Producing a Corporate Sustainability Report (CSR) is a big job that requires significant time and expertise. It’s easy to underestimate the full scope of resources that reporting requires. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of consultants and agencies available that can help handle many parts of the workload – from strategy, to writing, to data management, to graphic design, as well as agencies that can do it all.
Typically, reporting teams only consider hiring a consultant or agency in order to fill obvious gaps in internal resources or expertise. But, hiring the right experts will also help you and your report beyond the obvious tactical deliverables. Expanding your report team to include experienced external contributors certainly helps create a more manageable workload, which is a good thing! But the RIGHT experts will also improve both the processes and the overall quality of your report, all while making your job easier.
Here are a few additional ways an agency or consultant can help improve your report and make your job easier (which also helps the report):
Experienced consultants and agencies will have their fingers on the pulse of reporting. They will point you to best practices and will have an informed point of view on your company’s strengths and weaknesses in sustainability reporting compared to best-in-class companies. Qualified experts will also provide an honest evaluation on where your company stands relative to your competition. It is in the best interest of your consultant/agency to provide a straightforward evaluation that helps ensure your report is as strong as possible. After all, they will want to use your report as a calling card to help get their next job. Getting this kind of reality check is extremely valuable in making sure your report is headed in the right direction. These insights, alongside best practices, will help your team develop the right reporting goals and strategies.
A consultant or agency can also be more effective in gathering perspectives from your company’s stakeholders, such as report evaluators, labor unions or activist organizations, among others. As a neutral third party, your agency/consultant will be able to mediate an honest dialogue. And because a solid CSR requires serious consideration of those stakeholder expectations, candid discussions also need to take place with your executives about how those expectations will be addressed in the report. The uncomfortable conversations that result from bringing these issues to the surface, while painful, are a healthy part of the reporting process. In my experience, the mediator role played by the external expert is invaluable to producing a better, more credible report. Better yet, a really good external expert will help push the envelope to help produce a great report.
The Right Equation
Once you are familiar with CSR reporting best practices and understand your stakeholders’ concerns, external experts can help you develop a strategic vision for your report. Vision is critical, but in order to be successful, it needs to be grounded in the day-to-day reality of available resources and internal expectations. Emotive Brand approaches this as an equation that balances audience and team expectations, stakeholder needs, and available capabilities and resources. This allows you to establish a reporting strategy that really will be executed. Since you know where you are (reality check and candid conversations) and where you want to go, it becomes possible to map out a comprehensive plan. And since it takes time to lay the groundwork and make significant progress, it makes sense to do this over a 2-3 year period.
Whether your external experts are paid an hourly rate or a project fee, the direct budget impact to you, or the profit impact to them, provides a very real incentive for both parties to effectively manage time and productivity. One of the challenges in managing a CSR project is keeping the team on task and on deadline. So, I have found that associating a dollar amount to delays can help motivate the team to provide what you need when you need it. In fact, external experts can help hold everybody responsible for meeting project milestones.
External experts not only make your job easier from an efficiency standpoint, they also help establish your professional reputation with members of the C-suite, your colleagues and stakeholders. This is because the contributions made by the experts you bring in to work with your team will reflect on you. Hiring smart people that work well with your team and contribute in significant ways to improving the report and the reporting process, will build your credibility. This in turn makes your job easier because the process goes more smoothly when the team trusts the leadership and the report as a whole is better as a result.
So, if you decide to hire an agency, make sure that their expertise has a measurable impact on the project and makes your job easier in the process.