Why your annual report must be printed—and strategic in tone

Don’t put off putting together the most important publication of the year. Here’s how to get started.

The annual report is, for many communicators, the most important—and most dreaded—publication of the year. It’s more an event than a publication.

It’s the CEO’s calling card and the organization’s most comprehensive statement of its plans for profitable growth. Every word counts. Hell, the typeface counts.

So it’s tempting to delay the pain until early next year, especially with the press of fourth-quarter deadlines: budgets, the annual meeting, communications planning, performance reviews, and quarterly reports.

Don’t put it off. That takes you into next year. The month after the holidays is a cultural hangover building to the Super Bowl. Then you’ve got a fire drill, and your relationships absorb the shock.

Remember that best practices matter in communication. Keep the following steps in mind when you’re putting together your annual report:

1. Research: Did you, at the very least, conduct a survey with focus groups asking key constituents what information they want in the annual report: employees, investors, community residents, customers, industry influentials?

Did you research best practices in annual reports in your industry? Most are now available online, and many are available on CD from investor services, such as PrecisionIR.

2. Planning: Is your annual report aligned—like a laser—with the strategic goals of your organization?

3. Implementation: Is your print report integrated with the report online? Does the online report include video, a CEO blog, and a feedback form? Especially, are managers and front-line supervisors supported in their face-to-face efforts at cascading and tailoring the annual report to their teams?

A contest, free toolkit and survey!

Download our free toolkit. Download Ragan Consulting’s free toolkit, How to produce an irresistible annual report, when you take our brief survey on the topic. The report provides a checklist of best practices to help you organize the project into workable parts. It’s based on the thousand-plus annual reports we’ve reviewed yearly since the early 1980s. We know what works.

Send us your annual report with a one-page explanation of why it should be considered for our Annual Report Contest. We’ll profile the best, along with the survey results. The best report will receive a free pass to a Ragan webinar of your choice.

Send your report to: Patrick Williams, Director, Ragan Consulting, 111 E. Wacker, Ste. 500, Chicago, IL 60601. The deadline is Nov. 24. I’ll look them over during the Thanksgiving Day football games.

Ragan Consulting looks forward to reviewing and profiling your best work by the end of the month. “We’re here to help.”

Many reports now include the self-congratulatory information that they are printed on recycled (“post-consumer waste”) paper and soy ink. Many translate that choice to savings of trees, wastewater, solid waste, BTUs and CO2. Many also give the reader the option to stop mailing the report altogether, and simply access the report on-line.

All of that is fine, as long as we remember that the purpose of the report is not to protect the environment but to advance the goals of the organization; and that a print vehicle—and, especially, face-to-face vehicles—can do what online publications cannot. The toolkit at the end of the attached survey includes some 11 roles for a print report in an online age.

Simply posting a PDF of the print report on your website is a badly-missed opportunity.

4. Measurement: Did the annual report meet the strategic objectives outlined in the plan? How will you know? Is measurement part of the plan? Are you measuring outputs only (number of copies distributed or hits on-line) or, more important, outcomes: heightened understanding of strategy and behavior change?

Bell Aliant’s President and CEO Karen Sheriff begins her letter by reminding readers of the five strategies the company committed to the previous year, and specifies the company’s performance in each: improve the customer experience, retain our customers, grow broadband, reset our cost structure, and engage employees.

Organizing the report’s section by strategy is an effective means of structuring the contents and focusing reader interest.

When you send us your report, be sure to include a sentence on each of the four steps—research, planning, implementation and measurement—in the write-up that accompanies your annual report.

Don’t overlook your cover

After you take the survey, download your toolkit, and send us your report, just do this one thing today: Think about your cover.

It’s the first thing people see, the only thing many people see, and the advertisement for your report. It’s the most important page in the most important publication of the year.

Go to a magazine rack at a large book store. (Still think print is dead?) Look at the covers: a large photo of a constituent bordered by headlines promising benefits. Am I right?

Some inspiration:

    • GE: Seven words, leading to the stark, chilling opening paragraph
    • Duke Energy: The future, embodied in children of employees
    • Aflac: Impact, playfulness, and brand reinforcement
    • Baxter International, St. Jude Medical: Again, the mission embodied in the human presence and future. Note the three St. Jude patient narratives.
    • Key: Great cover head and welcoming final graphic

Patrick Williams, Ph.D., is the director of Ragan Consulting. We provide full, research-based communications consulting services, including consulting on annual reports.

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