As specialists in narrative reporting, we often find ourselves pondering the ultimate question in our line of work. How can you create a report that convinces investors to believe in the long-term sustainability of your business, employees to feel proudly representative of your business, and the public to acknowledge the societal value of your company’s presence? In other words, how do you write a trustworthy sustainability report? Without further ado, here are the 5 things you should strive for in order to craft a report that inspires trust.

Convey Purpose and Direction

Sincerity – a rather vague to measure, yet crucial to building trust. The last thing you’d want is for your report to come across as hollow or ‘just plain BS’. The best way to convey sincerity? Back it up with quality sustainability efforts. Actions do speak louder than words after all. But regardless of the quality of your initiatives, just making your efforts seem well-thought-out can go a long way to inspire trust.

Be sure to explain how your CSR efforts align with your mission, values and guiding principles – things you likely already have as part of your corporate identity. Having defined values and clear purpose signals maturity, commitment, and consistency – signs that you will not lose sight of what you stand for, even when life throws you one curveball after the next. To many, this is what separates adulthood from immaturity, the righteous from the deceitful, and the wise from the foolish, and this very much applies to organisations as well. Lenovo’s CEO Yang Yuanqing certainly seems to understand the importance of values and commitments. In fact, in his executive letter, he clearly mentions how Lenovo’s entire workforce of over 50000 people are united by the credo of “We do what we say (ownership and commitment), we own what we do (accountability), we wow our customers (customer centricity).” Addressing your values at the executive level is a good sign that they’re not just lip service; that there’s actual leadership commitment to reinforce these values throughout the organisation itself.

Of course, it goes without saying that values and principles alone do not make the world go round. Only by aligning your organisational purpose with clear sustainability strategies and objectives can readers be convinced that you have a good idea about concrete steps to take, and aren’t just making it up as you go along. To reinforce consistency, it’s also important that your organisational purpose and direction are not only mentioned in your introduction or executive letters, but also frequently referenced throughout the main body itself.

DEMONSTRATE RELEVANCE

No matter how well thought out your CSR efforts seem to be however, it is meaningful only to those most affected by your business – your stakeholders. The goal is therefore not simply to inspire trust, but to inspire trust from the right people. That is why materiality assessments and stakeholder engagements have to be done carefully and meaningfully. And from a reporting point of view, clearly demonstrating alignment between your efforts and the concerns of your stakeholders goes a long way to show that you’ve carefully thought about the specific nature of your business impacts.

To that end, acknowledgement is a powerful way of establishing trust, be it in an apology, in a reconciliation speech, or in a sustainability report. Dedicate a portion of the report to acknowledging individual and organisational stakeholders, including what they do, their missions, challenges, and how they align with those of your own. Make your stakeholders feel appreciated and included, and they’ll be more inclined to return the favour.

Another useful means of demonstrating the relevance of your sustainability efforts is to align them with international norms. For that purpose, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are as universal as it gets. They help establish a common language for addressing the biggest global concerns, and speaking that common language helps readers understand the broader relevance and context of your sustainability efforts.

BE TRANSPARENT

Needless to say, the more relevant information and details you voluntarily disclose, the more truthful your report would seem. Include plenty of supplementary information explaining your data, figures, and conclusions. Couple that with external assurance, and you already have a fairly trustworthy report.

But perhaps the most important indicator of transparency, and also the most difficult step for many to take, is the willingness to talk about your successes AND shortcomings. After all, no company is ever perfect. There is always room for improvement, so long as there is demonstrated progress. In other words, having the courage to acknowledge both the good and the bad goes a long way toward humanising your efforts and acknowledging specific problems to be solved, otherwise your narrative would just seem biased and frankly, “too good to be true”.

ENSURE ACCESSIBILITY

There is the saying that “people may not remember what you made them think, but they certainly remember how you made them feel.” The last thing you’d want is for your readers to be frustrated by the process of fishing information out of your report. But if your report is difficult to find, if its contents and structure are hard to follow, and if the narrative is convoluted, then it is difficult to blame readers for suspecting that your report, and by extension your CSR efforts, doesn’t actually have substance nor impact.

So make sure to take into account the reading experience of your report as well. Use simple and concise language throughout, and avoid overly complex sentences or industry jargon. Make supplementary information as well as relevant contacts easily found via direct web links, and structure the report so that different stakeholders can quickly find sections of information that’s relevant to their unique concerns. Such is exactly what MTR has done in its report. Written not only in a language and format that is easily understood, the report is presented using a dedicated report microsite and interactive PDF file that makes finding information from different sections and issues a breeze. To top it off, the report includes supplementary “Did you know?” sections that provide further explanation about important relevant information, such as how the business model works, and even an overview of the ISO 14001 standard that they adhere to. They have made it simple enough that even a beginner in sustainability reporting can quickly grasp its contents with little ambiguity.

The bottom line? Whenever and wherever you can, make your readers’ lives a little easier when finding information from your report. Sometimes, it’s little things like these that matter the most.

HARNESS THE POWER OF STORYTELLING

Tales and legends have existed since the dawn of human history. Good storytelling is how novels and films manage to appeal to human empathy and imagination and draw people even into worlds of complete fiction and fantasy. Storytelling is of course extensively used in marketing and advertising, and it is entirely possible to harness the power of storytelling in the narrative of your sustainability report. Now the million-dollar question: What makes a good story?

An inspiring story is about overcoming challenges. 

If life were all smooth sailing, then there wouldn’t be any incentive to improve and grow, and that would be rather boring. It is by overcoming the seemingly impossible, against all odds and adversities, that a hero is born. Take the story of famed entrepreneur Elon Musk in his biography, where he doggedly recovered both Tesla and SpaceX from the verge of bankruptcy in 2008 through sheer tenacity and ingenuity. It’s certainly a story inspiring to all who aspire to walk the path of an entrepreneur, and the principle can be applied to your sustainability report as well. Chronicle the unique challenges that your company has faced, but of course, be sure to also describe the efforts undertaken to overcome these challenges.

An inspiring story also includes characters people can relate to.

Take the MTR report for example. They seem to understand that telling the story of their stakeholders can be a very powerful means of establishing compassion for the value that MTR brings to society. Immediately after the introduction, MTR included links to a total of 10 “stories”, each telling the tale of an ordinary passenger with ordinary struggles, whose life has benefited from MTR’s services. A housewife who can finally spend more time visiting friends and family; a financial planner whose travel-intensive job nature was greatly simplified by the MTR service; a consultant in London who even found a nice flat in the up-and-coming area of Stratford due to MTR’s Elizabeth line construction and property development efforts. These stories, although hardly extraordinary, can be easily related to many Hong Kongers, myself included. And to top it off, each story even includes an employee testimony as well that brings a human face to each corresponding service. This artful inclusion of stakeholder voices serves well to humanise the MTR report in a way that few others have even attempted.

WRAPPING UP

Remember that your sustainability report is a valuable opportunity for telling your company’s unique story, a window to a memorable impression of your company, and for your stakeholders to empathise with the ongoing struggles of your sustainability journey. So make it count. Just remember to chronicle the shortcomings of your sustainability efforts as well, and get your report assured if possible, because without them, your story could very well be viewed as heavily biased in the eyes of your stakeholders, and no different from mere fiction.

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