I was at the ACCA Sustainability Reporting Awards at the British Museum on Wednesday where commendations were awarded to BT and CFS (Co-operative Financial Services) for best electronic reporting. Indeed, both are clear and effective demonstrations that the website is now maturing as a medium for corporate reporting.
The humble PDF has become the lowest common denominator for electronic reporting which is an advance on nothing at all online, but few companies use the simple functionality of Acrobat even to hyperlink within documents - a useful feature when using an index to view a company's performance against the GRI (Global Reporting Initiative).
Yet well structured HTML and the PDF are no longer enough. It is time to use the imagination again. Remember when an online CSR report was cutting edge?
[For those who know what RSS is, skip this para] RSS is little known in CSR and corporate responsibility circles. Odd as we have a thing about TLAs (triple letter acronyms). RSS stands either for Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary (the ins and outs of different technical standards and naming really shouldn't concern us here) and may also be known as a feed (see my righthand column, for example). Essentially these suites of generally interoperable technologies change the web from being mainly a pull medium (i.e. I try to make you like my site enough to visit regularly) to a push medium (i.e. when I post, you receive it). The benefits are widespread: how can I monitor 100+ sites a day for news and comment? I can't, but I can see what is new, select at a glance the headlines that matter and ensure I miss nothing. So far RSS is mainly used by blogs and news channels, but there is much more scope.
For a brief analogy, presenting moving images is done in two ways: the way you see most television and film is to remake each frame of each picture, all of it, even though very little changes - this is like having to view many websites which rarely change. The amount of data is enormous and unwieldy, hence when trying to reduce file sizes for movie formats online, developers took a different approach: change only the parts of the picture that move. If a pixel stays red, don't change it. This is what RSS does - it can be set to only show the websites that have changed, that have something new. No more scanning every site.
By offering an RSS feed on the corporate responsibility/CSR/sustainability part of your website so that updates and news may be followed by stakeholders, you are establishing the potential to push information, which the user/stakeholder/subscriber permits by using the feed. By providing a feed, you are giving the message that you are wanting to develop an ongoing relationship. What makes RSS feeds so potentially exciting in this context is that you can have a very latent connection: months may pass before you post anything new about your activities - a forthcoming report, an award won, say - but as soon as you do, the subscriber sees that something is new.
Needless to say, this can offer greater opportunities for low-level, almost passive, communication with stakeholders and many more of them. And when many of them have access to the media (journalists who are starting to see enormous potential in RSS to gather news easily, yes, but bloggers too), it is worth communicating this way. I would argue, therefore, that at very little cost, building in RSS feeds when you next revamp your website, is highly advisable.
An example of what happens when you don't have an RSS feed: in the column on the right I have a list of websites I like and recommend to you readers. This is maintained by RSS through Bloglines. To be in this list, a site needs to have an RSS feed. John Elkington doesn't have an RSS feed available on his blog, so he doesn't feature (no big deal, I know - he won't get sleepless nights about not appearing in my BlogLine, but who else isn't reading it, who might if he had a feed?). Go on: you know it makes sense.