Annual reports should report what matters

Many PR professionals help companies and organisations to create annual reports, but despite improvements to make them more interesting they are still frequently just focused on financial data with everything else relegated to mere cosmetic additions. The reason is that many organisations such as public limited companies and charities are legally required to publish annual reports with prescriptive rules on what should be included.

Attention and reputation boost from annual report

Private companies face no such obligations and indeed frequently want to be secretive about disclosing financial and business information that they don’t legally have to. That’s why I was interested to see Dell’s approach to its annual report. Until 2013 Dell was a publicly listed company, when it became privately owned again. Dell therefore doesn’t have to publish annual or quarterly financial reports. Indeed that is reported to be one of the reasons for it going private, so that senior executives could focus on long-term business objectives, rather than the demands of short-term financial reporting.

But the downside is that customers and the marketplace have confidence in companies that are growing and doing well. Not publishing a report means that Dell loses the attention and boost to its reputation it would have got from its annual report. Publishing an annual report can be an important element of reputation building enabling privately owned companies to get a share of the attention usually reserved for publicly listed competitors.

Annual report to customers

Dell addressed this problem this week when it published its first Dell Annual Report to Customers. Freed from the constraints of the arcane language and legal compliance mandated for listed companies Dell has published a far more innovative report that focuses on innovation and customer satisfaction.

Publicly listed companies are restricted in how forward looking they can be in annual reports so as not to mislead potential investors. As a private company Dell faces no such restrictions so its report to customers is as much about showcasing what it can and plans to do as it is on showcasing what it has done.

Interestingly Dell launched the report at its annual analyst conference, highlighting that although it was called a report for customers, Dell recognises its importance to analysts and other key influencers and stakeholders.

Innovative design and data transparency

The report features 60 Windows 8.1-esque colourful panels with icons that flip when you move over them to reveal snippets of interesting data. Clicking on them reveals more information and a link to the full annual report to customers. The report covers four main areas: technology, business, perspectives and ‘future ready’.

The report is also studded with lots of videos and every part of it can be shared individually on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook. It also makes great use of older content with some sections of the report appearing to be existing content integrated into the new report such as this article on Entourage actor Adrian Grenier being named Dell’s sustainability champion.

Integrated reporting

The Dell 2015 Annual Report to Customers is an indicator of the innovation that’s possible in annual reporting. But it’s just the start and could have drawn more lessons and best practice from the integrated reporting (IR) framework drawn up by the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC).

It’s a very exciting time to be in  public relations and corporate communications and I’m looking forward to working with clients on creating modernised annual reports that draw on innovation in integrated reporting, corporate storytelling, corporate media and content marketing. Get in touch if you’d like help with yours.

Thanks to Microsoft’s Tom Murphy for alerting me to the Dell Annual Report to Customers.

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