The 9th Annual CR Reporting & Communications Summit 2015, held at the Hilton Tower Bridge in London 10th-11th November, saw more than a hundred Corporate Social Responsibility professionals and experts gather to discuss some of the most prominent issues in CSR reporting and communications that exist today.

In doing so, delegates were able to freely debate and discuss the most pressing challenges that they face within their roles, as well as some of the more innovative developments that are becoming established in this space.

Naturally, there was plenty of coverage of some of the more established issues around Reporting, namely stakeholder engagement, articulating your business’s positive contribution to society, and how to establish which topics are the most important on which to report (i.e. Materiality Assessment).

However, as a reflection of the fast-moving times in which the CSR community lives, delegates were also treated to a series of insightful presentations on such innovative topics as harnessing Big Data for CSR reporting, understanding the seemingly irreversible shift towards Integrated Reporting, and using Human Rights reporting as a way of enhancing a business’s social performance.

From the opening speech by Lafarge Holcim’s Chris Ettery, to the closing remarks by ArcelorMittal’s Dr. Alan Knight, the issue of stakeholder engagement was centre-stage. Dr Knight, in particular, was keen to emphasise that a business’s sustainability report can only be as good as its strategy, stating that “the report is the story of the strategy” and the more honest you are about that story, the more helpful your report will be for your strategy.

But how do you make that story convincing and compelling enough to get key stakeholders on board? Jamie Quinn, Head of Sustainability at Cofely UK, shared a brilliant way of employing innovative and linked-up storytelling: “Nobody gets excited about whether you’ve reduced water use or energy use by 5 or 10 per cent”, he explained. “But once you add a human element – how you have benefitted entire communities – you can far more easily communicate the good you are doing”. Equally, in the same session, Paul Thomas of AkzoNobel underlined the way in which his company use people to emphasise the human element of their business operations.

Simplicity was another tip of Quinn’s: he explained how when Cofely took around 65 KPIs to the Board, they lost all their individual and collective effectiveness, and the whole initiative became just another box-ticking exercise. This led to a halving of the number of KPIs tracked, and Cofely claim that by paring down your aims and communications to the topics that really are most material, they will become more achievable, as well as having more of an impact.

On a similar note, Alan Knight pointed out that 70-80% of a CSR report’s readers are likely to be your own people – employees, Board members, etc. – and so the ‘story’ (which at the end of the day is what your report is) should be told in a more familiar tone that will resonate with them, and not in high-level and abstract terms.

Another emerging trend that was dealt with over the course of the summit was the use of social media as a powerful tool for communicating CSR and engaging key stakeholders with a business’ social performance. Sara Hanson of ITV and Megan Mitrevski Dale of Coca-Cola Enterprises both spoke at length about the opportunities offered by social media, with the latter suggesting that it can be more effective to break down the annual report into digestible bits that can be communicated throughout the year and linked to key events and emerging trends.

Mitrevski Dale also talked about a ‘CSR Q&A session’ that Coca-Cola Enterprises hosted on Twitter, with the organisation’s Head of CSR having some 250 questions put to them over the course of an hour-and-a-half session. The event was apparently a considerable success, and had the added benefit of leveraging social media’s unique ability to reach new stakeholders that perhaps aren’t as tuned in to annual company reports.

There were several sessions dedicated almost entirely to addressing some of the sustainability reporting community’s biggest headaches: the ever-increasing complexity of this industry due to the arrival on the scene of – among other things – Integrated Reporting, the proliferation of reporting standards and frameworks, and the use of Big Data in sustainability reporting.

Help was at hand, though, with Ian Jameson of the IIRC outlining his organisation’s stance on the movement towards Integrated Reporting, and on the broader shifts taking place within the corporate reporting landscape. Jameson put forward the argument that Integrated Reporting is “a vehicle that unlocks long-term investment infrastructure”, and also that “Integrated Reporting is not the next revolution in sustainability reporting; it’s the next step in corporate reporting”.

Meanwhile, Susanne Katus (eRevalue) and Annie Heaton (ArcelorMittal) hosted an interactive session titled ‘How to get to grips with GRI G4’. A quick show of hands showed that most companies represented around the room had already switched to using G4, but when asked if they thought that G4 was proving useful for their business, participants were less enthusiastic. Focusing in on a key aspect of the latest GRI reporting framework – materiality – Heaton and Katus highlighted how complicated this process has become for businesses trying to understand both their stakeholders’ expectations and the external environment in which they operate.

Drawing on ArcelorMittal’s approach to materiality, Heaton argued that one of the keys was not just to consider current stakeholder concerns, but to look forward to what the future might hold in store. Whilst materiality assessments tend to take the guise of an algorithmic assessment for the sake of a sustainability report, Heaton offered a more strategic approach: materiality should be about those issues your business strategically needs to work on, and a good sustainability report should then report progress against these.

The session moved on to focus on what kind of information companies need to be reporting in future. Heaton suggested that we are seeing a shift from a focus on company performance data to attempts to report on a company’s contribution to society. While this approach is still in its infancy, participants agreed that in future, the GRI and other reporting standards (there are now some 1500 of them) needed to evolve to go beyond driving transparency to driving strategic business contributions to sustainability. Katus, on the other hand, opened up the debate of whether and to what extent the emergence of Big Data will drive transparency in CSR reporting. Katus was unequivocal in her belief that this will happen, and there was some debate as to how GRI should help companies to prepare for this coming paradigm shift.

The message from this session was clear: we need to be using ESG data more and more, not just for reporting but also as a corporate steering mechanism in order to help anticipate future risks and opportunities. It was suggested, for example, that with closer scrutiny of their CSR reports and ESG data in recent years, the VW scandal could well have been avoided, or at least spotted earlier.

Having said that, it is also essential that companies do not just present this information to their key audiences as raw data: you have to tie it into something more tangible, whether that be a story in itself or as a part of your company’s overall narrative. Of course, this sentiment was echoed at various other points throughout the summit, and one could arguably take this to be the single most important takeaway from the entire two days.

There were countless other contributions and interventions made by some notable leaders in the sustainability communications space, too numerous to list here in their entirety (including, among many others, Alcatel-Lucent’s Christine Diamente, Unilever’s Marcela Manubens, and Windfire BV’s Gilad Regev). However, there are two final statements made during the summit that serve as a handy reminder of the importance of striving for innovation in the way your business presents its CSR credentials.

The first, as expressed by Adam Garfunkel (Junxion), was that by 2025, millennials will make up about 75% of the workforce; and this is crucial because they (or should I say ‘we’?!) care deeply about CSR, and want the businesses we work for and whose goods and services we buy to not only embrace social responsibility, but also to engage this generation in their own CSR plans. Businesses, therefore, need to stay on top of their CSR game in order to meet this increasing stakeholder demand.

The second, as put forward by eRevalue’s Marjella Alma, was the prediction (made by a Yale University professor) that by 2020, three quarters of the companies that make up the S&P 500 index will be ones that still did not even exist by the beginning of 2012. In such a fast-changing landscape, how can companies stay resilient and continue to articulate their purpose and contribution to society? For this particular question, the use of Big Data in sustainability reporting was cited as a key part of the solution, but the sheer range of topics and opinions discussed over the course of just two days in a cosy conference room in London demonstrates just how much CSR professionals need to take into account when devising the strongest way in which to present their company’s contribution to society.

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