Corporate responsibility reports are never going to top the bestseller lists, but social and financial pressures are forcing even the biggest companies to show their caring side. Clare Dowdy looks at the genre’s short history, and deconstructs three examples

AS A GENRE of reporting, it’s relatively fledgling, increasingly obligatory,fraught with pitfalls and often unread. Corporate social responsibility reporting, as it was known in the early days, now goes by the snappier title of corporate responsibility. As George Orwell said, if it’s possible to cut a word, then cut it.

The existence of CR reports is due to consumers’, Governments’ and clients’ new-found interest in how business impacts on society, the environment and other sensitive areas. Companies’ increasing sense of obligation follows on from that, and hence the pitfalls manifest themselves in over-promising, under-delivering and shying away from the gritty truth of certain business practices. Yet their lack of avid readers is due in part to their own presentation, and in part to the fact that not that many people are really that interested.

‘Companies have been pushed to do them by pressure groups and investors. It’s a small niche [market] which reads them,’ says Peter Mason, editor of CR report watchdog He defines this niche as business school academics, consultants, business journalists, some shareholders and non-governmental organisations. This last is a mushrooming audience, with management consulting group McKinsey & Company reckoning that more than 100 000 citizens’ groups have been established globally since 1990.

Having said that, ‘NGOs don’t believe what’s in them anyway. And employees and customers aren’t that interested and don’t have the time to read them,’ Mason adds.

In the early days – at the turn of this century – corporate social responsibility reports tended to be as weighty as they were worthy. ‘Initially, companies would have big labyrinthine reports to get down everything, partly an exercise in mapping their own activities,’ says Mason.

But that’s changed, and companies are getting better at producing something that’s engaging. That means a printed document (on recycled paper, of course) with a fuller version on-line.

Johnston Works created both Hammerson’s annual report and this 48-page corporate responsibility report through Merchant, and has echoed the visual style of the former in the latter. This, explains Merchant managing partner Robert Moser, includes the bracket device around certain headlines and key facts, the colour palette, similar paper stock and the informal style of the portraits. Some extra shots were taken for the CR report by Julian Calder, which give an even more informal take on Hammerson’s beaming chief executive and its managing director. The building-block imagery is repeated on the back cover, intended, says Moser, ‘to show the many sides of each issue, and the different views of the shareholders’. This is Merchant’s third CR report for the real estate company. ‘The second one was just a PDF and now it’s gone back to being printed. PDFs push the environmental issue on to the consumer because they will print it out,’ Moser adds


WPP started producing CR reports in 2003 because its subsidiary companies were increasingly being asked to prove their social and environmental credentials in pitches, explains WPP head of corporate responsibility Vanessa Edwards. This report comprises a distillation of an annual survey which goes out to WPP’s 2000 offices across 106 countries. This year’s 104-page document is the work of WPP consultancy Addison, which also designed the WPP network’s annual report. The two are tied together visually through illustrations created by Hong Kong-born calligrapher Feng Feng. Like many CR reports, it’s text-heavy, relief from which is supplied not by photos of upbeat-looking staff but by examples of WPP agencies’ work, including nearly 30 pages of pro-bono work.

The plain white cover of this publication, titled Our Social Report, combines a couple of chatty sentences on the whys and wherefores of the report with a ‘hand-written’ addendum. This style runs throughout the 38-page, ring-bound document, with asides, comments and underlinings peppering the text. All these are in the first-person plural – we, us, our – intending, no doubt, to give the impression of a company staffed by real people who care. In the first part of the report, these notes sit alongside reproductions of Financial Times articles. ‘We combed the press and radio and pulled in quotes that were pertinent to Allied Domecq’s business, and we showed how it was responding or planning to respond, and that it’s not living in splendid isolation,’ explains Bostock and Pollitt managing director Philip Mann. The consultancy’s text sits on sea-green gridded pages, while bigger quotes are reversed out of the same coloured paper. Allied Domecq, which owns food and drinks brands including Courvoisier and Dunkin’
Donuts, is now itself owned by Pernod Ricard.

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