Five tips to transform your 2024 report through an effective debrief session

The Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) is a transformative change for annual reporting – the activity as well as the report itself. Here’s why the debrief is the key to success and five tips to get it right. And no, it’s not too soon to get started.

For annual and sustainability reports, debrief sessions are an important part of the process. They don’t just mark the end of the project, but they’re a chance to review, learn and sharpen things up for the future.

But on most of the reports we’ve worked on, the debrief meeting isn’t used to its full potential. Everyone meets for an hour or so to discuss what worked well and what didn’t. Notes are taken. The session ends, and everyone hurries on to the next project they have lined up. 

That approach hasn’t been particularly productive in the past. And it definitely won’t be this year, given the impact that the CSRD will have. 

As of next year, large companies will have to disclose information on their environmental, social and governance practices according to the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive – as an integrated part of their 2024 annual report. SMEs will follow the year after.  

This introduces two vital things to plan for – with one that many reporting teams aren’t yet thinking about. 

First, teams will need to plan carefully when it comes to defining material issues and capturing the data to support them – this is the bit most companies are already on to. Second – and perhaps the overlooked part – is the importance of communicating all this clearly and transparently from next year’s annual report, to build a trusted brand and reputation.

This makes this year’s debrief meeting – yes, the one you’re about to have right now – even more important than ever. 

Here are five tips that can help to guide your discussions in the direction that the CSRD is already paving the way for: moving reporting to the heart of your business and your brand.

Let in some fresh air

In the debrief meeting, the members of your editorial team will obviously have their take on what went well, what could have gone better,  and what you need to do differently next year – especially in light of the CSRD.

But if that’s all you go by, there’s a risk your debrief session ends up confirming what everyone already knows. Or think they know.

This isn’t enough. The CSRD is an opportunity to re-emphasise the importance of hearing from wider stakeholders, to make sure the story you tell is compelling to, and builds trust with them all.

So make this year’s debrief a chance to hear fresh perspectives. The ones that will take your report to the next level will typically come from outside the editorial room. From the subject matter experts across the company. From your external writers and auditors. And especially from the people who you’re actually creating the report for: your readers.

Ask your readers

Your key stakeholders have already been involved in your materiality assessment, helping to uncover which topics are material to your business. You need to keep that conversation going. 

Your report only creates value for your stakeholders if their burning questions are answered. So you need to ask them if they got what they came for in this year’s report. And, even more importantly, get them to share what they are looking for next year, in the light of the new standards.

Use the debrief process to develop a simple format for the external dialogue with key stakeholders. It shouldn’t be complex or time consuming for either you or them; it should simply help you understand what they want to see. 

Having regular and meaningful discussions with stakeholders around your reporting is no longer a nice-to-have. Ongoing dialogue is part of compliance; and it’s the only way to ensure that you are tuned in to their priorities and able to respond to them. In other words, it’s key to building trust among stakeholders. And that’s the whole point of reporting.

Rethink your story

The world doesn’t judge us by our intentions, but by our actions. What we do, not what we say.

Our brands can make huge promises and tell compelling stories, but if the substance is lacking to prove the claims, they won’t stand up to scrutiny. Now that the CSRD is bringing more transparency to reporting, this matters more than ever.

We’ve always seen the annual report as the place to tell the big story about how you create value as a business – and how you do it sustainably. We call that the ‘value story’ – it’s the narrative that holds the report together.

So far, most value stories have been anchored in a company’s reason-to-be (its purpose) or its aspirations (perhaps your mission or vision statements). 

We believe the CSRD changes that.

The new standards are there to create transparency around impact; to establish a factual foundation for the claims made around value creation. To reflect that your company has truly understood this premise, your value story needs to be driven by something more robust, possibly even more relatable and reliable: your data. 

So in crafting your value story, the emphasis moves from how you will be driving positive change long term, to how you have driven positive change this year. From aspirations to specifics. The story that proves the value of your brand.

Rethinking the way you tell your value story will also start discussions as to how this impacts your brand and the way you talk about impact and value across all your corporate communication. 

So invite your comms and corporate branding colleagues along to the debrief. Get their take on how you can work together to get your reporting and your brand work linked up. An important point, which we’ll get back to in a minute.  

Rework your format

To really engage with the new standards, you’ll also need to rethink the way you structure your report. 

Do you simply follow the format for disclosures set out by the ESRS? Or do you opt for one that lends itself better to accounting for your specific material issues – and which will also make more sense to your readers? 

‘Double materiality’ is a difficult concept – both to assess but also to communicate. How can you structure your report to give readers a clearer sense of how your operations have an impact on people and the environment – and, conversely, how external ESG-related developments impact your business?

Readers are looking for an integrated perspective of the financial and non-financial aspects of your business. That interplay won’t come across by simply including a chapter on sustainability in your annual report. It needs to be worked into the way you report and reflected in the way your report communicates.

Make it dynamic and ongoing

Creating value isn’t something you do at one point in time – it’s an ongoing activity. In the same way, the environmental, social and governance issues affecting your business are constantly evolving (aka ‘dynamic materiality’). 

As a result of the new standards, annual reporting needs to take this on board. In fact, many companies are already rethinking their approach to reporting. They’re moving it from a once-a-year project to an ongoing activity – one that can respond to continuous developments inside and outside the company, and across the value chain. And proactively discuss them with stakeholders, as they happen. 

So use the debrief to discuss how you can move your reporting in this direction. Less ‘big bang’ and more annual reporting, all year round. From a comms perspective, you might think of it as an ongoing (data-driven) narrative that you define and build throughout the year in your quarterly reports. One that can travel across comms assets and platforms, so stakeholders can follow your progress and engage with the story as it unfolds throughout the year. 

Dynamic reporting is a natural consequence of the CSRD. It’s an exciting new way of thinking and working, which puts reporting right at the heart of your communications strategy. And a chance for brand and reporting to support each other more purposefully. Yet another reason to invite your comms and brand colleagues to the debrief. 

Make this year’s debrief your big opportunity for change

Broadening the debrief clearly calls for more than an hour’s meeting. But it’s well worth the investment if you want to turn CSRD compliance into more than a tick-the-box exercise. In fact, the cost of not doing it is too great. The quicker you start, the easier it’ll be – and the more opportunity you’ll capture.

We believe the CSRD holds huge opportunities. It creates greater transparency around ESG performance and establishes a level playing field among companies. But, more than that, the organisations that join reporting and brand-building together are the early adopters who will start building trust and building stronger reputations much faster than those who wait.

That’s a big perspective – but this year’s debrief is where that conversation starts.