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Tips for hiding sustainability reporting from interested stakeholders

Don't miss this sound, serious advice from a sustainability professional on how to be nefarious.

Here’s something from the desk of bad advice:

Sustainability reporting has grown, evolved, devolved and reimagined itself several times over the past decade. A review of the sustainability reporting from top 100 companies by Fortune reveals that sustainability data has benefited from standards, and reports now include very material information about impacts that have implications for business strategy.

It is also apparent that sustainability reporting must be a resource-intensive activity. Imagine transparency as an expensive window into your company. Now imagine that window covered by fresh bricks on both sides.

If you do choose to create an entire site devoted to your report and other sustainability content, then make sure that it’s a stand-alone section, standing very alone.

It’s not easy to keep this valuable and tediously collected information about key corporate activities out of the hands of investors, decision-makers or any interested member of society, but here are a few helpful and common strategies.

The website

While there are many ways to effectively hide your sustainability report data within the corporate website (too many to list), the most acceptable tactic is to navigate to your website, blindfold yourself, spin around twice, then click the mouse — that’s your new location for this year’s report.

If you do choose to create an entire site devoted to your report and other sustainability content, make sure that it’s a stand-alone section, standing very alone, disconnected from anything else and left to think about its value, but not close enough to the real annual report because of jealousy and such.

If your website has a search bar, search button or magnifying glass icon of any kind, make sure that a search of “CSR report,” “sustainability report,” “citizenship” or verbatim text of your report or report title definitely does not take the user to the report or reporting pages, but rather to a 2011 press release about your donation to the local dog shelter.

The website quickly can deemphasize and take the juice out of any social or environmental information if you are even moderately thoughtful about it. Needless to say, the website should be your first stop for effectively throwing stakeholders off the lead.

The format

The Internet has made it easier to make the shift from paper printed reports to digital options such as websites and PDFs. The evolution of Internet technology is creating even more digital options from micro-sites to clever videos about your sustainability efforts to user-driven report creation. When selecting which option to pursue, remember to choose them all.

You can make a print report and then scan all the pages to a PDF for download, or just make a website and make a PDF of that. Just make sure to PDF something — there should be a PDF somewhere of something. Videos can be effective so don’t leave those out.

Make a full report, a report summary, a performance update, a one-pager, a video, an interactive data table, a Facebook update, a LinkedIn Pulse post and a haiku about the past year’s performance:

who reads the report
stakeholders want everything
cleaning out my desk

Upload all of the content to the same site or different parts of your website. Tweet about some of it, but only the stuff millennials would like. You know how millennials like their content delivered, right? And what they read? And what they eat? And what kind of jeans they buy? You didn’t read the report your marketing team circulated about the new target demographic? Just ask your granddaughter to tweet about your sustainability report for you, and please go ahead and clean out your desk.

Press releases

Your sustainability report is full of valuable data, progress against goals, strategic decisions for addressing long-term challenges to the business and most important, a really pricey photo shoot from last year’s board retreat.

Can you imagine what would happen if this information was readily announced to the public? Me neither. At least I try not to think about it.

You will almost never see any mention of the published sustainability report, no matter how impressive, comprehensive, award-worthy or useful.

Here’s where the communications team can be your best ally. By all means, please continue to issue press releases about anything and everything important: a new board member; a big donation; the effects of the hurricane on your operations; an award; another award; or a third award.

But do not announce the release of your sustainability report. Way too many eyeballs are focused on your press releases, and it’s way too easy to tweet (shudder to think) and re-tweet about it.

Your peer companies in the Fortune top 100 do an incredibly good job of this. Whether it’s a company that makes 12, 50 or 365 annual releases to the public, you will almost never (there are a couple of loose-lipped offenders) see any mention of the published sustainability report, no matter how impressive, comprehensive, award-worthy or useful.

Investor relations and timing

Investors and their henchmen, the analysts, are crafty, data-seeking, algorithm-constructing information vacuums that can smell quantitative information even in our noisy times. These may be the hardest stakeholders to sneak around with the increased focus on ESG integration standards and the availability of increasingly consistent and readable GRI data.

For investors, timing is everything. So when considering when to publish your sustainability data — keep ‘em guessing. Quarterly, annual, bi-annual or better yet, mix it up. One thing is for sure: Predictability will lead to expectations, and expectations will lead to more people reading your report.

Definitely do not put the impending release of your sustainability report on your calendar (of events, webcasts or otherwise) like you do with your quarterly earnings information. Do you know what would happen if investors could anticipate your report release and plan to read it?

What’s worse is that the resulting investor jibber-jabber would turn into expectations (see above) and expectations would quickly turn into crowd-sourced predictive market analytics about your targets.

What would the Estimize of sustainability targets look like?

What would happen then is that company share value would be affected not only by quarterly earnings targets but also by whether they met their stated sustainability goals. Can you imagine that?

Take a deep breath and don’t fret too much — your sustainability report is still mostly hidden. Keep up the good work and keep them searching.

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