Sunday, May 16, 2010

Does your CSR report suffer from Genericitis?

Genericitis: ge-ne-ri-cit-is  | n. | a common disease found in a large proportion of CSR and Sustainability  Reports which cause them to be boring and unreadable. Usually causes readers to skip over several chunks of content.

About 80% of all Sustainability Reports issued suffer from genericitis. For some, this is a chronic disease which recurs every time a report is published, for others it reduces in acuteness as the reporting companies gain experience and focus. Genericitis usually affects the parts of the report where the reporting companies have limited performance or data to disclose, due to the common perception in reporting that even if you have nothing to say, you have to fill the pages with something that might look impressive. The disease is in part caused by  zealous adherence to the GRI reporting framework, through trying to respond to all the management disclosure sections, but may also be reflective of the typical communication style within a particular company. Genericitis is sometimes called a crippling disease because it completely destroys the ability of the Company to leverage the report to stakeholders and engage them in meaningful discussion. Genericitis usually occurs in reports following the GRI framework at application level C , first reports, and very very very very long reports.

The main symptoms of Genericitis include long, meaningless, boring sentences which could be deleted without losing any of the relevant messages. In some cases, this extends to paragraphs, and in extreme cases, full pages. Usually these sentences are declarative, use positive phraseology and are designed to make the reader think that the Company is  serious about the subject referred to.

Diagnosing Genericitis is very easy. All that needs to be done is ask 10 people to read the report. If they dont make it to page 7, you know that genericitis has affected the report.  

There are several remedies for genericitis. The first and the easiest is to equip yourself with a good keyboard which has a delete button. Identify all the affected texts and use this delete button as often as neeeded. Read the report once through after this process, and if you still understand everything that is said, you have cured the report. However, the genericitis may recur in future reports unless you go to the root cause of the disease. The root cause can be  found in one of two sources: the first is inadequate company sustainability performance. If the company has not performed, the likelihood of genericitis occuring is high. Get your company to review their sustainability strategy and performance and make some changes. The second root cause is the people who write the report. Make sure they are competent writers and skilled communicators who understand the professional context and know how to create focused, succinct descriptions of your Company performance. Just because they work on sustainability doesn't mean they know how to communicate it best to a wide range of stakeholders. Use of copywriters is usually best avoided as they tend to have a different agenda, but prudent consultation with communications professionals could be an advantage. The best approach would be to use a professional sustainability reporter to write your report with the support of an inhouse team. (haha. plug!)

There are no drugs currently available for genericitis. The remedies mentioned above should assist in addressing the symptoms and in some cases, avoiding  relapses of this debilitating disease. However, reporters are advised to maintain a supply of anti-inflammatories (for swelling of the eyeballs during the proofreading phase), relaxants (for reducing the stress associated with reporting and internal politics) and antibiotics (to avoid being infected by carriers of genericitis).

Examples of genericitis (taken from 2010 published reports)

We recognize that a diverse work force gives us the best opportunity to succeed. The greater the variety of ages, cultures,backgrounds and skills brought to a project or task, the greater the likelihood the best possible decisions will be made. American Electric Power, 2010

The safety, health, and well-being of our people are of paramount importance to us and our stakeholders and are critical to our ability to conduct our business. We provide industry-leading safety programs to minimize hazards in the workplace and continually monitor our safety progress to ensure that our programs are working as effectively as possible. Cemex 2009

We continually canvass opinions from a number of key stakeholders, asking them for their view on the issues we should be addressing, our strategy, performance and stakeholder engagement work. The feedback we get helps us to refine our approach, and ensure that we are continually strengthening our stakeholder relations. ArcelorMittal 2009

Climate change remains a feature of the global political agenda and a major concern to many of our stakeholders. We believe it is prudent to reduce our carbon footprint by reducing our energy use, our waste to landfill and our travel. British American Tobacco 2009

Our strategy is directed toward aligning our business, environmental and social performance. We manage this strategy by setting explicit goals and objectives in all three areas and by holding ourselves accountable for meeting them. American Electric Power, 2010

This report is intended to provide information useful to our stakeholders, including our consumers, employees, customers, investors, business partners, community members, and governmental and nongovernmental organizations. Kelloggs 2009

Recommendation to avoid contracting genericitis
If you took all the reports suffering from genericitis and extracted the generic content, you would have several complete reports which any CEO could sign. In order to make your reports UNIQUELY RELEVANT to your business, interesting and original, and to give your report the best possible chance of serving as a platform for stakeholder interest and engagement, you must make sure that every single sentence adds meaningful value, is in line with your report theme and could not apply to any other company. Make best efforts NOT to appear in the Encylopedia Generica of Sustainability Reporting.

elaine cohen is co-founder and co-CEO of Beyond Business, a leading social and environmental consulting and reporting firm. Visit our website at


Marcus Chung said...

In my humble opinion, genericitis can also be caused by excessive review by a company's legal team! So many of my best observations, charts, graphs, hypotheses often ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Anonymous said...

Another great article Elaine.

Yep- definitely recognise this one. Genericitis has even struck some of the reports I've managed (though glad to see my clients weren't on your list!) - as extra phrases have crept in along the way... Deeply committed to ...(so what are you doing about it?)... continually monitor ... (How continually- monthly, weekly, daily, hourly- every minute- every second?) ... We recognise the importance of health and safety... (Who doesn't?)

That said, reading your examples I was also struck by the thought that a report serves many purposes- that sometimes it's as much about what a company goes through to create a report (thinking about impacts/material issues, measuring performance, setting targets etc) as the report itslef- and that what may seem obvious when you've been on the CR journey a while- can be quite a novel thought early on- for instance amongst those business people who thought that the only stakeholders were shareholders - and that none of this environmental/social 'stuff' was relevant to shareholders.

For these people genericitis can be insightful- particularly if the words come from a senior person- who is telling them, for instance, that H&S is critical to their ability to conduct business. Similarly, articulating who your stakeholders are might seem obvious to some but for others it is a very different way of thinking to a totally shareholder focused approach.

So genericitis might not be great for the external reporting expert... But it might be part of an internal culture change that (hopefully) leads to more meaningful reporting- backed by robust data... to which I am deeply committed, continually monitor- and for which I recognise the importance of...

elaine said...

Hi Marcus, yes, I have been there too.. you write a great report, really transparent and then the lawyers turn all the important stuff in to generic wishy-washy statements ... I couldnt agree more!! Perhaps genericitis started in the legal office ?!
thanks for reading and commenting!

elaine said...

hi Anonymous! Thanks for your comments. Yes, I agree. Sometimes, in my posts, I take things to an extreme, of course, to make the point more vividly. But there is ot getting away from a certain amount of "genericitis" in reports. Somewhere, you have to say what you stand for, and this is always more of a broadbrush statement. Yes, I agree that sometimes reflecting the internal journey is important. Thanks for great insights! elaine

Related Posts with Thumbnails