Sustainability storytelling in the digital age: The future of reporting

  • Published: 22 August 2018
  • Author: Aaron Sloan

So much time and effort go into producing a sustainability report, but what’s the point if they are not read?

Reporting companies are starting to question whether or not the conventional, standalone, annual progress report is enough to satisfy stakeholders in this digital age. As more and more companies are producing these reports, how do you ensure that your sustainability story stands out from the crowd? A study of the top 100 companies in 49 countries shows that 75% are producing sustainability reports, and for the world’s 250 largest companies, the reporting rate stands at 90%. Astute companies are using digital platforms, and even social media to enable more frequent, dynamic and targeted messaging to engage and communicate their sustainability stories to their target stakeholders. Is this the way of the future?

Digital reporting: What are others’ doing?

Across the globe, companies are innovating and adopting creative ways to share sustainability stories that provide stakeholders with relevant and timely information, empowering them to evaluate sustainability performance and make informed purchasing decisions.

Key approaches we have previously highlighted are:

Choosing media. Changing mindsets.

Online reporting as an effective and innovative data communications tool was a key opportunity identified for reporting business by GRI in 2017. How reporting companies choose to use which tool to convey their stories, initiatives and impacts will vary by organization. The only constant, as guided by GRI, is for content to be grounded in what is material to the company and its stakeholders.

Singapore-based VS Story (Vision Strategy Storytelling) is encouraging companies to adopt a modern approach to sustainability storytelling. Managing Partner Jacqui Hocking has said that “the emergence of social purpose, influencers, transparency, data tracking, accountability and social risk has thrown old-school marketing, PR, and corporate communications into a whirlwind of confusion.” With millennials increasingly distrustful of traditional marketing, authenticity is an imperative. Jacqui believes that empowering employees to master the art of storytelling might be the most important strategy for companies in 2018.

Developing reporting and storytelling techniques in tandem with enabling technology is crucial. By 2021, video is expected to account for 80% of internet traffic. Frontline, mobile-ready content that tells the story of your company’s workforce, customer or community initiatives may be one innovative approach to supplement an annual report or enrich website content and at the same time, improve internal communication and raise awareness of your company’s approaches to corporate responsibility and sustainability.

In addition to the prevalence of online video content, Cisco predicts that internet traffic over smartphones will overtake desktop traffic by 2021, and account for 33% of total internet traffic. Indeed, some companies, like CLP, are already producing mobile-friendly sustainability reports.

Print media is a prime example of an industry that is having to deal with this changing media consumption pattern. When expanding to digital platforms, the award-winning South China Morning Post (SCMP) Infographics Team realized their assumptions about how their readers would interact with their publications were inherently wrong. “We uploaded print infographics to the website assuming readers would zoom in and explore detailed artworks on their computers. They didn’t,” recalls Darren Long, Head of Graphics & Magazine Design, SCMP.

It took what Long refers to as a “seismic shift” to realize that scrolling through a story on a mobile phone meant they had infinite vertical space to develop a visual narrative. “Once we let go of our way of thinking, the shackles were off, and we found new ways to drill into a story blending graphics with sound and motion, interactive elements and data combined with text,” states Long. Going digital has allowed the team’s infographics to appeal to a wider variety of readers while enhancing the experience for regular users, something reporting practitioners unsure of transitioning to digital reporting would do well to consider.

Optimized reporting starts online

Regardless of how a company deploys online tools to enhance reporting and storytelling, one key pull factor to consider should be the data generated through stakeholder activity on online platforms. Beyond providing another space in which to interface with stakeholders, these web-based interactions will provide companies with the data necessary to ensure their reporting content and is optimized for users.

Despite some predictions to the contrary, the end of the annual sustainability report is not in sight. Regulators will remain keenly focused on companies’ transparency and disclosures, and ESG information is of increasing importance to investors.  However, stakeholder expectations for more regular and accessible information will likely drive companies to make public a variety of disclosure data available through various channels.

Experts at GRI envision a future of “sustainability data exchange,” which is open, shared, multi-channel and occurring almost in real-time. GRI expects sustainability data will be much easier to access and analyze. With data availability coming from multiple external sources that can impact an organization through stakeholder influence, providing easily accessible data and the authentic story of your impact management and value creation has never been so important.

Hear the insights. Get inspired.

Join us at the CSR Asia Summit 2018 in Hong Kong on 18-19th September, for a session on Sustainability Storytelling in the Digital Age: The Future of Reporting. We will hear from Mike Kilburn, Assistant General Manager, Sustainability, Airport Authority Hong Kong and TG Limcaoco, CFO and Financial Group Head of Ayala Corporation. We’ll also explore communications strategies to engage and inform a wider audience, including tips from corporate communications specialist Jacqui Hocking of VS Story, and Adolfo Arranz and Marcelo Duhalde of SCMP’s acclaimed infographics team.

For more information on #CSRAsiaSummit or this session check out the program online or email me at [email protected].

Image source:

1. The road ahead (2018). KPMG