(An alternative title to this post might read: Integrated reporting and why Marshall McLuhan was right)
Marshall McLuhan was a genius. And his "medium is the message" theory was the bedrock of many a cultural studies debate for decades.
Arguably his work is even more important now: What does Twitter, the Ipad and Facebook say about modern society? This New York Times article offers serious pause for thought on that point.
That digression aside, what happens when you apply the "medium is the message" theory to corporate sustainability communications?
And then throw in the concept of integrated financial and sustainability reporting?
Before I try and answer this, let's recap for second. This is what Wikipedia says McLuhan was talking about:
"The medium is the message is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan meaning that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived. The phrase was introduced in his most widely known book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964. McLuhan proposes that a medium itself, not the content it carries, should be the focus of study."
So why is is right if we look at him through a financial/CR reporting prism?
He's right because the medium (Reports) does influence how the message (CR, financial performance) is percieved.
That is, badly, because the medium is not suited for communication that performs.
McLuhan's theory is also right because: "a medium itself, not the content it carries, should be the focus of study."
I would nuance this a bit when it comes to integrated reporting. Both the medium and the content should be the focus of study.
And this is my beef with the current debate about integrated reporting. It's being portrayed in some circles as our next CSR holy grail. Which of course, it is not.
I find the volume of discussion about it frustrating since, as we know a) no-one reads financial reports and b) no-one reads CR reports.
So the cart is being put before the horse in my view.
We’re talking about producing integrated reports when we haven’t worked out HOW to get the financial and stakeholder communities to engage with our messages now.
So we run the risk of producing all-singing all-dancing integrated reports (like Novo Nordisk, BASF and United Technologies do), but no-one will give a damn as we haven’t worked out how to communicate the messages.
Think about the long-standing problem of educating pension fund trustees on sustainability and risk/opportunity management.
Will they give a damn about integrated reporting? Clearly not. It's the wrong medium for them. Both CR and financial reporting, viewed historically, proves this (BP anyone?).
McLuhan said the medium IS the message, but he never had a read a CSR/Sustainability report! (Albeit they are improving).
If he was here today, what would he advise? My guess is he'd say "do your reports, but break down your communication into its salient parts, target it at key audience in a way which they are proven to respond to, and embed them into what you do, every day".
So while integrated reporting is all well and good, and probably where we are heading, we need a proper conversation about CR communication channels, methods and mechanisms that actually work. Or else we risk the cart staying firmly in front of the horse.
How many of you in companies out there measure the effectiveness of your communication channels for CR messages? And link it to your communications planning and refinement? Not many, I would wager.
It can be done. We do it in conference and subscriptions marketing every day at Ethical Corporation. This is not a pitch to hire us (we're not consultants), I'm simply pointing out that it can be done, if you choose to do it. I think it would be a good idea to start, before you 'do' your integrated report.
UPDATE: This news may be of interest to readers: "South Africa- An integrated report is a new requirement for listed companies from June 2010 onwards"