Annual reporting in Europe

What changes are happening in the annual reporting landscape?

The annual reporting landscape is constantly evolving.

The 2016 edition of our research into Annual Reporting in Europe tells us a lot about how the top 800 listed companies in Europe are rapidly adjusting themselves to an on-the-move social, technological and regulatory environment.

The analysis of content structures and presentation formats of more than 1000 annual reports gives evidence of two major reporting trends:

  1. The return to producing just one report (companies making this choice increased by 27%). After years of proliferation of corporate social responsibility reports, governance reports and environmental reports as complementary to the financial report, companies are going back to a stand-alone publication – albeit one completely transformed in comparison to 15 years ago;
  2. The growth of shortened, condensed, ‘marketing’ versions of the original 300-page document. These summaries take the form of captivating scrolling web pages concentrating on company purpose, crucial events, strategic assets and vision. Companies adding an annual review to their annual report went from 110 in 2014 to 195 in 2016.

As the release of annual results is a key event in corporate life and involves CEOs and top management as well as CFOs, IROs and communication officers, the road indicated by these two main directions (one report + one digital summary) goes beyond reporting:

  • the one-report solution reflects a need for a stronger integration of social and environmental matters with economic and financial performance. This push comes from civil society well before governmental or EU institution directives.
  • the rise in concise digital annual reviews reflects changing communication strategies corresponding to the ways in which new generations access and absorb information. Concise, to-the-point and visual are the main features of a brand new digital language more suitable to establishing relationships based on transparency, trust and authenticity with stakeholders.

Our analysis highlights that the content integration process is going forward and that the implementation of digital annual report projects is alive and kicking. 

Where to draw the line between annual reports and integrated reports remains an open issue. Naming the stand-alone report either Annual Report or Integrated Report is the free choice of individual listed companies:  there is no established minimum level of information allowing an annual report to be defined as integrated. 

On the other hand, although the presentation of non-financial content is central when communicating results, content is now migrating from CSR reports to annual reports, annual reviews and sustainability sections of corporate websites.

Having to make space for social and environmental policies and strategies, annual reports are becoming increasingly more complex documents striving to simultaneously comply with regulations and follow non-financial reporting frameworks. It is also due to this complexity that an ever-increasing number of companies are adopting clearer and more concise forms of performance presentations such as annual reviews.

With regard to the format, the decrease in the number of companies investing in interactive digital solutions is clearly due to the drop in interactive PDFs, a form of interaction that, though more effective than the simple PDF, is still too related to printed documents. On the other hand, the research confirms that the presentation of annual performance in HTML has become common in corporate communication.

The implementation of reports as websites, no matter whether including full content or a summary, is having interesting impacts across all managerial levels because it is:

  • forcing CEOs and executives to improve their communication and presentation skills as videos have become a fundamental feature of online reporting;
  • pushing content owners (investor relations, CSR and marketing departments) to formulate more visual and dynamic representations of complex strategic issues;
  • making the traditional “comply or explain” approach of technical functions such as Finance or Governance live alongside story-telling formats and marketing-based content promotion techniques.

To read the third edition of Message's Annual Reporting in Europe research, visit http://www.messagegroup.eu/research 

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