Integrated Report: making meanings from a non-financial perspective

A couple of weeks ago, we completed our annual pitch exercise with shortlisted communication and advertising agencies for our Integrated Report for the FY 2018-2019. Yes, prior to that, my calendar (and my boss – there’s no escaping!) reminded me that annual report season was there. In no time, our team was already in the midst of this high tempo period, desperately trying to juggle a number of priorities with the ultimate aim of producing this monumental document, which in many ways, represents the face of our bank.

While I was looking at our past annual reports, I told myself: “we, certainly, have come a long way!”. It was like pulling out a picture of me from an old album and jokingly looking at my (now) old fashion clothes, and haircut! Yet, when this picture was taken, this little girl was a fashionista, or at least thought she was! And I am much relieved that my style has changed as I grew up. Annual reports too, and now increasingly the integrated report which is gaining momentum, have widely evolved over the course of time. Try to compare your past 5 to 10 annual reports or integrated reports, and you will notice the difference!

From the simplistic but creative mood boards, the quality of the paper used, the catchy covers, the high resolution pictures, the infographics and other graphic elements to the interactive and engaging digital support, the annual report is, today, without any doubt a significant marketing tool which showcases a company’s brand and identity and over which it has complete control. I like to think of integrated reporting as an annual rendezvous to which we invite our key stakeholders and the potential ones and during which we have the opportunity to tell them, using our own words, how our journey through the previous financial year has been, between its peaks and troughs. On this occasion, we also tell them how we have been creating value whilst handling worldwide issues such as unemployment, fraud, climate change and global warming, and employee welfare.

If you are a rookie, you might wish to read this. When and why should you plunge into the waves and switch from the traditional annual report to the well-articulated integrated report? Two years ago, as a non-financial and non-business person, I was totally unfamiliar with integrated reporting until an unexpected casual talk with a financial expert and excellent communicator led me to investigate further and choose Investor Relations as the main title of a research paper I was working on. It included, among others, a focus on integrated report. While it seemed easy to grasp the whole concept, it ended up being much more complicated than I expected and nearly frustrating though I spent long hours analyzing and deciphering perfectly designed integrated reports.

This is exactly what happens to companies who jump into the publication of an integrated report without the appropriate expertise, thorough preparation and a clear sense of direction. The IR pathway is not a clear-cut one. Nor is it just a new trend which you should follow for the sake of staying in the game. If you are a novice, do not expect to hand your directors a perfect report on your first attempt.

Indeed, once you get started, or at least think you are ready to, you instantly start questioning the way your institution and everything put into place so far, actually looks like in reality:

  • Are your long-term strategies aligned with your vision?
  • Is your mission statement one which you can be proud of from your clients’ perspective?
  • Have you been truthful to your values towards your internal and external stakeholders?
  • Have you built a house of trust through your mission, vision and values?
  • Simply put: where does your brand stand today?

One of the major differences between the annual report and the integrated report is the content writing. Be very careful! You may well possess a wealth of valuable resources within your institution, but do not make the mistake of thinking that your Head of Audit, your CFO, your Human Resources Manager, or any key person, depending on your organisational structure, are qualified to write this section of your report. No offense, of course!

Though a financial document produced by listed companies, the integrated report (the first section) still requires creative content writing skills. Sadly, it is not the cup of tea of all your staff. Another mistake done by many companies is to ask Heads and Managers to handle specific sections of an annual/integrated report and to write these sections. Once you combine all the pieces together, it looks like a dress sown by 10 tailors who have different styles, expertise and skills. Would you wear that dress for your perfect date?

Moreover, these professionals, though they excel in their respective responsibilities, might consider it more of a burden than a gratifying challenge to take part in the preparation of the integrated report. Obviously, the management should be included in the process, but even before kicking-off the meetings, as the person in charge of the planning, implementation and follow-up (Marketing/Communication Manager), you should identify and inform each member where his/her responsibilities starts and ends.

The publication of an integrated report (as well as the annual report) is an annual cost which listed companies have to incur. For some, one which they would rather avoid and this is why many choose to cut cost wherever they can. This is how group pictures are catered for in-house, content writing and copy-writing end up being dealt with internally by staff not trained to do so and the digital version neglected or removed from the checklist. This is your one chance to connect with your audience annually – so do not do things in half measures! Leave this task in the hands of experts.

Here is my selection of communication agencies with a proven track record in the design and implementation of integrated reports – including the concept and design, layout, copy-writing, digital, videos, and photos.

In Mauritius, though it is not mandatory as it is the case in South Africa, many well-established institutions such like IBL Ltd, CIEL Limited and Rogers and Company Limited, Ascencia, Omnicane Limited, Currimjee Group of Companies, The United Basalt Products Ltd, Phoenix Beverages Limited, and the State Bank of Mauritius (SBM) are today well-versed with integrated reporting; many of whom have been nominated and rewarded for the consistency and quality of their integrated reports by the prestigious Corporate Reporting Awards hosted annually by PwC since 1998.  Above all, the one thing which sets them apart is that they took the lead and went beyond the reporting of their financials and the endless literature, which frankly and bluntly, no one reads. In other words, they choose to speak the same language as their audience: with honesty, in an ethical and well-sourced manner.

Special note to communicators (agencies/institutions/freelancers..)

Within the framework of my research paper on Investor Relations, I carried out two surveys, one of which specifically targeted financial reporters from local newsrooms (dailies, weeklies, newspapers, magazines and online platforms). Here are some key points gathered from 15 specialized journalists with regards to investor relations and integrated reporting :

  • 21% have previously worked in the financial sector
  • 71% have attended a training on the finance and banking sectors
  • 78% are familiar with integrated reporting
  • 92% analyze the annual/integrated report while preparing their press articles
  • 90% visit the website of companies (investor relations)
  • 81% rate the quality of press releases (financials) as good

Our experts’ views

Celine Planel, Managing Director, Beyond Communications

Integrated Reporting is a fairly new model, one that isn’t seen as a “natural part” of the business process. It requires that companies widen their focus from traditional models in favor of a more transparent reporting format. Integrated Reporting involves a more connected approach, which represents an arduous working process, asking full disclosure (without losing competitive advantage) from management.

The first piece of advice I always give is to plan ahead and never wait till the last minute. Integrated Reporting is an arduous process, management must take care to involve all parties from the onset. The different teams and committees – corporate governance, audit, risk – must work together to reach the same goal, so that the report can showcase that connectedness Integrated Reporting requires. It is about reporting as much information as possible, in the most intelligent way.

Karishma Rashpassing-Belhaj, Project Director/Business Developer, Evolution

Integrated reporting aims to incorporate everything from strategy through risk management; from financial reporting to the enclosure of other capitals (societal and environmental impacts), in order to meet the needs of a broad group of stakeholders. For the stakeholder, the report is intended to increase his/her understanding of the company (its management, strategy and operations, and its perils and prospects).

Kicking-off this demanding exercise internally – particularly for the 1st year, is indeed a major challenge for all the participants. The Integrated reporting is a new type of reporting, which requires a new team. While it is clearly important to include professionals who have experience of managing reports, it is equally as important to have a diversified team, led by the management. A good report depends on having the right team in place to manage it. Moreover, a consistent planning makes the preparation of the IR less overwhelming for your team because each member understands his responsibilities and the (often!) critical timelines.   

Remember that the Integrated Reporting is a new process and it brings new challenges. In particular, it takes time to figure out your story and even more time to ensure you implement it properly; people need to work together and the report needs constant refining so it doesn’t become long and complicated. You won’t perfect integrated reporting in one year, and it may take three or more years, but the process is bound to give you a fresh perspective on your company and add value, now and in the future. This long and heavy process for sure forces some companies to think twice before embarking on the Integrated Reporting journey.

Also, the nature of information to be disclosed remains the number 1 constraint, especially as far as the Financial and Risk Management are concerned. Often the different managers do not agree on the aspects to be discussed. There is also a very narrow gap between sharing information and disclosing some sensitive data, which is not part of their communication plan. Still today in Mauritius, we can notice that there are some companies that have embarked on this journey, but do not communicate on all the required capitals or do it partly. I guess the understanding of the IR Framework remains the key component of the production of an efficient Integrated Report.

Guillaume Gonzague, Managing Director, Lemon Agency Ltd

The main challenge faced by companies is the accuracy of the information as the document is a legal one. It is therefore important to ensure a production process that will guarantee precision and quality control from concept to delivery. The company has to integrate this at the early stage of the annual report/IR as time is of essence in this process. It’s about laying a clear framework with deadlines and deliverables, anticipating the content creation, and foresee the unforeseen! The name of the game is project management and coordination between the different stakeholders starting with the top management. Another challenge is to give more value to this document by conveying some key messages. It’s all about being creative in the way the report is designed. It’s not only about having nice charts, but rather putting this piece of communication at the service of the brand.

From an agency perspective, the challenge is to stay focus on the objective and put creativity at the service of the delivery of the information. An annual report/IR should convey a brand positioning, a corporate culture, inspire and influence the various stakeholders. It is often one of the documents that can be found in the waiting areas, so better use it in an efficient way! Some will only be interested by the figures but others will be sensitive to the design. It is therefore critical to capture the spirit of the company and go beyond the technicalities during the client’s brief and talk about the “why”. What is the purpose of the company and how will the annual report help into building the brand equity? That is the question.

My advice is pretty simple: start early!

Nootan Jhugroo, Production/Client Service Executive, Gung Ho

The major challenge faced by companies who embark onto the IR journey is the time constraint. The time needed for the preparation of the report – from gathering the information to designing the annual report/IR and publishing it is most of the time very limited and is often a stressful period. The company has to gather information of financial and legal nature from various departments and the information is funneled to the marketing/communication department who in turn passes on the data to design agencies for the development of the report.

Usually the design of the report needs to reflect a certain theme or convey a certain message to the readers, in an organised and digest way. However, the design/theme often become the last concern since the time is limited and a good design requires more time. Since annual report/IR has a legal obligation to being published in a certain period of time, planning issues often arises probably due to unsuccessful coordination between different departments of the company to gather the final data. Several unplanned exchanges between design agency and the client regarding the amount of text corrections and the design disrupt the pre-established planning and squeeze the deadline for design agencies and printers who have a deadline for delivery. Validation of information becomes a lengthy process due to availability of the management

Another challenge is the budget since publication costs of annual report/IR are high. Though there is a wish to move away from printing of papers so as to be nature-friendly, a hardcopy of the annual report still remains important for most stakeholders who find it more comfortable to go through such quantity of information by flipping papers anywhere without having to look at a screen for long periods of time. However, there is another emerging type of stakeholders who want a time saving method of going through all the information, which is through a digital summary through videos/websites. Companies now need to invest further into digitalising the content. Printing cost is also increasing due to increased price of papers which is imported.

The Annual report/IR is a yearly experience for companies. Learning from the previous experience to improve the next one is important since the issues often remain the same each year (budget/time). Staying with the same design agency (if the annual report design journey was positive) might be more of a strength since the collaboration will help both parties to understand each other’s work process and forecast next year’s.

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