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Feb 04, 2020

How AT&T tailors ESG reporting to its audience

AT&T won the 2019 Corporate Governance Award for best ESG reporting

AT&T has been reporting on its ESG performance for the last 12 years. And just as the focus on ESG among investors and companies has grown and evolved, so too has AT&T’s approach to reporting on the issues involved – notably by creating a modular disclosure structure that enables different stakeholders to take information at the level of detail they need.

At the top of the reporting triangle is the company’s corporate responsibility summary, which gives stakeholders that have general-level interest a high-level overview of AT&T’s work and the underlying strategy behind it. The summary includes broad data tables with narrative and quantitative metrics on a variety of topics that are material to the company.

AT&T in 2018 found itself facing what it calls ‘unprecedented interest in our data analytics.’ In response, it began using a new format for the 2018/2019 corporate responsibility summary. It continues to include CSR program achievements, progress toward long-term goals and key performance indicators, but now additionally features analysis of urgent global ESG trends as well as challenges facing the company and its plans to tackle them. Such topics include human capital management, human rights, climate change, customer privacy and media pluralism.

The second layer of the reporting triangle comprises detailed, topic-specific reports, including 20 issue briefs. These offer a more granular analysis of the company’s managerial and programmatic approach to the most material topics facing the business.

They include select content from the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, CDP and Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, as well as rankings and ratings. Finally, AT&T publishes issue and region-specific reports on topics such as Latin American CSR, UN sustainable development goals, diversity and inclusion, political engagement and transparency.

‘We wanted to make sure we are speaking to the right audience,’ says Ben Kruse, director of global CSR reporting & insights at AT&T, in describing the approach to reporting. He explains that the team uses web traffic metrics to keep track of whether the disclosures are finding the right targets and makes the reports search engine-optimized to attract eyes. Most of the traffic goes to the mid-level reports, he notes.

When investors look for ESG disclosure, one of the key factors they take into account is materiality. AT&T takes this seriously, basing its approach on the Global Reporting Initiative’s definition of materiality. This entails a focus on topics ‘that reflect the organization’s significant economic, environmental and social impacts, or substantively influence the assessments and decisions of stakeholders.’

A major part of this is a project undertaken every two to three years – the latest taking place from early in fall 2019 – to engage stakeholders in a formal materiality assessment process that seeks to identify the issues most relevant to AT&T’s value chain.

The assessment in 2016 involved more than 1,400 people – including employees, consumers and professional stakeholders – completing surveys and interviews. This year, the project will include stakeholders of the WarnerMedia and Xandr units, reflecting the company’s move into the media, advertising and entertainment industries. Put together, the feedback from the review helps inform how AT&T focuses its efforts, resources and reporting around ESG issues.

Over the past year, Kruse and his colleagues have improved how the company discloses the results of the materiality assessments and the alignment across its value chain by deploying a portal that offers interactive maps to explain the relationships between material topics and AT&T’s business. In addition to these review projects, Kruse’s team has a close working relationship with the company’s investor relations team, through which they learn about the issues investors are interested in and help prepare responses.

This article originally appeared in the latest Corporate Secretary special report.