Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Changing the game at Virgin Media

There are times that publishing a sustainability report in hard copy, or even PDF download format, as a single document, just won't cut it with your key stakeholders. This is especially true if your business is quintessentially digital. If everything you do is digital, for digital, by digital, more digital, digital for good, digital to improve lives, digital future, digital society... then digital sustainability has to be the right fit.

So it is with Virgin Media and digital sustainability reporting. Finding the best way to use digital for delivering sustainability messages to key stakeholders has been developed quite skillfully by Virgin Media over the years. I recall Katie Buchanan, Virgin Media's Head of Sustainability, presenting at a conference some years back, telling the story of how the folks in Virgin Media's logistics team created their own video to show the sustainable steps of a Virgin Media shipment to a customer. Here's the video - always worth another look. 

Recently, Katie and I chatted again following the release of Virgin Media's latest report, starring their "5 in 5" game-changing goals that set out Virgin Media's sustainability ambitions for the next five years to both help the company grow responsibly and sustainably while doing more good with digital. Each of the goals is sponsored by a Virgin Media Executive Committee member and they cover the following areas:
  • People – Nurture an engaged workforce which represents the diversity of our customers and communities 
  • Products - Improve the sustainability performance of every new customer product 
  • Operations - Grow our business without increasing our carbon footprint 
  • Boosting business - Create the opportunities for 100,000 small businesses to grow in the UK’s economy through digital 
  • Transforming lives - Transform the lives of disadvantaged people in the UK through digital technology 
The great thing about these goals is that they have a roadmap. 


The roadmap defines each goal in more detail, explains its relevance and states short term objectives to 2015 and longer term actions through to 2020. In the People goal, for example, Virgin Media has three quantitative, measurable objectives:

1: Increase the percentage of female senior leaders from 30% to 40% by 2018
2: Continually improve engagement levels and exceed the UK Best Employer benchmark
3: Have 80% of our people voluntarily disclosing their ‘diversity information’ by 2017

Overall the presentation of the report is superbly digital, including different types of employee-made films and blogs.

Right from the home page, you can move to the strategy, the performance and a range of digital case studies that provide further insight. Performance-wise, Virgin Media's presentation includes evidence of positive achievement, such as zero waste in the supply chain and increasing the percentage of women in leadership roles, and areas for improvement, including energy and carbon efficiency. You don't have to have a doctorate in sustainability jargon to understand it. Every one of Virgin Media's 5 million UK customers can get it. 

Reporting digitally offers great opportunity for creativity, and the use of human infographics to help illustrate performance is a worldwide first. I don't recall seeing this anywhere else ever - it 's a great way to present complex information while involving and engaging employees - and above all - make reporting FUN! 

To bring it all together, there's a resources page where you can find performance data from 2008 and other relevant information as you navigate Virgin Media's 2014 report.

(I should add that Virgin Media is part of the Liberty Global group of companies, and Virgin Media's sustainability performance is included in the the annual group global corporate responsibility report as well, addressing corporate audiences.)

Why is this so interesting? What's so riveting about great graphics and a clear website? The reasons I find this actually quite breakthrough are five-fold:

First, it's a seamless fit with the brand promise, style, tone and approach.
Second, it's totally accessible - eye-level - for consumers and not just CSR professionals.
Third, it's bold and brave, presenting a focused five year strategy commitment supported by defined actions.
Fourth, it's creative, engaging and energizing for employees, providing a platform for a step-change in action at all levels of the company.
Fifth, it's an example of how a brand can bring sustainability to the masses. The Digital for Good strategy is appealing and easy to understand. Sustainability technobabble of the kind you find in many GRI G4 reports simply wouldn't work for Virgin Media stakeholders. I wonder if this is not an approach that more companies couldn't learn from to simplify the technobabble into day-to-day messaging that we can all appreciate. 

I asked Katie Buchanan, Head of Sustainability, for her insights. She told me:

"At Virgin Media, we put the customer at the heart of everything we do. For our customers and our staff - our primary audience - a hard copy report just doesn’t work, we’ve tried! Our people are based in our call centers, retail shops, out on the road – we have to find a way to get our message out to all of them. Online is much more accessible - they can view the website anywhere, even at home. We take our content from our website – and play the films in our retail stores, in team breakout areas and so on - we try to take the message to where the audience is. We recognize that starting with our staff enables us to bring our strategy to life in a way that makes sense and is engaging to them.

"Perhaps the thing I am most proud of about our new strategy is its simplicity. It's clear, focused and aligned to our commercial strategy and brand purpose. This is the culmination of 12 months engagement with staff, 500 consumers and our Executive Committee. As part of the Liberty Global Group, we started with the group materiality exercise. This was valuable in helping us to determine which key issues to focus on.

"Our process culminated with taking 14 senior business leaders away from their desks for a full-day workshop to help bring it altogether. In creating our ambitious goals, we worked hard to make them meaningful and avoid jargon. Perhaps most importantly, the link to our commercial and business objectives is clear – for example,supporting small businesses is an important economic and social need but it's absolutely essential to our own growth as a business. This integration of business and sustainability is stronger than ever before and we expect it will be a major key to our success. 

"We have established clear governance – each goal is owned by an Executive Committee member who will drive performance and engagement. Engaging our staff through fun videos and human infographics is another way we bring sustainability to life at Virgin Media, while addressing the accountability and transparency needs of our stakeholders." 

Sounds like a game-changing approach to me. Definitely deserves ice cream.

Take a look. As usual, send feedback.

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).  Need help writing your first / next Sustainability Report? Contact elaine:   


Rachel Barney said...

This was a great post! I absolutely agree that Virgin Media is stepping out of the box with their graphics and design inside of the report - which makes it all that much more wonderful. Nothing is better than creativity and accessibility when trying to firstly do the right thing but also try to inspire others to do the same.

One key point I would like to focus on though is the reaching out to employees to take the photos and make the graphics. I know you mentioned this slightly as being fun - but in my opinion this is should be one of the most important processes at Virgin. I say this because it spreads understanding throughout the company, not just those working on CSR. Hopefully this will inspire people to make even more changes and help out from within.

Thank you for sharing this unique report. I hope other companies can put their personal touch in their sustainability reports in the same clever way as Virgin.

elaine said...

Thanks Rachel for your comment. you are absolutely correct - involving employees in the production of the human-infographics is a fabulous way to engage them and educate them about sustainability impacts and initiatives. warm regards, Elaine

Katie Buchanan said...

Thanks Rachel for your comments. Best, Katie

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