Some companies are beginning to wonder what to do with their corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports, those glossy annual attempts to prove -- and justify -- "responsibility" initiatives. Others are debating whether to publish one.

The conventional model of the annual CSR report is built on the annual corporate report archetype, that snapshot in time of business focus, performance, and strategy. Meant to meet statutory reporting requirements of the jurisdictions in which an organization's stock is traded, annual reports are also sometimes a marketing tool (as is often the true intention of a CSR report). The most important part of the annual report is the management discussion and analysis, the part that competitors, investment bankers and financial analysts read . . . and hardly anyone else.

In most jurisdictions, there are no statutory obligations to produce a CSR report, no nothing compelling external reasons. And maybe they have had their day.  Some who have been in the game a long time are recognizing the limitations of this traditional reporting mechanism. CSR reports seldom satisfy a company's critical audiences, even if they are informed by stakeholder panels who help the organization ensure it is reporting on the right things.

Those with some stake in the company's activities (neighbors, local governments, environmental or human rights watchdogs) want a less static, less marketing-oriented means of narrating corporate assurances and successes in achieving CSR goals. They tend to favor more timely reporting on progress, increased interaction and discussion of CSR goals. What they are looking for is something that is less a report and more a platform for engagement and problem solving. And what employees? Well frankly only a minority likely read it.

As Scott Liebs, deputy editor of CFO magazine, suggest in a piece (link is below) on CSR reporting we ere moving to a new reporting model:

“… companies … need to focus less on the [CSR] report and more on the reporting, conceiving of it as a continuous activity that is as critical to running the business as it is to selling the business.”

And Alex Hausmann The Timberland Company's CSR reporting manager argues the same recently in an article in Environmental Leader:

"As an organization we needed to move from static data in CSR reports to more dynamic information exchange; from corporate statement to stakeholder engagement; and from delayed annualized information to quarterly updates on CSR progress."

Timberland has moved to quarterly reporting on 15 CSR performance indicators including trend data, context and analysis. The benefit of this approach is that it is more a more coincident (with current programs) and lively interface between a company and its customers, partners and critics. It promotes, even mandates engagement.

They're on the right track.

The Most Danegrous Idea in Journalism

Tuesday, October 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM