It’s that time of year again, when trees burst into technicolor displays and holiday music starts popping up on every other radio channel. And, like clockwork, CSR and ESG clients are bursting out of the woodwork and popping up in inboxes. That’s right—it’s report season.
As the festivities get into full swing, I’d like to file a report of my own. A missing persons report. For the audience.
After reviewing nearly 50 different CSR and ESG reports across a range of industry sectors over the past week, I can tell you a lot about report content design trends. Who does a tidy job of packaging spotlight stories with KPIs (BlackRock). Who’s found a nifty, deceptively simple way to track report content blocks to GRI standards (Walgreens). Who has clean, well-structured dashboards (Target) or brand-forward, context-setting section dividers (Discover). What I can’t tell you is who most of these reports are for. And if you don’t know who your report is for, you’re not communicating anything.
At its essence, communication requires two things: a transmitter and a receiver—someone with something to say and someone to hear it. And the notion of “reporting” conveys an even deeper sense of expectation and obligation. You report to someone. You give them well-researched, accurate, reliable information that influences their actions.
Weather reports, scouting reports, progress reports—whatever the content, reports that work are useful, succinct summaries designed to help people make informed decisions and increase the likelihood of success for whatever course they’re charting.
But with their bloated page counts, bold yet unsubstantiated claims and goals, and content that seesaws from dense data tables to ultra-specific stories of impact, the average CSR or ESG report can feel more akin to a rambling middle school book report than a valuable tool for analysis and decision-making. These reports fall into the classic trap of trying to be all things to all people—and in turn fail to be anything to anyone. And without that receiver, it’s just companies shouting into the proverbial void.
How do we get out of that trap and start reporting CSR and ESG progress to the people who need it, in a way that actually connects? Start by pinpointing your audience.
Audience mapping starts with a few basic questions:
Answers to questions like these help provide a road map for slicing and dicing a behemoth report into tailored, audience-specific pieces. They shape the molds—a series of issue briefs here, an eye-catching data visualization there, a heart-tugging video over there—that you’ll pour your information into and the ways you’ll drive people to it. They’re the starting point for moving from simply issuing a report to reporting to people on what matters to them.
It’s clear that we need to separate the act of reporting from the notion of a report. What that means for you depends on your organization’s specific goals and beliefs about ESG.
Just checking the box once a year to stay below the radar while you ride out this fad? Then strip down your report to the essentials. Articulate your strategy and priorities, clearly define and document progress toward your goals, and provide comprehensive, well-organized, machine-readable charts and data tables mapped to the requisite frameworks and indexes. Lose the fluff—and save the comms budget.
On the other hand, if your goal is to be a leader and to prepare your organization to thrive in a new reality where economic performance and social and environmental impact are inextricably entwined, it’s time to transition away from “producing a report” to reporting to your individual audiences within a robust content ecosystem. One size never fits all, and your sprawling annual CSR OR ESG report is no exception. Let’s pull the data out of the generic void, and reimagine how to direct it to the people who need it.
Alicia Gesner is a Strategy Director at AHA, a FINN Partners Company