Saturday, December 11, 2010

5 recommendations for online CSR comms

This week saw the release of two multimedia digital online technicolour walking and talking sustainability communications - one is a CSR report and the other, a website which is the basis for reporting. These communications are clearly designed with the masses in mind. All those billions of people around the globe who have time to sit and watch scores of  videos about company sustainability activities will be delighted at the flurry of box-office offerings now available on corporate sustainability websites.  I will take a quick look at these two different online deliveries, and then share five recommendations for online reporters to mull over. 


"Burt's Bees open doors to greater sustainability with a multimedia social and environmental report" is the title of the press release on announcing the arrival of the Burt's Bees movie. You can access the report here. Burt's Bees aspire to becoming "the greenest personal care company on earth". That's a big ambition, as is, indeed, their new sustainability report. The multimedia production is split into 10 chapters (welcome, this report, governance, culture, products, sourcing, packaging, community, environment, buzz)  with around 75 minutes of video footage, supplemented by some data charts (make sure you enable pop-ups!). The videos are professionally produced and very slick, showing many of Burt's Bees real people who talk openly about how they do their jobs, what's important to them and the company, society and the environment. Most vids last between 6 and 14 minutes each.  The two video clips I watched in full were Chapter 1 - the CEO's introduction - and Chapter 2 - with the delightful Yola Carlough, Burt's Bees Director of Sustainability who describes in 6 minutes what the company has tried to do with this multimedia report. Yola is worth watching for any number of minutes! However, I didn't manage to watch all the videos in full, though I scanned most of them briefly.

The storytelling approach to this report describes the Burt's Bees processes and impacts, as far as I could tell, and it does give the impression that this company takes sustainability culture seriously. As far as embedding culture is concerned, Burt's Bees seems to have got it right. I assume this report was designed for consumers, the employees themselves (what a wonderful  way to celebrate so many employees  - turning them into movie stars - something to show their kids and friends and families - and potential Hollywood agents) and perhaps also for the army of Clorox people who own Burt's Bees and who themselves are advancing their own sustainability culture.

Something I would add to this report is a document download with a list of the key impacts and performance data. A bird's eye view,or should I say a bee's eye view, of this report would make it more accessible to those who don't have 75 minutes to watch movies (or prefer to spend movie time with Angelina Jolie or George Clooney). Key content transcripts of the videos would be helpful.

The other thing I would add to this report is  interactivity. There is no room for comment or insight. Instead, Burt's Bees direct us to their Facebook page where they maintain they are "encouraging dialogue with readers".   However, a brief look at the Burt's Bees facebook page shows only announcements of  product promotions and consumer comments which appear to go unanswered. I didn't notice a "dialogue" about sustainability.

It's a nice production, which may well appeal to a broader audience than the standard style of report we have come to know and love hate tolerate expect.


The other digital extravaganza announced this week on Report Alert was Virgin Media Inc's new sustainability website with the line "announcing a new approach to sustainability reporting" , the "new" being "exclusively digital." You can view this website here. 

This is not really a report, but the preparation for a report. Virgin Media promises to be updating sustainability data regularly on this website. As it stands, whilst this is a good piece of sustainability communications, little current data is presented beyond a download of carbon emissions.

The first video clip - "Getting it straight from the top man - CEO Niel Berkett " is a 2 minute intro and holds a suprising fun twist which gets you smiling as you start out exploring the report. Well worth taking a look. In fact, all the vids have a touch of humour which makes you want to watch the rest of them.

The website has five sections: our approach, our digital future, the environment, diversity, the supply chain. It includes a "Browse content" tab which lists download documents (policies and video files). I downloaded the carbon data file, for example, and immediately noticed a hike in the Virgin Media's carbon footprint between 2007 and 2009. There is no explanation in the narrative for this growing carbon footprint. The narrative references only the good things that Virgin Media are doing to reduce energy use.

Virgin Media's CEO says that "he believes this is the future of sustainability reporting", referring to harnessing the power of digital media. Virgin's website/report site contains about 5 vids which are quite short and easy to digest. A nice feature is that they show Virgin people, which makes for a more authentic experience. However, the sustainability website is low on data so far.  I looked at the section called Diversity. This is a general statement about Virgin Media's  approach  and an interview with the Chief People Officer , but there is no disclosure about  how many employees are in the business, or any evidence that diversity is taking root, aside from a few mentions. Unless Virgin Media are going to beef this site up a whole lot with material and relevant performance data, then it will remain a sustainability website and definitely not anything that resembles reporting.  

Virgin Media tries to generate some action from readers with a "What do you think?" textbox on each page. I sent in one comment and a query - not sure where they went - hope they didn't end up in one of Virgin's fun-style recycling bins. It was only later that I noticed on the "Contact Us" page that they require contact details in order to reply to feedback. Oops. The feedback box doesn't ask for contact details. You just assume they will know.

The Virgin Media website shows awareness and progress in sustainability activities. A clear set of targets was presented in 2010, which this website/report should follow through on in due course. The digital presentation is a good approach, but clearly needs to be filled out with relevant sustainability reporting disclosures.   

Two very different sustainability communication digital offerings from two very different companies. There is no doubt that writing reports first and foremost for online presentation requires a different approach to the written report, which can, once written,  be presented online in different formats. Well done to Burt's Bees and Virgin Media for entering this relatively new and challenging territory, which I hope will serve as part of a learning process for them and others regarding the most effective communications and reporting formats for these companies and their stakeholders.

My recommendations for online reporters :

Include a downloadable executive summary rather than just a series of videos or online pages. Some degree of choice for the reader between a written document and online content would increase appeal and useability of the information.

Make individual videos short - 3 minutes is about my limit.

Include the data in the body of the reporting narrative - not as an unrelated isolated download - and explain inconsistencies.

Leverage the digital platform more effectively to generate feedback and create conversations.

Ensure the enormous creativity and inspiration (not to mention adrenalin) required to produce  fabulous digital design and videos and online content does not overshadow the fact that a report should also contain material disclosures and performance data.

I just hope that no-one decides to make Chunky Monkey in digital format only. Now that would be a real disaster....

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainabilty Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices  Contact me via  on Twitter or via my business website  (BeyondBusiness,  CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)

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