Many corporations are suffering under the increased demands of sustainability reporting. Reports prepared to satisfy the Global Reporting Initiative standards, along with reports specific to individual investors, often mean that social responsibility and communications departments are swamped with the minutiae of slightly different questions that can require vastly different answers. Public-facing storytelling gets buried under the pressure of industry-specific reporting.

What is lost when companies fail to frame their CSR achievements in terms that a general audience can grasp?  By concentrating on dry, dense facts, corporations are ignoring a rich source of narratives. Honest stories will drive public interest and goodwill, and potentially even new clients. What distinguishes companies like Patagonia or Unilever is not just that they have strong CSR programs, and that they report them, but that they have a compelling public-facing facet to their efforts. A quick visit to their websites reveals easy-to-understand distillations of their reports and emotionally engaging stories.

While excellent for the industry, the truth of the matter is that many of the reporting standards for CSR are too dense for non-experts. The public wants to understand if a corporation has reduced its carbon footprint, or its use of water and feedstock from previous years. They want to know who they help, and why that aid is relevant to the industry. Above all, they want to quickly grasp if a company is “good”.

Corporations with excellent CSR programs have a compelling reason to distill their efforts for the public.  Even corporations that are struggling to meet their goals are under pressure to publicize their CSR efforts. Transparency is not only a corporate virtue, but a necessity. In the age of crowd-sourced whistle-blowing, any information can inevitably be uncovered. Admitting to temporary setbacks makes a company appear humble and honest, rather than a failure.

Ignoring the power of the story also ignores the power of word-of-mouth. The Kony 2012 campaign, whatever your opinion of its actual efficacy, thrived on the enthusiasm of millions of potential do-gooders who became emotionally invested in disseminating its expertly packaged story. When done well, shareable content, be it stories or graphics, is free advertising and a great way to generate positive opinions.

Even for companies without the backing of large marketing and PR departments, this should not be a difficult task. A simple description of the company’s CSR initiatives can be supplemented with photographs, infographics, and stories. An honest, transparent summary is worth far more to a non-specialist audience than a year’s worth of reports.  There’s no excuse to hide your accomplishments behind a thick stack of papers – so get out there and start spreading the word!