Peter Knight says firmly grounded reporting should be the basis for the next generation of sustainability messages

Peter Knight says firmly grounded reporting should be the basis for the next generation of sustainability messagesHave you been sustainably messaged lately? It is a bit like being hit over the head with a pillow stuffed with free range feathers.

If you’re still waiting for this elevating experience, be prepared for an onslaught of positive missives from companies wanting you to know how much they care about people, the planet and profits.

The increase in messaging marks a shift away from uber-geeky reporting towards a desire to communicate sustainability messages to a broader audience: the full range of stakeholders, consumers included.

You can see the evidence in advertising (check out the IBM “smart” ads) and company websites where reporting takes a supporting role to the messaging. My conversations with clients confirm a widespread desire to talk more about their sustainability performance to non-specialist audiences, including, and sometimes especially, their employees.

What’s new? Companies have always wanted to trumpet a caring, responsible image. This initially led to dreadfully embarrassing results and the coining of the phrase greenwashing to describe PR spin.

What’s changed is that there is now a great rump of companies – the early adopters of reporting – who are in the enviable position of sitting on a large body of historical evidence to support sustainability claims. These reporters want a better return on their reporting investment than that afforded by the narrow audience only interested in the geeky detail. The early adopters are looking for payday and it is within reach.

Does this mean the end of reporting? Not at all. The news for reporting is good, for two reasons.

First, the validity of reporting – objective communication of performance – has been vindicated. You can’t create broad, popular and authentic sustainability messages without robust proof points.

The evidence you need is to be found in best-practice reporting. Your reports offer evidence to support messages of care and responsibility in other media. With a good foundation of reporting, audiences can drill down from a claim made in one part of a website to the evidence lying in the report. That’s valuable data and those who have it are smiling.

Too much detail

The second reason is counter-intuitive. An emphasis on messaging will save reporting from killing itself with obsessive detail. There are a few hardcore reporters aided and abetted by a supporting cast of fanatical advocates, who share an unhealthy obsessive compulsion for ever-greater detail. These people are determined to create documents – trumpeted as best practice – designed wholly and exclusively for the reporting Taliban.

Such reports are grotesquely long, very boring quasi-spreadsheets that tick every box created by AccountAbility and the Global Reporting Initiative, complete with expensive gobbledygook “assurance” statements signed by people who wish they had long beards.

But now some former followers of the reporting Taliban are beginning to see the light. They are finally questioning the value of ever-more-detailed materiality processes, of arrays of key performance indicators that mean naught to normal people, and demands from the reporting Taliban for more of that wonderful stuff called granularity.

Many early adopters want a return on their reporting investment. They are itching to get out there and start hitting people with pillows.

But here is a caveat. Before you head out with your ethically sourced feathers, remember the communication rules have not changed. Sustainability messaging will only work if the communicators are operating from a firm foundation. That anchor is provided by robust reporting, supported, of course, by the necessary management structures and processes that generate the performance data.

The dysfunction of the obsessive compulsive reporters does not negate the fact that structured reporting is both good and necessary. A reporting history – and good performance – is enabling companies to produce with impunity easily accessible microsites, brochures, videos, internal communications campaigns, advertisements, blogs and incessant tweets. They can message as much as they want because they know the supporting evidence is within reach of those who want the detail.

The advice for late adopters is to get going on your reporting and begin building your foundations – there is no quick route to authenticity. Once you’ve done that, you can pick up your pillow and join that great big fight now getting started on the web. Watch those sustainable feathers fly.

Peter Knight is president of Context America.

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