Mallen Baker looks at how companies can be more original and engaging in corporate responsibility reporting. Supposing you put to one side the rules about how you're supposed to produce a CSR or sustainability report. Supposing you started with almost a blank page and focused on what might make the people you most want to communicate with actually read your report. What would that look

The BAM Nuttall sustainability report, available online at was one example of the attempt. They wanted a different approach to reporting, and having heard my comments about the shortcomings of traditional approaches, asked if I would work with them on an alternative path.

We started with the question - who are your key audiences for this information? Sure, you could do a core text that would be of relevance to everyone, but any good communicator can tell you that it's nearly impossible to address all audiences at once.

BAM Nuttall is one of the major civil engineering firms in the UK, and is owned by the Royal BAM group, so it does not directly have shareholders. Its key audiences were identified as being employees, suppliers and customers.

The first step was to find out, as far as we could on a very tight deadline, what these audiences wanted to know about. We held two focus groups with employees, some drawn from the office base of the company, some from the construction sites. We went through the big themes and asked them to identify what issues within these themes were of importance to them, what they thought the company should be doing, and where they thought it could improve.

We carried out phone interviews with key suppliers and asked similar questions. We reviewed the questionnaires the company was increasingly getting from its customers asking for environmental or social performance information.

We also asked how the first two groups would prefer to receive information. Nobody expressed an interest for a big printed report.

Employees wanted to see an overview in the employee quarterly newspaper, delivered to the homes of every single member of staff. They were interested in things that would bring the narrative to life, such as short videos on the website.

Suppliers wanted to see occasional information - bite-sized, if you will - in the highly regarded email newsletter they received from the company.

What became clear was that the sustainability report should not just be a report - it should be a broad-based platform of communication and dialogue.

There were plenty of constraints on what could be done. The timescale was tight. The budget was not huge. But none of those factors seemed a decisive obstacle as to why the company's reporting process couldn't be designed to meet the needs of its most important audiences.

We designed a website home for the report. It was different from the standard report in a number of ways.

To begin with, a high priority was placed on using simple, accessible language. The report aimed for a Fog Index score of 12 or below (meant to represent the reading age required to read it). Typical CSR reports clock in well above this, sometimes as high as 24 and typically hovering around the 17/18 mark.

Secondly, the online report carried a core text, but then some items have a narrative aimed specifically at one of the key audience groups. Those items have a button which, if clicked, produces a pop-up window with additional commentary aimed at that audience. It's all open - anyone can look at any of the commentaries and see how the company is seeking to engage with that audience.

But it goes further than that. The employee newspaper carried a double page spread on the report which mostly contained headlines, and teasers to try to tempt people onto the website via a special employee-only address.

That address means that when they arrive at the website, those items identified by the focus groups as being of most relevance and interest are brought to the top of the index page. Any items with employee commentaries will have those commentaries already displayed on the page - no need to click to get the pop-up window. And a number of these items include short video interviews of staff members, relevant to the subject at hand.

A similar short-cut address is available for suppliers and sub-contractors, which brings different items to the top to meet their interests and needs, and displays the supply chain commentary by default.

Nothing is hidden. All of the items are accessible to all. But the system makes it more likely that this key audience will see things that will be relevant and of interest.

As we designed this system, I very much had in the back of my mind the fact that at the last Ethical Corporation conference on reporting in Brussels, the Body Shop had said that for its previous year's report they estimated that around 100 staff out of their 10,000 worldwide had read the report - just one percent.

BAM Nuttall didn't seem to be an easy nut to crack - since over half of its staff would be out on site, many without access to computers at all. Nevertheless, out of the approx. 3,000 employees of the company, around 400 used the customised link to look at the report. Even allowing for a big margin for those that may have used the link more than once, we are into the zone of 10 percent.

That is not bad. But it should only be the beginning. This was a first year's report, so in common with most first year reports, it represents only the start of the journey.

But everyone can say that. The key question is what direction does that journey take you in? At least here is an example of a company that has - from its very first steps - indicated that this is a conversation with people that have a stake in their business.

Logically, that means the next step is to check with those audiences what worked and what didn't. They should be looking to go deeper into the areas of key interest. They should be brave enough not to fill lots of content that a framework like GRI might suggest where it doesn't fit with those interests.

So for me, these were the key learnings so far from this exercise.

1. Start with your audience - get them to tell you what's important, and how they want to receive information from you. Even if you feel you need to tick all the boxes in terms of completeness, you will get more response from those people you most care about if you can find a way to lead on the things they think most important.

2. Nobody wants tricksy websites that hide information from one audience and show it to another - but you can nevertheless use the online medium to make it more likely you present the features of most interest to your audience. What we did here was very basic, if you compare it to the likes of Amazon who are masters of building up a profile on your interests, and suggesting additional content you might find just as interesting.

3. Don't design a report - design a broad based communications approach that may include consultation groups, newspapers / newsletters, face to face briefings as well as the online report as well. Begin by asking your audience how it wants to hear from you.

4. Keep the content simple. Some executives may feel uncomfortable about some of the text, because they're used to a different style of language. Test the language with your audience, not your decision makers!

5. Accept that when you try to innovate in this space, a good 50 percent of what you do won't be right. So build the evaluation process into it, and keep getting better.

6. Be frank and honest with your content. If you have focused on a few key areas, and you are using simple language, there is no place to hide. Tell the good stories and the bad openly.

Article from Business Respect - the web resource on corporate social responsibility

Readers may be interested in this blog post from Toby Webb's blog:
Twelve reasons why I won't read your corporate responsibility report

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