as a few dry paragraphs copied and pasted from the annual report. But for me this is the best bit (confession: I am a reporting nerd). It’s how you do business, your ethos, principles and agreed ways of conducting yourselves and your work. It does matter. So bring it to life, be real and personal about it.

4. Cut the report-speak: can someone tell me where the word materiality came from? What’s wrong with ‘priorities’? And don’t even go there with internal acronyms...

5. Think before you integrate: the latest prize to aim for is integrated reporting. It’s a worthy principle for companies to aim for but I know very few businesses that have actually integrated doing good with making money. A more humble tactic is to use this as a stepping stone to think integrated and ask the board some tricky questions. The answers can be the foundation of the report.

Reporting has come such a long way and there’s some brilliant stuff out there. Sometimes we may just need to slow down and reflect on what we’re trying to tell the world and why.

Amita Vaux is a copywriter specialising in corporate responsibility. She has worked at Business in the Community and for a leading reporting agency.

CR Reporting  reporting column 

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