The CSR Reporting Journey: How to Move Internal Stakeholders From Support to Understanding and Action

CSR reporting cannot be the end all and be all. It helps companies identify issues and promote what they are doing well all at the same time. But to have true change within a company, to move from being a company that just reports, there are several hurdles to overcome.

The Importance of CSR Reports
You are not different if you report about your company’s corporate social responsibility practices. Reporting about how you are helping a non-profit, reducing your impact on the environment or keeping a great safety record with employees does not set you apart. In fact, if you are going for competitive differentiation, don’t report. For many PR professionals, this isn’t an issue. You are reporting because it’s a healthy evaluation exercise and a forum to communicate strategies, challenges and failures.

Engage Internal Stakeholders Early
It is what the company does with the information gathered during the act of reporting that can contribute to better business in the end. So, how do you get there? Start with looking at the process you take to write your corporate responsibility report. Internal stakeholders, especially the ones who don’t understand why reporting is important but are decision makers in the company, should be engaged early. Decisions about what is material to include in the company’s report should be a well thought-out decision based on discussions, hard questions and business evaluations.

Three practical questions help identify how you can use reporting in your company to lead it to a place where it is changing for the better—and for the more responsible.

1.    Who’s actually reporting?
The two questions that follow rely on how you answer this one. Reporting depends on the company, but too often CSR reporting falls on a small group of people – if not just one person – who is the champion and the aggregator of information. If you find yourself in that situation, you have an uphill battle to fight, but all hope is not lost. Your job is not to put the whole report together. That’s the first lesson.

CSR will not be sustainable in your company if you are one of the only people who truly support it. We’ve all heard the importance of getting senior leadership buy-in and tying CSR to business objectives. This is true and important, but how do you get there? This isn’t the case with all companies but many still find themselves operating from an understanding of CSR that is driven by the main champion who is a mid-level employee. If this is you, your first step is to get others on board who care about CSR.

This can happen organically and cross all departments. It does not need to be a communications-only project. CSR touches every aspect of the business. The HR manager is just as important to understanding the implications of how recruits and existing employees are going to respond to messages and policies found – or not found – in the CSR report as the director of environmental sustainability. These mid-level champions should work to rally a following.
Know that the people who may not understand why this is important do not need to be the first people you are trying to convert. Engage them, but know it’s okay if they don’t completely agree with you. Talk to the people who will listen. Look for the people who touch very important and relevant pieces that affect the strategic direction of your company. Listen when people are talking about challenges they are facing in their department. It’s possible there may be an opportunity to show the effectiveness of CSR by being able to meet the challenge your colleagues are up against.

2.    What has been the point of reporting in the past?
If the point of reporting has been the 50-plus-page report that you get to send to stakeholders, you are not getting the most out of your report that you could. Instead, if the point of reporting was to garner feedback from internal and external stakeholders and to see your failures clearly, your report would be a conduit to making strategic changes in the company’s business strategy. And ultimately these changes could help the company make more money, because isn’t that important?

Reporting is still a new process. Not everyone has figured it out. Companies that stick out, however, are using it to not only be transparent with the good and the bad, they are also using it to not allow the status quo to continue, even if it’s a method that’s worked for many years and that the company has used to be successful. Why? Reporting helps companies identify what matters to their stakeholders. If done right, it also helps companies engage with stakeholders and listen to them in a candid way. Ultimately, you have to make decisions about what to disclose or what not to disclose based on your business judgment. However, if you are hearing from your stakeholders that it’s very important that they know how you keep your food safe and you don’t have best-in-class food safety policies, procedures and training, you have an incentive to make that change on a basic, operational level.

Reporting reveals the skeletons in your company’s closet. It allows you to ask hard questions. And it should allow you to suggest ways to make a change with even the senior leadership who may or may not understand why CSR is integral to business. Importantly, your job comes down to your ability to work with your internal stakeholders to understand why something is done a certain way and then work together to decide if there is a more responsible way to do it.

3.    What would it look like if reporting was not the end point?
Apple just announced it was immediately withdrawing from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because of the Chamber’s position on climate change. But this was the same company that until recently refused to report its greenhouse gas emissions. Now, it’s taking a bold stance and withdrawing because of a disagreement over the strategy of climate change.

Through reporting, you are effectively telling the world about what you are doing, progress made and legitimate challenges being faced. The problem with figuring this out is that it’s a process, requiring it to be refined, changed and re-evaluated. Internal stakeholders who have input into the report will change and new internal champions will need to be earned. Through it all, your goal is not to produce a report, it’s to evaluate and to build more champions who understand the value of CSR and can apply it to all parts of the business.

This is excerpted from PR News' Guide to Best Practices in Corporate Social Responsibility & Green PR, Volume 3. It was written by Ashley Barwig, senior associate at Burson-Marsteller in Chicago. To order the guidebook or find out more information about it, go to