brand story & messaging, communications strategy

Playbook for a home-run sustainability report

Carolyn McMaster | June 28, 2016

A successful sustainability report tells a brand story, includes bad news as well as good, and truly engages target audiences. It’s a valuable resource internally as well as for outside audiences, and it’s promoted and used in as many ways as possible.

Not many companies achieve all that, and Domtar’s excellent 2015 sustainability report illustrates why: success requires a sound strategic foundation, a significant creative investment, a willingness to suffer discomfort and a full-blown promotional campaign.

The South Carolina–based paper company’s communications team shared how they hit it out of the ballpark in a recent webinar hosted by the CSR reporting firm 3BL Media. Domtar, which has significant sustainability commitments, has dutifully published reports for years. This time they wanted to up their game.

First, they knew the report should tell their brand story, communicating their core values (agility, caring, innovation). Their approach, which Brian Kozlowski, Domtar’s senior manager of sustainability performance optimization, described as “purposeful,” was guided by interviews with 30 stakeholders about how to make the report both useful and engaging.

Focus on the audience(s)
The report had to resonate with two key audiences: customers and Domtar’s 9,800 employees. This dual audience focus was critical to the report’s success, guiding content, presentation and marketing. It’s a common assumption that sustainability reports need to speak to everyone, but the Domtar team correctly saw that as a mistake. “By trying to write for everybody, you fail to connect with anybody,” Kozlowski noted.

The team knew that if they wanted a relevant, readable and memorable report, they couldn’t just “throw everything in,” so they winnowed the information from 20-plus areas to eight. GRI metrics, which in the past had taken up to eight dense pages, were relegated to an online section. The team made extensive use of graphics, kept the text short and told stories from multiple points of view.

Ban corporatespeak
They also knew the content couldn’t be happy puffery in corporatespeak. Stakeholder research showed their audiences wanted strong perspectives that placed Domtar’s sustainability challenges and goals in broader contexts, as well as in the context of the company and the communities where it operates.

The report needed to paint a comprehensive picture, warts and all. “Historically, we focused on progress and shied away from uncomfortable stuff,” said Kozlowski. “This year, we looked at challenges, priorities and progress.”

Once the report was done, Domtar could have just posted it on the website, issued a press release and called it a day. But the company wanted to get the report out to more than “the usual suspects,” said Dan Persica, Domtar’s sustainability communications manager.

Promote like crazy
To that end, they promoted the content online over four months, via a press release and a 3BL channel campaign. The campaign pushed out about 40 stories, which received 500,000 views and 35,000 clickthroughs. This not only raised Domtar’s visibility, it also gave Persica and his team insight into what content was most popular.

The communications team promoted the stories on the company website and through social media as well, and the executive summary became a print brochure and a wallet card that serve a sales tools. To communicate with employees in manufacturing facilities and those unlikely to read the print report, the communications team also created a print poster and digital sides for news screens.

Sales teams loved the brochure, and HR was a particular fan of the wallet card, which they use as a recruitment tool. And one of the biggest benefits is engagement across the organization, a result of the report creation process as well as the distribution vehicles.

All told, it took about six months to create the report, said Kozlowski, adding, “Every minute was worth it.”

Read or download the Domtar report.


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