Blogversation

Why CSR Reporting is Still Ugly: Mallen Baker’s Blog

Welcome to tbl’s new blogversation section, where we’ll bring you conversations from the CSR blogosphere. We believe that the dynamic nature of such dialogue is part of what keeps the CSR movement’s momentum strong. Below are excerpts from Mallen Baker’s blog, along with parts of the ensuing conversation between CSR practitioners across the globe.

With so many people focused on improving the state of the art, it must be getting pretty close to perfect, you would think. But it isn’t. It’s still ugly. And it’s worth just pondering why that might be. In his book ‘Blink’ Malcolm Gladwell identifies a number of instances where companies got something badly wrong that you would think they would get right. They were paying close attention. They had mobilised lots of resources. They should have got it right.

Like New Coke, which passed the blind taste test with its rival Pepsi, but flopped disastrously when released. They didn’t realise the basic truth – customers don’t drink blind. There were a lot more factors at play when people drank a bottle of coke. And besides, something sweeter might taste better with the first sip, but become too sickly by the time you’ve drunk a whole bottle.

Gladwell also identifies a number of times when companies got it right by ignoring all the criticism and advice, and going on instinct. Like the ergonomically designed Aeron chair that Herman Miller produced. Dismissed by experts as an aesthetic disaster, the company decided on gut instinct to go ahead anyway – and it became a design classic and its best selling product. The committees, the experts, the consultants – all those people that are commenting on which companies have got excellent reports – are missing the crucial ingredient. The reports don’t work for ordinary stakeholders – the people that the authors imagine they are producing the reports for.

Bill Dowell from Herman Miller said: “When you are in the product development world, you become immersed in your own stuff, and it’s hard to keep in mind the fact that the customers you go out and see spend very little time with your product”.

Successful engagement with employees, or customers, or suppliers is not held to be a criterion for quality of a CSR report.

This isn’t unusual. Marketers give awards to each other for clever and innovative ads. The award winning ads are often not the ones that sell the best. But the marketers do at least know that a key responsibility of the ad campaign is to sell stuff. CSR experts don’t seem to see a similar communication function for the CSR report. They spend too much time in the detail, and not enough asking what the point of it all is. CSR reports have become the equivalent of avant garde art. Experts queue up to declare it beautiful, whilst ordinary people stand in front of it slightly baffled wondering just what it is meant to be.

Elaine Cohen:

Hi mallen, I understand your criticisms of CSR reports and have heard them many times :). However, as one of the CSR Experts you refer to, I disagree with your broad-sweeping generalisations. Who are “ordinary stakeholders?” Is your expectation that the average consumer or person in the street who knows nothing about the way businesses are run, or had any real interest, will just pick up a CSR report out of the blue and suddenly become totally engrossed? Well, it won’t happen. If you want to get to “ordinary” consumers, you have to engage them, not just push a report out there and hope that someone picks it up. CSR reports are not written for these sort of people, in the main. They are written for a broad-based but nonetheless tuned-in audience who has some knowledge of and interest in the way businesses are run, or the way a specific business is run. Employees, “educated” consumers, potential investors, suppliers, NGO’s people who know what reporting is and have some prior knowledge or a specific point of interest relating to a Company’s operations. You cannot engage people with a CSR report alone. But a CSR report is a big advantage
(I would say necessary) in order to engage stakeholder groups including “ordinary” ones, whoever they are. The process of engagement is a different process to that of reporting, though they overlap. Just producing a CSR report is clearly not enough. Where you and I agree, I think, is that companies are not doing enough to engage stakeholders. But this is not a reporting problem, this is a leadership and strategy problem. I think your comparison of CSR reports to avant garde art is rather pathetic. CSR reports are not meant to be a piece of aesthetic beauty – a CSR report is a business tool designed to serve a business purpose, and awards made for reporting relate to the content and not to the design – i.e. the substance not the form. As such, objective criteria can be used to rate whether a report does a good job in reflecting the sustainability position of a company in a comprehensive and balanced way – it is not about a subjective feeling whether something is beautiful or not. Your generalizations offer no constructive contribution to the dialogue about reporting. I would find it more helpful if you would make some concrete suggestion for making CSR reports a more effective tool in the engagement process. Another point we agree on, I think, is that there are many BAD reports out there. Clearly, this is frustrating. But there are also many good ones. I ask you how many companies have you provided specific feedback to so that they can improve and make their reporting more relevant for you, as a stakeholder? (And not an “ordinary” one, either) I do that on an almost daily basis. You say that us “Experts” are wrapped up in the detail without considering the true purpose of reporting. Well, I believe that any expert such as myself starts off the reporting process with exactly that question – about the purpose of the report and its intended use after publication. CSR reporting is not a process for technocrats, just filling in blanks. What I wonder however, is how realistic your expectations of CSR reports are? Do you really think that a CSR report can change the world? Come on, let’s get some perspective! A report is just a business tool, not a solution to everyone’s problems or communication needs. Also, in your comments, you ignore the many benefits of reporting that Companies gain, whether or not the “ordinary stakeholder” takes an interest. I can give you concrete examples of where reporting has made a contribution to companies’ business. You seem to be stuck in reactive mode, complaining about the fact that CSR reports are ineffective, rather than going after the cheese, accept that reporting offers real benefits, and joining the CSR Experts who are trying to make them more relevant and more effective, but not necessarily more beautiful.

Sorry for writing a response which is longer than your original post.

Mallen Baker:

Hi Elaine – I thought this post might attract your attention! You shouldn’t take generalizations about experts quite so personally. I was with a bunch of reporters again last week. They agreed that, as far as they were concerned, they produced their reports for a wide range of stakeholders. They agreed that almost none of those stakeholders read the report. Broken system. Right there. Employees, customers, suppliers, local communities, perhaps the better term would be non-expert stakeholders? In any case, if we don’t expect them to read the reports, then stop writing the reports as though they are the audience. SRI analysts don’t want to look at photos of happy smiling children, do they? A CSR report is a business tool, for sure. It is communication. There is no other business communication where it would be considered a good idea to address multiple audiences at once, especially ones with such different interests.

Bernd Lorenz:

I have not really understood the hype about CSR reports in the past and for me the only reason to publish a report today is because others do so beside triggering an avalanche of awareness of values etc. inside some companies. Anyway, from a marketing perspective there are millions of other and more efficient ways informing your stakeholders than reporting And why splitting the CSR – report from the financial report. That is also against the logic of triple-bottom-line accounting.

To read mallen’s blog, visit:
www.mallenbaker.net/csr/post.php?id=336

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