Solitaire Townsend, Cofounder, Futerra

Earlier this year at the GRI Conference, BSR President and CEO Aron Cramer and I launched a debate looking at the emerging world of social media in CSR reporting. Since then (in preparation for our BSR Conference session on the subject this Friday), we’ve been meeting global brands and digging around online, and we’ve noticed that when it comes to social media, not all sustainability reports are created equally. In fact, they come in three species: the Pigeon, the Peacock, and the rare and wonderful Phoenix.

These species have their own traits, qualities, and habits in the wild. Spotting, categorizing, and comparing them has become one of our favorite sports. Let us introduce you to the spotters’ guide to social media reports.

The Pigeon
By far, the most common type is the Pigeon. Dull, grey, and with no distinguishing marks, a Pigeon-style report will have practically no social media engagement or a rudimentary attempt to party like it’s 1999.

How to spot a Pigeon: They are everywhere—vast flocks of them, invisible on social media and relevant only to a tiny audience. Look out for:

  • Flat engagement: A Pigeon report will have an email address for contact, it will be launched online with one tweet from the corporate Twitter account, and it will be written by the same consultants, in the same tone (and occasionally same phrasing) as every other Pigeon report.
  • Dislocated transparency: The Pigeon report may generate interest on social media, even though the report itself includes a stakeholder engagement section unlikely to even acknowledge the existence of the internet. Responses on fan pages and angry hashtags create an asymmetrical dialogue that can make the company look bad.

The Peacock
The second type is a growing and rather showy population. The Peacock is en route to social sustainability reporting and whatever’s holding them back—lack of resources, a hesitant voice, a resistant board—won’t be doing so for long. They are eager and creative, but for all the exciting activities around their report, the report itself remains, basically, Pigeonlike.

How to spot a Peacock: These are fun to track, and you’ll find a lot of colorful experimentation with making reporting engaging online. Watch for reports that:

  • Keep the audience in mind: The report tailors its tone of voice, channel, and content to suit its audience. Look out for microsites, active comments, and people-focused imagery. Some promising models include Telefónica’s slick microsite report, which boasts integrated sharing tools, catchy headlines, and lots of fresh content, and Ericsson’s social communication, which showcases the company’s commitment to technology for good.
  • Embrace social: Matthew Yeomans observed the similarities between social media and sustainability reporting; they’re both about “authenticity, transparency, community, innovation, and creativity.” A Peacock might not quite be there yet, but look out for Twitter profiles that aren’t just press release bots, an appetite for new channels, and a dash of buzzword bingo. Examples include Campbell’s CSR Twitter account, which is full of lively rhetoric as the company communicates its commitment to “bring our strategies and projects to life from farm to family,” and Philips, which has used Pinterest to create a successful competition for its “Livable Cities” initiative.

The Phoenix
Phoenix reporters are so rare, they are almost mythical. These companies have seen social media create new value from their sustainability reporting for business, consumers, and the environment. From creating opportunities for relevant interactions to making hard-won carbon savings work even harder, Phoenixes are definitely #winning.

How to spot a Phoenix: Phoenixes put social media at the heart of their reporting approach. There is only one defining characterisation of a Phoenix, and it’s a collective approach completely distinguished from the “decide-report-defend” model of Pigeon reporting. The Phoenix shares its sustainability agenda and invites contributions. Look for novel partnerships and inclusive language that aims to create a genuine dialogue between the brand and stakeholders. Some examples include Sony’s Futurescapes and General Electric’s Ecomagination Challenge, which use their audiences’ ideas (and wallets) to unlock a sustainable future. A big team and strong editorial voice is also a hallmark, which makes a “magazine mentality” for reporting really rewarding—apparent in Coca-Cola’s Unbottled and Levi Strauss' Unzipped.

Although Pigeon reports are numerous today, we hope the Pigeon will soon become an endangered species. Reporting can be a lot of effort for little reward. A social media approach can open up magic, dynamism, and opportunity for those brave enough to take it.

We can’t recommend the SMI Social Media Sustainability Index enough for the avid social media spotter. And we invite you to join our panel online during the BSR Conference by using #smreporting.