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Verizon: highly skilled communications

By Elaine Cohen (beyond Business) on May 26, 2010 at 5:02pm.

Content:

2009 has been another year of strong accomplishment for Verizon, achieving over $107 billion in revenue representing 10.8% revenue growth in 2009. As America's second most trusted company for privacy, the scale of Verizon's operation is massive, connecting one billion phone-calls per day, 1.7 billion text messages, 400 million emails and 8.7 petabytes of video (equivalent to 4 million full length movies) and serving over 90 million customers in their wireless network which is the biggest in the USA. Verizon employs over 220,000 people.

Verizon's sixth Corporate Responsibility report maintains the strong format of recent year reports, including the"What we said we'd do, What we did, What we'll do next" template, established with their 2006 report. It works well, showing the consistency of Verizon’s commitment. The "Holding ourselves accountable" section works systematically through Verizon's promises, providing performance updates all aspects of corporate responsibility performance.

Important achievements reported by Verizon in 2009 include: strong investment in employee healthcare; a major campaign to stop drivers texting while driving; establishment of a new Parental Controls Center for managing online exposure; a great "idling reduction" program for Verizon drivers to turn off vehicles instead of idling saving 1.7 million gallons of fuel in 2009; extension of video-conferencing facilities for Verizon employees, used 8,000 times in 2009; $67.9 million in community philanthropic investment; access to a Quit Smoking program to 120,000 employees; 11.5 million hours of employee training; outstanding progress in telecommunications equipment recycling reaching 37,500 tonnes, double that of 2008, and 182,000 tons of cell-phone battery recycling; reduction of GHG emissions "intensity" by 7% relative to revenue; 1.1 million wireless phones collected via Verizon's Hopeline for victims of domestic violence; introduction of technologies for the blind and visually impaired; 703,000 employee volunteer hours; community grants to support digital literacy and initiatives to convert "bucket trucks", the fuel-intensive vehicles used for repairing aerial cables and facilities, with hybrid or compressed natural gas systems. Good advancements across the board.

Additionally, a nice inclusion this year is the section on ethics and governance, showing how Corporate Responsibility is managed in the organization and describing three significant developments in 2009: the appointment of a Chief Sustainability Officer, a comprehensive revision of the Company's ethics code and the issue of a Human Rights statement.

All this shows, and leaves me with no doubt at all, that Verizon is indeed "doing the work", but still I was not able to understand to what extent this work is "delivering the outcomes". Verizon selected three core issues to present as challenges – cyberspace security, managing electronic waste and closing the ethnic healthcare gap. In general, these are nice descriptions but lack the teeth of hard numbers supporting the actual impact Verizon delivers. One fascinating insight is recycling resulting from copper extraction from old cables and wires and its resale to copper refineries making Verizon "a major supplier of copper". Quite how major is not disclosed. Verizon's investment in the area of ethnic health disparities is formidable, but quite what has been the outcome of this activity is not disclosed. An offer for employees to look after their own health with free wellness screenings is commendable, but what impact this has had overall is not disclosed. Another example is the massive investment Verizon makes in Thinkfinity.org, the free teaching website. This site increased its presence in 2009 with over 3.3 million visits, over 32,000 educators trained and reaching 4,500 schools. I found myself wondering what the impact of this program is and how Verizon measures success. This is a major signature program, and beyond how much Verizon maintain it and who accesses it, it would be valuable to know if it is delivering against qualitative objectives.

I would suggest adding an additional column headed "what happened as a result of what we did" to the core template of Verizon reports.  The focus on inputs rather than outcomes continues to be a challenge for even the best of reporters and this includes Verizon.  My suggestion would be to refocus the ‘10/11 report on "making an impact" rather than "doing the work".

Communication:

Verizon's online report is pleasantly navigable with nice charts of key results that build before your eyes, showing the key performance data in each section. This is actually much easier to navigate than the printed report, which has a high-level content list and no index. As with the previous report, topics are split over the accountability, challenges and performance sections, making it a little difficult to assess all the impacts in one area or get a birdseye view of performance.  The search facility on the report website brings up results for the entire website, which is a distraction. The Verizon blog is a positive element and is well maintained by Company bloggers, with interesting content.

Whilst there are clear efforts to gain external stakeholder feedback with a poll of 75 external thought-leaders on how well Verizon does in its existing programs, resulting in broad endorsement for Verizon's direction, the "teeth" in such research would be the feedback from stakeholders about what is of most concern to them, in addition to a reaction to what is currently being done. It is not clear if the research covered this.  Equally, Employee "Engagement" Pulse surveys demonstrate a willingness to listen, but only two data points are reported:  90% of employees understanding how their performance relates to business imperatives and 97% understanding their contribution to customer commitment. These do not indicate that employees are engaged. I wondered about data that shows employees feel Verizon is a responsible employer.

Credibility:

I reviewed the ‘08 Verizon report and found it to be a high quality publication. This year, Verizon's report is of equal quality, but whilst I continue to enjoy reading about the company's strong demonstration of corporate responsibility and significant year on year progress, I feel Verizon reporting stops just short of what would make it an outstanding reporter, holding back relevant detail whilst focusing on primarily positive content. The reports lacks the data which would give scale and context to the performance reported.  How many issues were referred to the Ethics Guideline office? How many employees participate in the Employee Resource Groups? How many complaints have been dealt with in the area of cybersecurity? By how much did actual travel costs actually reduce resulting from the use of virtual conference rooms?  Transparency is good at the level of inputs but not at the level of outcomes. This represents a major opportunity for Verizon to move up a notch in establishing the internal programmes to track the outcomes, and to report them.

Similarly, Verizon could do more to connect sustainability practices and how they contribute to overall business success, beyond reference of top-line financial results.  In 2009, for example, Verizon purchased Alltel Corporation and its 3,200 employees, and in the same year, Verizon reported in its financial report a planned reduction of its workforce by 17,600 of which 4,200 occurred in 2009. There is no reference to this in its 2009 Corporate Responsibility report, which I believe is an omission. Acquisitions, divestments and mergers of large corporations are an important element in their impact on society and people, and some transparency relating to ethical and concerned treatment of employees during these business processes would have been welcome. Similarly, little is said about Verizon's impacts in the supply chain and relationships with suppliers to their massive network. Once again, I seek some level of assurance for the reporting process to add not only verification of reported data but also guidance regarding the material issues that should be on Verizon’s reporting radar.

Verizon reporters are highly skilled communicators, selecting the data that reflect commitment to responsible practices and impressive performance. In future reports, I would like to see more substance around what I suspect is still tangled up in the wires and cables of the transparency effort.

Recommendations:
1. Assure
2. Provide substance relating to outcomes
3. Reporting of a structured process for assessing materiality


elaine cohen is the Joint CEO of BeyondBusiness Ltd, www.b-yond.biz/en , a leading CSR reporting and consulting firm in Israel,  specializing in a wide range of consulting services for the development of social and environmental responsibility of businesses.