CSR Reporting: Data Is Only a Third of the Communications Equation

As corporate social responsibility programs become more integral to an organization’s strategic plan, the importance of effectively reporting CSR initiatives grows.

Indeed, in 2010 there were 1,000 new organizations reporting their CSR efforts, says CorporateRegister.com, with about 2,000 companies using the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) guidelines. According to Bloomberg, a total of 4,600 companies referenced the GRI guidelines in their reports (more on GRI and other CSR standards platforms later).

So while reporting CSR is clearly taking off, it begs a couple of questions: What are best practices in communicating CSR initiatives, and are organizations doing it right? An examination of reporting practices, divided into three key actions, reveals that reporting is not as data-driven as you might expect.


One thing that communicators of CSR often overlook in reports is telling a compelling story, says Dave Stangis VP, CSR/sustainability at Campbell Soup Company. “We all want to report the hard numbers,” says Stangis. What communicators should do is tell a story, continues Stangis. Which is often tough for CSR professionals, because storytelling isn’t necessarily in their DNA.

Here are some quick tips from Stangis on finding and telling CRS stories:

Describe the impact. This is the biggest change in reporting, says Stangis. Relate how the initiative changed people’s lives.

Mine stakeholders for story ideas. “Stakeholders are great sources—they feel the effects of an organization’s CSR efforts,” says Stangis, who asks stakeholders for story ideas via Twitter.

Look at employees’ CSR efforts. “Even little things they’re doing with CSR is compelling,” says Stangis.

If you can wrap a product in a CSR story, do it. In terms of Campbell Soup, Stangis has told stories around packaging changes and how they affect customers.


Within your CSR story, you’ve got to have some hard data. According to Henk Campher, SVP of CSR and sustainability at Edelman, herein lies the rub: CSR committees within organizations tend to consist of those specifically in the field and/or activist stakeholders. GRI indicators, such as energy consumption in the environmental realm, are perfect for those audiences. But today, organizations are looking for CSR payoffs beyond the activist investor, targeting a wide variety of stakeholders.

Campher says there are ways to work around that. “GRI is a standard, not ‘do this or die’ edict” he says. Here are some suggestions from Campher dealing with data:

â–¶ Don’t try to cover every indicator. A smaller organization may cover just a few, says Campher. That’s why a “materiality assessment” is key: Identify the CSR issues and indicators that will have the most impact on the company, employees and external stakeholders.

â–¶ Set your objective. Is compliance the objective of your report, or is it more of a guideline on how you should report? Campher says in Europe, reports are more compliance-driven. “In the U.S., it’s more common to use indicators as a connection with stakeholders,” he says.

â–¶ Use data that’s relevant to your audience. Example: Would a financially strapped consumer really care that you had an energy savings of 5% in the office using the new green light bulb?


While collecting and verifying CSR data is an important step, how you show it is just as important. Innovative reports are out there, says Campher (see the Cheat Sheet). And Web-only reports are gaining in popularity. His advice for CSR reports that pop:

• Don’t plop data on a page: Find out how your target audience expects to engage with your content—online, in print, on mobile?

• Draw the reader in: Don’t build data-heavy pages. Start with some eye candy, and allow visitors to drill down progressively for more data.

• Integrate your CSR data: Example: Online buyers of Starbucks coffee can click an icon that will take them to the sustainability report for more information.

It is just a matter of time before CSR reporting becomes standard for any organization committed to long-term business success—it’s just a matter of telling compelling stories, presenting relevant data and delivering both in a package that resonates. PRN


Dave Stangis, dave_stangis@campbellsoup.com; Henk Campher, henk.campher@edelman.com; Susan Nickbarg, snickbarg@svnmarketing.com.