More research, please. Much, much more

BY Simon Lake

A new year. A new conversation about the role of the annual report; a new set of ideas and regulations for companies to understand, process and implement and less money to embrace more scrutiny and judgement.

In corporate comms, the discussions about annual reporting are as nailed into the corporate calendar as personal New Year resolutions. All over the country people will be returning to work, rolling their eyes, saying “here we go again” because their company has a December or March year end. The annual report will fill diaries, and heads, for up to 6 months dealing with internal audiences, lawyers, photographers, auditors, designers, regulators, printers, the board, writers and distribution houses.

Everyone will have a view on every page and every piece of content. The plucky few will navigate the obstacle course with their vision intact but many reports will lose their way under the weight of compromise and practicality. Things will reach fever pitch as the mailing deadline approaches, a period of time very similar to the panic that last minute swotting for a vital exam generates.

The total cost of reporting for the constituents of the FTSE 100 including executive time, accountants, lawyers, designers, printers and mailing houses is probably an average of £200,000 per company at least or £20,000,000 in total. That’s a lot by any standards.

But the most amazing thing about this figure is that there is little audience  research about how all the hard work influences audiences, changes perceptions and contributes to reputation. Even though the annual report, and its contents and narrative, are still one of the most important communications a company creates, little is done to understand and provide insights on their impact on stakeholders.

So often I hear in meetings that no one reads the annual report, they are out of date on the day they hit the newsstand, if not before, and they are boring, really boring. Rarely is this assertion supported by evidence. Often the comment is anecdotal or intuitive.

More research, quantitative and qualitative, would lead to evidence based decision making and over time this would make reports more readable and worthwhile and the content more fitting to need. I think that can only be a good thing for stakeholders and corporates because in the age of super scrutiny and the global megaphone of social media, the more we know and understand about companies and their behaviours, good and bad, the more informed our decision making and choices will be.

And that can only be a good thing for us all.