Telling The Story of Corporate Social Responsibility

Companies have to start telling the story of corporate social responsibility. People have to be able to share stories about CSR. That’s how ideas become actions, and ideologies become movements.

I came across two blog posts today that made insightful and accurate assessments of CSR reporting. I tend to defer to the wisdom of the ever prolific @elainecohen on the matter of CSR reporting (and I strongly suggest you follow her blog if you want to learn everything there is to know about CSR reports and Chunky Monkey ice cream – don’t ask). Yet I thought both of these blogs made some excellent observations which coincide with recent developments in my own life (we’re pretty excited about this recent announcement).

Dr. Michael Groves, writing for notes that ‘The ever-growing trend for companies to produce annual reports on their corporate social responsibility (CSR) or sustainability record, has created more questions than it answers.’ According to Groves, CSR reports are evolving, becoming more sophisticated utilizing standards of reporting that are both voluntary and statutory.

However, Groves believes that ‘the reports have in many ways become an expensive exercise in document creation and consultancy-speak. In other words, a communication tool that tries to please everyone and consequently pleases no one. If you want any proof of this, even the investment analysts find them boring!’

Ashley Jablow writes a blog that I follow on a regular basis: Today she also tackled the topic of CSR reporting having just spent the past four months of her MBA program examining best practices in CSR reporting. She was a bit surprised at her findings, and offers the following suggestions:

“A successful CSR report doesn’t just tell impact – it tells stories.”

Having made a number of recommendations on “how to present content and provide context in ways that are engaging, interactive and customized for stakeholders” one of the executives had a question. “Why does it matter if we don’t tell people about what we do in sustainability. Isn’t it good enough that we do something at all?”

Ashley and her team answered withan emphatic ‘No’. It’s not enough to just do something.

“A fear of greenwashing is not an excuse to stopyou from telling your sustainability story!”

Ashley believes, along with others, “that this concern about greenwashing has gone too far. In fact in some cases, greenwashing worries are actually holding companies back from saying anything at all about sustainability – mainly for fear that someone, somewhere will find something to criticize.

“By not focusing on the manner in which it told its sustainability story, our client company had inadvertently left very real value on the table.”

According to Ashley, “that value was instead being captured by competitors who had done a tremendous job on both the reporting and storytelling fronts.”

Read Ashley’s full article here.

Dr. Michael Groves offers some suggestions on how to tell the stories of Corporate Social Responsibility:

Figure out how people want to hear the story

“The business must then decide what the best methods are of communicating with the many groups interested in its CSR record – be they customers, regulators, investors, employees, local communities or suppliers.”

Get creative and use multiple formats

“While it may be harder to do, I would venture to suggest that a combination of different communication methods would be most effective, be they web based (including social media tools), printed summaries, presentations, one-to-one meetings, debates, adverts, maps, graphs, exhibitions, postcards or tea towels.

Allow the storytelling to lead to genuine dialogue

“There is huge scope for businesses to be genuinely interesting in relation to CSR. If nothing else, it is about telling a story and responding to the resulting debate and questions. The digital world also allows the story to be told in real time, with video, blogging and graphics that show 
what is happening right now within the business and even across its supply chain.

Adopt social media or get left behind (that means lose your job)

“Adopting a greater level of CSR openness may be daunting to the “on message” communication control freaks out there, but I’m afraid they will just have to get used to it. In fact, they will either adapt or be trampled into the soil when future CEOs, CFOs and CIOs born into a social media-dominated world start to get their hands on businesses. It’s already happening, so come on you corporate suits, open yourselves up a little more.

Dr. Michael Groves, owner of Great Circle, has advised companies in the clean tech, clean energy and geographic information sectors on marketing, branding and commercialisation.



Ashley Parsons Jablow is a 2nd year MBA student, former nonprofit fundraiser and corporate philanthropy intern, and a motivated change-maker.

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10 thoughts on “Telling The Story of Corporate Social Responsibility

  1. Great post – thank you! Stories are incredibly powerful. Years before I heard the term CSR, I learned of BAWB, Business as Agent of World Benefit, a worldwide inquiry initiated and hosted by Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. Using a positive change process called Appreciative Inquiry, BAWB brings to light stories in which organizations are impacting the world in profound ways. In their Innovation Bank, you'll see multiple CSR stories of success – engaging, inspiring, and hopeful.

    Cathy Joseph

  2. hello Chris,
    First, thank you for your warm words!
    And now, to my favourite subject … reporting.
    I had read both articles and your post got to me before I had a chance to comment! You were quick off the mark! I love debates about reporting.
    Actually, I agree with a lot of what both Michael and Ashley say. The most important thing that Michael Groves writes, in my view, is not about the inadequacies of reporting, but the fact that a "combination of communication methods would be most effective." And Ashley's point about story-telling is spot on – as a fan of Steven Denning, David Armstrong, Doug Lipman, Annette Simmons (read their books!), I understand well the power of the story, and even the personal story, in getting the message through.
    What I would add here is that sometimes I feel that these debates raise the expectations of Sustainability Reporting to impossible levels. (See my recent blog post on the GRI blog). There is no perfect report, and to expect that a Company will publish a report and suddenly every single stakeholder will rush to read it cover-to-cover, and immediately see the light, is just unrealistic. A report has its place in one a several ways a Company should be communicating with its stakeholders, as a snapshot in time of the status of its (material) sustainability performance. It cannot, and should not be everything to everyone. It's part of an entire corporate communications PROCESS, not something that stands alone to be judged in a vaccum. Whilst a sustainability report is a serious and formal document, it should also be readable and accessible to many different types of reader. This makes the case for using case studies, anecdotes and personal experiences in the report, but over-use of storytelling would not be appropriate in my view. There are other venues for that type of communication. Sooner or later you have to get to the numbers and the context. A report , after all, is a report and not a bestseller. And one final point, it is not the report that engages the stakeholders. It's what the company does with the report that engages stakeholders. Most Companies think their work is finished when the report is published and feel they have earned a long holiday until the next reporting gantt is produced. Wrong. The publication of the report is when the real stakeholder engagement work about that report begins!
    Thanks for a thought provoking blog and interesting debate.


  3. Hey Chris!

    I agree with everything you've pointed out above. I think the focus on facts and figures in many CSR reports has been an attempt to borrow the legitimacy and credibility of the financial accounting discipline. The assumption among some has been that if a company publishes any report with an annual frequency, the claims within must be auditable. Ashley Jablow points out acutely that our hunts for greenwash have probably fueled this trend.

    Companies need to reconsider the purpose of their reports. For some, something reminiscent of audited financial statements could be most appropriate. But I expect that most will concede stakeholder engagement to be a major objective, in which case, stories are best. (Well, conversations are better – but stories are much more capable of stimulating conversation.) At risk of making broad generalizations, an appropriate approach for many will often be to balance narrative with metric.

    On that note, I echo Elaine's recommendation for Stephen Denning. Leader's Guide to Storytelling has been a very helpful book, and one I plan to profile on the blog in the near future. I'll certainly be checking out the other authors she mentions too.

    Finally: "It is not the report that engages the stakeholders. It's what the company does with the report that engages stakeholders." I hope every manager can one day read these words.

    Nick @ Provictus

  4. Hi Chris, just thought I'd sneak in a late comment. Great blog post as always. Personally I've always felt that anecdotes and story telling never belonged in formal CSR reports, just like they don't belong in an SEC 10-K or other financial reports. But then again, I have learned that stories intrigue people, make them feel more connected and interested, and touch them personally much more so than numbers and graphs. So I would argue that they're important for creating interest and attracting readers, but should not be over used (similar to what Elaine said).

    You touched on the importance of social media, and I believe that CSR blogs, youtube videos, and tweets are great places to share the stories. They provide an excellent opportunity for two way dialogue and CSR community building.

    Anyways, just a few thoughts! Keep the great blog posts coming.


  5. I was struck by Ashley's assertion that "A fear of greenwashing is not an excuse to stop you from telling your sustainability story!"

    I think that this is a legitimate concern. When I decided to become a vegetarian for social and environmental reasons, I took a stand for something. I asserted a belief and changed my actions accordingly. This resulted in people taking the liberty of subjecting all aspects of my lifestyle to social and environmental scrutiny.

    They were looking for hypocrisy. They sought contradiction. Would it have been better if I'd continued eating meat? Or perhaps herbivore-ized silently?

    I see the same public skepticism and scrutiny when companies undertake CSR initiatives.

    As a student of Public Relations, I am extremely interested in how those dynamics play out, and how the reporting and communication reflect those challenges.

    Zack Sandor-Kerr

  6. According to a recent McKinsey global survey, many executives doubt that their corporate philanthropy programs fully meet their social goals or stakeholders’ expectations. But an effective philanthropy program can deliver far more than simply enhancing your company’s reputation.

    Top business leaders share their insights about proven, key strategies for ensuring an effective and sustainable corporate philanthropy program.

    Business leaders in this video include:-

    Pam Flaherty, President & CEO, Citi Foundation & Director of Corporate Citizenship, Citi Group

    Deidre Lind, Executive Director, Philanthropy, Mattel

    Adrian Lathja, CLO, Accenture

    Tim McClimon, President, AmEx Foundation

    Caroline Roan, VP of Corporate Responsibility, Pfizer & Executive Director of the Pfizer Foundation

    Watch this insightful video @

  7. Companies Aren’t Effectively Telling Their CSR Stories

    From the report: “Companies are not communicating their CSR efforts with consumers as effectively as they could. Only 13 percent of consumers report having read about a company’s social responsibility agenda on its website. If companies are have to better communicate their CSR efforts, they may have the opportunity to influence consumer perceptions seeing as 75 percent of consumers who have read about a company’s social responsibility agenda on its website indicated that it made them more likely to purchase products or services from that company.”
    So which industries are doing well and which are not? Thumbs up goes to the Food, Consumer Goods and Retail industries, while Financial Services, Healthcare and Media are a resounding thumbs down.

    Here are three companies that are doing a great job of telling their CSR stories by making their causes part of their business DNA. Essentially, they’re not just creating campaigns. They’re marshaling movements. And who benefits? Everyone!

    Adelante Healthcare and its “Sustainable Healthcare” model
    Frito-Lays and its “Sun Chips” product line
    Patagonia, as demonstrated through its “Footprint Chronicles”
    Here’s the report:

  8. Thanks for sharing this post, now that i know your blog I will read from it more often,very nice and so true

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