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Marketing and Comms
Failure to Communicate:
Dry Sustainability Reports a Missed Opportunity

Does your heart sink at the thought of reading yet another sustainability report?

Over the last three years I’ve been documenting the ways companies are communicating sustainability online and using social media in particular. Time and time again, even those companies that demonstrate real panache in their sustainability communications fail to make the best use of the research, data and information that goes into their sustainability report. Often, as a result, a company’s most interesting sustainability work is left buried in these dull but worthy publications that no one really reads.

The reason for what we might call “a failure to communicate” often can be attributed to a fundamental disconnect between corporate communications and marketing. Sustainability reports have become an important calling card that major companies now use to demonstrate their sustainability commitments. They are a benchmark for shareholders, NGOs, climate and environmental rating agencies and certain niche areas of the media. For the rest of us, however, they are a snoozeathon, which explains why most companies bury them deep in the corporate website as a PDF.

Yet by ignoring the information that goes into sustainability reporting, communicators are failing to make best use of all the time and effort that has gone into compiling this information. What’s more they are missing the real, authentic stories that online audiences really want to know.

Sustainability reports shouldn't be viewed as a dull but necessary part of sustainability compliance. Instead these reports should be seen as the raw material for dynamic sustainability storytelling that reaches online communities far broader than the traditional target audience quartet of investor, employee, NGO and media stakeholders.

After all, consumers and communities are demanding more information about corporate sustainability and responsibility than ever before, and they are sharing their opinions and judgments about companies online. All too often the information that would impress these consumers lies buried in the sustainability report but isn't mined to help demonstrate a company's true sustainability credentials.

Some companies are taking a lead in reimagining how sustainability reporting can be communicated online. The Co-operative 2012 Sustainability Report is one good example. It exemplifies a new trend in video storytelling to illustrate sustainability reports. Short and succinct (just over three minutes in length) the report offers a digestible and interesting overview of The Co-operative's sustainability data, achievements and goals.

Novo Nordisk offers a different take on video storytelling. The Danish healthcare giant uses hand-drawn animation to clearly explain its commitment to fighting diabetes - a major theme of the company's 2012 Report. Using this animation technique Novo Nordisk made what could be a "dull but worthy" topic come alive and grabbed the interest of online audiences.

No consumer is going to read an entire sustainability report from cover to cover. Come to think of it neither is any member of the media or even most investors or employees for that matter. That's why creating a short, visually appealing version of the report is a smart idea. BT does just this with its Better Futures report, creating a highlights scrolling microsite that includes key messages and core data.

Despite a growing backlash over the usefulness of hashtags, this original Twitter taxonomy can still be an integral way to cut through social media noise and help organise conversation around sustainability reports. This year SAP created a dedicated Twitter hashtag #sapintegrated to help shepherd conversation around its 2013 integrated corporate and sustainability report. It's a social media innovation likely to embraced by many other brands.

If you’d like to read more examples of companies using social media to add new life to sustainability reports, the new SMI-Wizness Social Media Sustainability Index update is available online.