Friday, October 17, 2014

Insights from the 2014 Humboldt Berlin CSR Conference

There's nothing like a good conference to add back a little buzz to those old brain-cells. Especially ones that have been somewhat numbed by non-stop sleep-depriving work on G4 reports for our clients. Ha Ha. Joking of course, we LOVE reporting. But we also love great conferences.

This last week I was honored to both speak at and attend the 6th International Conference on Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, organized by the incredible gentleman and scholar, Professor Dr. Joachim Schwalbach. The conference drew a massive crowd, many academics - teachers and students - from a range of impressive institutions, as well as corporate and other delegates. It was a refreshing two days, full of thought-provoking debate. 

I took part in three sessions. As a panelist in the a parallel session on Day One, moderated by Dr. Carol Adams, and as a moderator for a plenary and parallel session on Day Two. Of course, when you are involved, it is difficult to remember everything that went on. It's a bit like trying to recall what the food was like at your own wedding. However, here are a few insights:

Evolution of corporate reporting 

The role of Stock Exchanges in driving disclosure: We were treated to an opening presentation by Sonia Favaretto of the Brazilian BM&F BOVESPA Stock Exchange, who demonstrated that the "report or explain" approach for listed companies had boosted corporate disclosure in Brazil quite substantially. This enlightened Exchange has driven reporting reach for more than a couple of hundred of the larger Brazilian companies, in line with the Stock Exchange's mission "to promote sustainability and private social investment aligned with strategy". I believe this is a lead that many more Stock Exchanges will follow in the future, although at present, a study by Canadian Corporate Knights Capital found that only 128 (less than 3%) of the 4,609 largest companies listed on the world’s stock exchanges disclose data on basic sustainability indicators such as employee turnover, energy, greenhouse gas emissions, injury rate, pay equity, waste and water. In the meantime, BMFBOVESPA publishes a list of who has reported and who has not, and the reasons they gave for not doing so. 

The legal implications of the newly adopted EU reporting directive: Dr. Birgit Speisshofer was the lawyer on the panel, and after the usual jokes about lawyers, she gave us a detailed legal-lens view of the implications of the EU Directive for disclosure of non-financial and diversity information by certain large companies - expected to affect around 6,000 companies in Europe. Without going into all the details, it seems that this legislation is rather flexible, including some leeway for member states' adoption to meet local preferences, and has several fuzzy areas that can exempt certain reporting requirements for companies for whom reporting may not be the height of excitement. So, while the spirit of the law will drive reporting forward, I have no doubt, the pace, quality and consistency of reporting may well remain challenged in Europe. 

Reporting consistency and comparability: One of the key aspects of reporting that held the conversation for a while in this session was the notion of comparability. Do current reporting frameworks facilitate comparability and did they ever? My view on this is quite firm. There is no comparability (between companies) today, there never has been and there probably never will be. Take any small selection of reports and try to compare performance data either across sectors or within a sector and you come up with almost as many different versions of performance disclosure as you have reports. Even trying to compare one company against its own prior performance is often a challenge. Current reporting frameworks would have to be far more prescriptive in order to drive consistency and comparability. And it is precisely such prescriptiveness that companies fight to avoid. Why is comparability so important? Because we all want a sense of whether progress is being made, companies share a competitive spirit and investors look for relative assessments for their portfolio trade-offs. Saying there is no comparability when there are so many ratings and rankings out there that claim to have "the formula" for evaluating relative corporate sustainability performance may be tantamount to heresy. But, I say, there is no comparability. Burn me at the stake. Don't waste your time looking for comparability. Look instead for evidence of robust process, relevant disclosure around material impacts, consistency of targets and reported performance over time and stakeholder interactions that deliver confidence that change is being achieved.

Who is the audience and does it matter? As usual, the question of who reports are for, who the audience is and who "actually" reads them came up once again. Well, you know by now that I say reports are not meant to be read. They are meant to be written. And when they are written, they can be used by a wide range of stakeholders. Recall that stakeholders are often multi-hatted. An employee can be a shareholder can be an environmental activist can be a local community member can be a disabled person can be married to a local policy-maker can be mother or father to an investment analyst, blogger, journalist or other professional. The stakeholder concept is not what it used to be. Neat compartmentalization of stakeholder interests is now not an exact science. The boundaries are getting fuzzier. Information channels are getting re-wired. Targeted messaging for the purpose of dialogue and engagement is not the sole remit of a sustainability report. We would do well to recall that a report is designed to account for impacts. The impacts define the stakeholders and not the other way around. Although I will bet there are plenty who disagree with me.   

For an additional overview and perspective on this panel and others, see a post from Dr. Carol Adams, who moderated the session.

Reputation, CSR & Innovation

The Reputation Economy is alive and well: We opened this session with a presentation from sharp-thinker Leslie-Gaines-Ross, Chief Reputation Strategist at Weber Shandwick, who focused on the Reputation Economy and the role of the CEO, quoting a stat that 50% of reputation equity is created by the CEO. The value of reputation in today's complex info-dynamic world cannot be underestimated and the challenges of managing reputation in a way that is constructive (and not construed as manipulative) require new skills, and that means more than CEOs tweeting and sharing family photos. The CEO reputation is as important as ever, according to Leslie, and in a world where trust in business is not always so positive, the CEO can play a critical role. 

Reputation should work inside the company as well as outside the company: As reputation leaders, CEOs have the opportunity to drive corporate reputation internally as well. That may sound like a non-sequitur - isn't reputation external? - but it's true. Susanne Marell of Trust-Barometer-fame Edelman (Berlin)  says that employees want CEOs to speak up for them, they want CEOs to be their representatives, people of whom they can be proud. No wonder Glassdoor rates CEOs as well as companies. CEOs would do well to remember that their audience is not only those to whom they do not pay salaries. 

CEOs are not recruited with CSR in mind: Brigitte Lammers of Egon Zehnder astounded us all with her statement that, in the hiring process for CEOs, no requirement for the "new" CSR-type skills relating to engagement or stakeholder or reputation management are sought. Instead, CEOs are hired for traditional qualities such as decision-making, P&L orientation, experience, profit maximization etc. So you tell me, if business is going to change the world, how is it that CEOs are not changing? Next time you are in the market for a CEO, think about what kind of company she has to lead. Ha Ha. Subtle. More women CEOs may just be the best of all worlds.  

Thank you to Joachim Schwalbach for this photo

Reputation, CSR & Communications

We opened this panel up with a question to five experts.

Everyone in business today and in society in general faces a mass of information in all forms, via all channels 24/7/365. How do you get people to pay attention to your CSR message?

Simple question. Complex answer. Breaking through the noise is not such a POC. It's more than publishing a Sustainability Report and expecting people to find it. Five panelists offered great insights about how to help make your CSR message stand out from the crowd, increase trust and enhance the reputation of your company. 

Berhnard Schwaeger of Robert Bosch GmbH suggested that, in addition to an annual Sustainability Report, maintaining consistent dialogue and sharing information, including talking about difficult or challenging topics, is the way to do it. The Bosch Sustainability Blog is an example of the way Bosch walks the talk. 

Leslie Gaines-Ross is acutely aware of the multiplicity of messaging and communication channels and says that breaking through the noise means (appropriately) using all available channels - social media, video and more traditional channels - in the optimum way. 

Gabi Faber-Wiener, a respected voice in business ethics and founder of the Centre for Responsible Management in Vienna says, perhaps not surprisingly, if you want to get your CSR message through, don't call it CSR! Who wouldn't agree? 

Mette Morsing of Copenhagen Business School reiterated that "communication is action" and engaging in partnerships with third parties and having them endorse you for your work and involvement is a way to ensure your message gets told. 

Finally, our second expert of the day from Edelman Berlin, Bernd Buschhausen, offered a little relief to corporate CEOs by saying that the CEO should not be the only one talking CSR - employees and external partners can also be fantastic ambassadors of your CSR message. 

Whatever ways you choose to get your CSR message through the sound barrier and bypass the tendency of the general media to report only shock and horror and avoid the good stories, all agreed that CSR communications should be relevant, engaging and inspirational. 

I couldn't help adding a word or two ten about reporting, being a reporting geek as I am known to be. Reporting may not be THE way to ensure that your message breaks through, but when people are looking for your message, it will ensure they find it. When people want to know about you, your Sustainability Report will make sure they get what you give. You can't make Mohammed come to the mountain, but when he gets there, you can make sure he drinks from the right well. Or whatever other mixed metaphor your prefer. Research has shown that reading a Sustainability Report increases the readers' trust in a company. A well-written, material-focused and forward-looking sustainability report is the story your stakeholders, internal and external are looking for. It's as indispensable having a website, a business card, a smartphone and ice-cream. It's part of the corporate package and its not in competition with any other company. It's the way you tell your unique corporate story and it's an essential element of Reputation, CSR and Communications. Now, why wouldn't everyone want a piece of that?


All in all, the Berlin CSR Conference was two days well spent and I have only scratched the surface in this post. Many plenaries, parallel sessions, awards, books, discussions, good food, drinks, music and even dancing made this conference one of the must-attend events of 2014. Fortunately, we only have two years to wait for the next one! See you here in 2016.   

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Check out our G4 Report Expert Analysis Service - for published G4 reports or pre-publication - write to Elaine at to help make your G4 reporting  even better.   

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails